Alex Blaze

SNL Makes Fun of Trans Women... Really, SNL?

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 30, 2011 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: comedy, fake advertisements, hormone replacement therapy, humorous blog post, saturday night live, snl, transgender, women

Last week I posted a difficult-to-parse series of jokes about transsexual women in The Simpsons, and today a reader emailed in this sketch from SNL. It's hard to figure out what the joke is here other than "Look at these dudes in dresses! Haw haw!"

I'm thinking the text is misleading if you're looking for the actual joke - straight boys seem to have a need to see men dressing in women's clothes at some point in their lives (gay boys, by contrast, add some glamor and call it drag). I'm not thinking that the problem with this sketch is the fact that male actors are wearing dresses, at least not by itself.

The text is what makes this more troubling, since instead of making a joke that shows men wearing dresses, playing roles of women for comedic effect, they tried to make the sketch about transsexual women concretely. Is the joke that transsexual women don't pass well? Or that it's unexpected to think of a powerful exec or the dude-next-door as someone who may be trans? Or that a TSA agent is attracted to trans women? I get where they're coming from with the women-are-from-venus TLC joke, but that's not the main idea.

Male comedians wearing women's clothing has a long history in comedy and isn't going away, so it's one of those things we'd do best to analyze instead of oppose. What is it about a man putting on women's clothes that people find so funny? And what does that say about us?

And while it's a reliable joke that shows like SNL will go to for a cheap laugh, making the entire sketch about transsexual women as a class and then portraying some fairly common and mean-spirited stereotypes about them changes it from mere absurdity to an attack on a group of people. There are ways to put male comedians in dresses that don't try to say anything about transsexual women, and SNL has done that before.


Update: Here's GLAAD's statement:

This Saturday, on an airing of Saturday Night Live, NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast) broadcast a dangerous and blatantly transphobic segment which they called 'Estro-Maxxx' - the punchline of which was the lives of countless transgender people across the country.

The piece was a mock commercial for estrogen replacement therapy and featured men with facial hair wearing dresses, meant to represent transgender women. This segment cannot be defended as "just a joke" because there was no "joke" to speak of. The attempted comedy of the skit hinges solely on degrading the lives and experiences of transgender women. Holding people up for ridicule simply on the basis of their identity fuels a dangerous and hurtful climate and puts people in danger, especially given how infrequently the media shines a fair and accurate light on the lives of transgender people.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation calls upon Comcast and NBC to apologize and remove the segment from Hulu and all future airings of the show.

And the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, via my inbox:

New York, New York - On Saturday, January 29, NBC's Saturday Night Lived aired a cruel and transphobic skit. It revolved around "Estro-Maxx" and it amounted to nothing more than an attack on transgender people.

The piece purported to represent transgender women during gender transition on "Estro-Maxx" hormone therapy, and mocked them with representations of men with facial hair wearing dresses. It was an attack on transgender women, plain and simple.

"Degrading, dehumanizing and ridiculing transgender people isn't comedy," said Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) executive director Michael Silverman. "Saturday Night Live's skit contributes to the toxic brew of intolerance that leads to real-life discrimination, harassment and violence for transgender people."

TLDEF demands that NBC and its owner Comcast apologize and take steps to ensure that similar segments do not air again in the future.


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I just happened to walk into a room where SNL was playing right at the beginning of the skit. For the first minute or so I wasn't sure if I was offended or not. Once the facial hair made its appearance it crossed the line for me because it was no longer about making jokes about the process of transition (which, if done well, can be an endless supply of genuine humor, trust me on that) and it became about mocking transwomen and making us look like clowns.

Disappointing to see from the network that gave you MSNBC...but maybe it explains why they still haven't figured out how to cover us properly.

*shrugs*

whatever...

Like I said in the Simpsons thread, to me, this says more about the out-sized 13-yos writing the spots than anything else...

Midtwoner64 | January 30, 2011 9:40 PM

I thought it was funny and not in bad taste...reminded me of the Gay Beer commercial they did with Adam Sandler back in the 90's a classic. Hopefully one day Trannys will be able to look back and laugh ...it was cute...

"Trannys"? Really? I guess if you're somebody who throws around slurs, this wouldn't seem like it was in bad taste.

Midtowner64 | January 31, 2011 5:20 PM

Yep, Tranny's I've been schoold here by many of them but not gonna buy into it. It was'nt that offensive, you all need to toughen up a bit and stop whining about things like this. SNL has been a huge advocate for over 30 years....It wasnt that bad...There are far worse things in life... seriously...

Offensive use of perjorative directed at a minority, check.

Pride in ignorance, check.

"You're not oppressed, merely thin-skinned", check.

...so did you miss the Tea Party Express, or what?

Midtowner, while it was a while ago, I seem to remember getting into it with someone with your nick, either here or elsewhere. As I remember, you and your disparaging and condescending comments weren't well-received back then either.

Sigh, and here I thought that now that Andrew had been banned we were done with this kind of thing here for at least a while...

No one should be banned because their speech offends you. Everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of retribution.

I'm a faithful SNL watcher (even though many of the skits are so stupid I go channel surfing until they are over, such as Kenan doing "What's Up With That?" for the umpteenth time ...), and when I saw the trans skit I knew it would get a discussion on Bilerico.

The skit does not necessrily stand alone ... last fall SNL had a skit where straight women took a hormone pill called something like Annuelle that allowed them to have their period only once a year -- but the joke was that that one annual period was a real doosey! Amy Pohler (I think) turned into a crazed axe murderer, while Kristen Wiig decided to go French-kissing with her dog.

It also adds perspective to note that the skit about El Skrinko made fun of young straight men and their insecurity about penis size.

My point being that SNL makes fun of everything ... no one is immune ... and the biggest reason why trans people should be concerned about a skit like this is that, unlike straight women and their periods, trans people are misunderstood to begin with -- and this skit capitalized on that problem instead of contributing toward a solution.

And beyond that, I agree with Carol ... shrug! ... whatever!

No, there's a difference here, AJ, that sets it apart from the other skits you mentioned: Neither young straight women or young straight men are denied basic civil rights under the law. No, it shouldn't matter, but it does. The worst damage this kind of humor will cost a straight person is a moment of embarrassment, but for some of us it can be much worse.

Until we're all equal under the law, it's not the same thing and it never can be.

It's worse than that, Rebecca. It's the kind of skit that gets people killed.

Alex asks what the joke is. The joke is the transwomen themselves. SNL portrays them as inauthentic and freakish. 'Look at those men who grew boobies!', complete with the learing TSA agent who brings a bottle of champagne to the party.

I feel like Alex missed the mark in comparing/contrasting this to "men in dresses" comedy, a staple which goes back to at least Milton Berle. This was very specific to MTFs, laughing at transitioning at all.

When the target of the humor is the group themselves, as opposed to what the group does, that takes it out of the realm of being generally offensive to being biased. If it was any group other than trans against whom they were being biased, they'd be in deep shit.

AJ,

I disagree, they don't make fun of everything. Do they make fun of major sponsors or corporations involved with the show? There are lots of subjects they don't make fun of. And there is a difference between dumb ass ridicule (which I think the skit fell into) and making fun. Let's face it, it's mostly a very witless show anyway.

I agree it says a lot about the peepee/caca attitude of the mostly white, male writers on the show. Haha, periods, pfunny stuff. Let's have some yuks about testicular cancer.

Do they make fun of major sponsors or corporations involved with the show?
Much to my surprise, Seth Myers actually made a joke about the Comcast merger during Weekend Update.
unlike straight women and their periods,
trans people are misunderstood to begin with

Did you get that from the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, A J?

gender as performance? smack!!!! roadkill . . . clean it off the windshield. On to the next skit. Bring out the van der graaf generator. Let's create "real" sexual tension. In the immortal words of John Lovitz "Acting!!!!" I'm sure they've seen "M Butterfly". Who's gonna school themmm?

Song Liling: Comrade! Why in Beijing opera are woman's roles traditionally played by men?

Comrade Chin: I don't know. Most probably a remnant of the reactionary and patriarchal social structure.

Song Liling: No. It's because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.

Lorne Michaels might have added, "whether she's transsexual or not. We just look for the least convincing performers to play the transsexual parts and turn them into those weird 'transpeople', beep, beep, beep."

beep, beep, beep.Take me to your fearless leader, earthling.

I think it was a bad skit, but I think it was also saying a lot about the state of advertising.
Drug advertising is everywhere and it seems like they make drug advertisements for everyone.

Still the unshaven guys in dresses was just wrong. I also think it was bad because it makes people question the need for hormone treatments for trans people. Moreover, it makes people laugh at and misinterpret science.

SNL has a long history of questionable treatment of LGBT, including the Homocil drug ad for parents of possibly LGBT kids. The message (at least the one that I got) was "Parents get the hell over it." But it also was chock full of bad stereotypes of kids not conforming to their gender roles.

http://youtu.be/MqighD_Zd44

I think until they get some openly LGBT regular cast members and writers, SNL will keep effing up sketches that deal with LGBT issues.

I agree. I think making fun of drug ads and America's obsession with pills as a "quick fix" to something is good satire, but this clip is reeeeally problematic.

Really, they strike with the abandon of a drunk driver. What they did to Caster Semenya last year on the Weekend Update 9/17/09 when she was on suicide watch was criminal. It's all about people fashioning themselves as connoisseurs of who is a "real" woman, who is a "real" man and who should be left for society to throw away. The implications are brutal. It is hit and run for fun and profit.

Teddy Partridge | January 30, 2011 11:39 PM

It was way beyond offensive. There was no punchline except "Look, trannies!" and, combined with the skit from a coupla weeks ago about Cher and Chaz with the punchline of "Look, a trannie!" exhibits a disturbing pattern.

What we need to ask NBC (in the midst of a permitted merger, are you paying attention Diego Sanchez and Barney Frank???) is to NOT re-run this "ad" as they do so many of their ad parodies. This one was hurtful, unlike "What Up With That?" and "Annuelle" because the punchline wasn't about over-the-top black cable entertainers or prescription drug advertising: the punchline last night was simply, and unfunnily, "Look, trannies!"

Time for GLAAD to step up, and soon.

The inherent issue here is the standard one of deception, exaggerated for comic effect: transsexual women are not real women, and they always have some aspect of masculinity, and they treat this entire thing as if it were just some fun game.

Inherent in this skit, is the focus on sexualization as its portrayed in the media -- the large bouncing breasts, the big ass, the "pesky" genitals.

Is the skit funny? Why, yes, it is. It is funny because mocking and exaggeration of core traits are part and parcel of the stigma, of the way oppression is carried out.

This is just as funny as any Stepin Fetchit, routine was in its day -- which is to say that it relies on humor that exists only because society at large condemns the people so portrayed, and when they laugh at it or defend it, it's simply held up as vindication, while it is merely an example of how internalized the oppression they live with can be.

As one gal I am aware noted, about the only remarkable thing here is that transition on the job has become common enough in the eyes of the general public that it can be used for the purpose of this sort of ostracizing humor.

Strip away the context of oppression and marginalization from this skit, and it loses its humor. Which means that seeking to offend everyone is no longer a defense for it, since this requires everyone to agree, tacitly, on the humor for it to have any.

I probably should not add a comment here but I'm going to do it anyway. I don't watch SNL and did not see this one--just the clips posted here. I didn't find it all that funny, and in today's political environment it was tasteless. That said, I do not think anyone should be offended and definitely no one should react negatively. To a humorist (and definitely to SNL), nothing is sacred and humor always has a "bite." Please don't respond like the conservative Muslims who want to assassinate the Danish cartoonist who drew Mohammad. It is a sense of humor that makes us human. Please don't lose it.

Wow, I read this right after I read the Times, and your worst fears came true!

Mobs of trans ppl all over the country were rioting, burning local NBC affiliates, burning effigies of NBC executives, screaming themselves hoarse for death to the comedians in the skit, the writers, the producers, the sponsors, all that. Just like the Mohammad cartoons all over!

As soon as the skit started on SNL, Jerame turned to me and said, "Well, you've got a post for the blog now." By the end of the skit, we both knew it would be on the site by the end of Sunday...

Hey, Jerame ... bingo!

Lee Sonoflaw | January 31, 2011 9:13 AM

Its called HUMOR people. Humor ALWAYS is poking fun at someone. Its also called laughing-at-ones-self. There is no such thing as a joke that doesn't poke fun at some real or imagined person. LIGHTEN UP, Without it we would not be human.

I think it of interest to note that one of the guest skit writers for that skit was none other than notoriously, and viciously Transphobic- anti-trans feminist Julie Bindel. In light of this I would have to agree with Alex, that this is way beyond humor, and is a direct blow to trans identified persons.

I don't know... I don't think SNL was necessarily passing judgment on anyone. The joke was less men in dresses than it was look at THESE men in dresses. At least the clip showed trans people living their lives, going to work, flouting conventional gender norms. And the TSA agent does end up at the gathering later.

I definitely understand how one could be offended, but there had to be a joke somewhere. They took the lazy route. I still think it's pretty harmless.

That's so right Joe, and when Stephin Fetchit did his schtick (and was hired by white producers to do so), he was just making fun of one lazy, stupid, shufflin' black man, not ridiculing all black people. It's never about ridiculing a group, is it. It's just those specific 'men-pretending they're women transgenders' who are so clueless about how ugly and absurd they are which are being made fun of. Got that. Thank you Joe.

Perhaps it is because I don't have a real sense of humor but I see nothing at all funny about this skit. I am also not offended by the skit, perhaps because I know some folks who "resemble those remarks" but more so because I feel strongly that I need not take myself, as a transsexual woman, so seriously that I can't laugh at myself or my sisters, and brothers. After all, we come in all sizes, shapes, colors, etc. which does make life so very much more interesting.

This is why I don't have a television. It's expensive and there's nothing to watch.

wow, looks like some of the SNL writers are commenting here now...

I just us joyless over-sensitive trannies should just STFU...

The thing is, I just rolled my eyes at the clip of the skit, but some of the comments here are pretty disgusting...

I think SNL long ago crossed the taste barrier. I work with an LGBTQ youth group and I, though I'm not transgendered, am involved with the transgender community to some degree in my area. I found that "skit" nothing but close minded, obnoxious trash. Its hard enough for our MTF folks to pass at times because they had to wait so long in some cases to get on hormone therapy. Dealing with heavy beards and adams apples is difficult. Is that REALLY something these jerks needed to point out? Truly, with the number of LGBTQ folks in the questionable entertainment community, you would think they would try to combat hate and fear-not encourage it. Kind of makes me more glad that I cut off our cable!

According to a Queerty article on the subject, it looks as though Micheal Baily, and Alice Dreger also had a hand in this skit. For those of you who don't know, these two people are involved in the revision of the GID diagnosis with the APA in the up-coming DSM-V. It seeks to further marginalize Trans persons, and it implicates Cis gay, and lesbian persons who are what they consider either too effeminate, or too masculine. Take heed.

I seem to have hit a few nerves. That's OK -- occasionally I dish it out, and occasionally I can take it.

@Rebecca: You have a valid point that trans people do not get properly accommodated in American society, and their civil rights are impacted because of this. However, even though civil rights laws have protected blacks (and other races) for 40 years does not mean that we live in a world free of racism or racial stereotypes. I haven't noticed (at least not yet) blacks protesting in the streets over the SNL "Bride of Blackenstein" skit, which appeared on the same night and which included stereotypes about how black men love their black women to have enormous booties. This ridicule, in a nation where our prisons serve as warehouses for black men, packed to overflowing by a war on drugs that caters to the over-simplistic and heartless values of self-righteous white conservatives, and leading in turn to a judicial system that is de facto racist as hell.

I'm not sure of the connection here, between what passes for humor, and civil rights -- in the case of blacks or in the case of trans. As I tried to say earlier, the biggest problem about this skit is that too many people simply dismiss trans people as "weird" ... and this skit re-inforces that. OTOH, I don't think that shrugging at a skit such as this makes one Trans Enemy No. 1, nor does it follow that the issue of trans civil rights is a shrug as well.

Peace, everyone.

I have one parting question: To those of you who disagreed with me, you certainly have a right to your own opinion, this is clearly a subjective thing ...

... but how many of you who commented here against the skit are going to write a letter or email to NBC in protest of it? If you do ... then good for you!

For those with the "Chill! It's all about the humor folks" sort of posts, I have only one thing to say: the personal is not only not political, it's political!

As Antonia's post suggests, power of this privileged sort has the cloak of invisibility so it doesn't have to reveal itself. Anyone who watches SNL cannot possibly help but see its political side. We're just surprised when the product isn't as "progressive" or "liberal" as we might expect from SNL.

To those in the majority, we TSs ARE what we do. That's the problem. I agree with Antonia; strip away the context of oppression/marginalization and the sketch loses its humor and meaning. Though intentional or not, the SNL sketch does just that. It has the rhetorical effect of stripping away any claims we have to oppression and marginalization. Most disappointing to me is how in 2011 they still go about it using outdated tropes and images like the bearded lady, the "mammy" (buffoon), and the all-too-common deceiver/make-believer trope. Come on! At least come up with some new material!

This sketch is yet another example of the constructed gender-variant good/operative transsexual bad dichotomy which critics of TS have been pushing for decades.


"... it was bad because it makes people question the need for hormone treatments for trans people. Moreover, it makes people laugh at and misinterpret science."


The last 40 years plus of radical social constructionist feminist critique has been doing just that (and still they go on doing it!) No doubt the SNL writers (and they do have female writers on staff) are informed in part by the 80's - 90's era dissenting opinions on trans (which is a nice way of putting some of it) which they picked up in college. People who consider themselves in the know and who are on the humanities, social sciences side already have an inherent distrust for science and technology for the last 30 years plus. We're caught right in the middle of the ongoing "science wars" and it is this distrust on the part of our most articulate and vocal critics that informs much of their polemic.

Karin Kenny | January 31, 2011 2:41 PM

People still watch SNL???? Wow, who knew.

Today at school, after 4:00 when I was the only student left in the lab an instructor asked me if was undergoing a gender change. I said “I’ve done everything to myself I want to”.

She then asked if she could ask me some questions because she wanted to learn more about this, especially after seeing a comedy bit on Saturday Night Live. So we spent about 15 minutes talking and I told her the general spiel on transgenders. She thanked me for all the honesty, said she found the topic fascinating and that if I had any problems in lab to just ask her.

There you go, SNL was a teachable moment.

YAYS!

FTW!

This is too cool! :)

Sorry, I don't feel all warm and fuzzy from that little story. Anything can conceivably be made into a teaching moment, but that doesn't excuse displays of ridicule and bigotry on national tv.

AJ, whether or not anti-transgender discrimination still exists after we have equal rights under the law is really irrelevant here. What is relevant is that we don't have those rights now, including, I might add, in the very state where SNL is broadcast.

Disparaging racial or ethnic minorities is not something to be commended or encouraged no matter what, but when the target is minority groups that are still unprotected from discrimination under the law in most areas of this country and can still be legally deprived of jobs, homes, and even access to government services, it's a very different issue and one that cannot be reasonably compared to those concerning minorities which already have recourse under the law when faced with unjust discrimination.

It's also worth noting that SNL has had members of racial and ethnic minorities as part of its cast since its inception, but I've yet to see or hear of even a single transgender cast member in its entire history. Yet another reason why SNL has no right to seek the moral high ground here.

So yes, when the target is one that cannot fight back, American citizens who are among the most legally, socially, and culturally oppressed in this country with no recourse to the law against that legally-sanctioned bigotry, it is different and it must be responded to differently.

This is not a joke, it's a direct attack on transwomen and the way we live our lives, and that's exactly how and why we must respond, loudly and proudly.

The 90's are long over and it's about damn time NBC (and MSNBC) got the memo.

And on top of all of that, perhaps most importantly, the skit really just wasn't funny at all.

Rebecca, I don't hear either one of us saying anything new at this point. If you choose to be offended by this skit, I would be last to say that your reaction is not understandable.

And I agree the skit wasn't funny, certainly not funny enough to justify alienating an entire category of SNL's viewership.

Why did NBC allow this? Not only is it horrendously offensive, but it's also NOT FUNNY! I guess SNL has jumped the shark yet again in trying to pass off transphobia as some kind of "smart humor".

Oh sheesh, you mean Estro-maxx is a fake? I've been calling pharmacies all over town trying to find some for a friend.

I saw nothing wrong with the skit, and yes I laughed, I have said this a lot lately ..we as transsexuals need to learn to laugh at ourselves, stop pulling the poor old us card. Direct your energy elsewhere, where it will do the most good.

Just one transperson's opinion.

Paige Listerud | February 1, 2011 12:58 PM

I've often felt that SNL serves it self up as progressive or liberal comedy fare but that in fact it is deeply straight male privileged and conservative.

A lot of comedy by straight men is about nervousness over male status or raging about male woundedness. Gay/bi men are to be mocked, lesbian/bi women hyper-eroticized and transpeople to be treated like freaks. SNL is written by a majority of straight, white males and their humor reflects their own uncertainty and confusion over their gender and their sexual orientation. It's also a ploy that goes into denial about the shaky nature of their status as men and attempts to reassert control.

They will never present humor from the perspective of a transperson because of the denial they go through about their own lack of knowledge and the fear it engenders in them. Besides, looking for intelligent, radical humor from SNL these days is like looking for pizza at a chinese restaurant. I'm not saying don't protest the piece, just don't have high expectations. I don't and I don't watch SNL as a result. That's the biggest insult you can give them.

Interesting that, a week after the SNL debacle, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson has a trans skit with a man in a dress (and what looks like blackface?) playing his "half-sister" involving transvestite jokes, dick jokes, masturbation jokes and a he-she reference. It's been written about in Metro Weekly http://metroweekly.com/poliglot/2011/02/cbss-craig-ferguson-sketch-moc.html,

but CBS has pulled the video and there is a copy on YouTube but the audio has been removed (probably for copyright reasons, which is what YouTube usually does in such cases).

Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1J1TDKptQs&feature=player_embedded#

The stereotypes promoted in this skit have a pernicious history and social context for many transsexual women. They are straight from the cover and pages of Michael Bailey's defamatory book, The Man Who Would be Queen. In this skit, transsexual women with a need for medical transition care are ridiculed and maligned as “men who would be queen.” These are the same stereotypes invoked by Focus on the Family when they lobby to deny us the basic human dignity and social justice. These are the stereotypes used to blame trans victims for our own murders and assaults. These are the stereotypes exploited by employers and insurers to deny medically necessary transition care to those who need it. Whether they are perpetuated from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Clarke Institute, Northwestern University or Colorado Springs, these stereotypes are not funny. They are hurtful and cruel.