(This was first published on Medium.com. The highlighted areas were from readers.)
For nearly three centuries, straight, white, men took it upon themselves to define the existences of everyone who was not them; women, Blacks, Asians, Gays and Lesbians, and that’s if their existences were acknowledged at all. The early days of American comedy, as was much of society, and all of pop culture, was ruled by the tastes of straight, white, cis-gender men, who made everyone that was not them, the butt of the joke, publicly hash out their racial and gender anxieties, and reinforce their superiority over those they mocked.
But comedy, like all pop culture is not static. Things that used to be funny in comedy, cease to be funny, as new generations, new audiences, grow up, change society, become more knowledgeable, more sophisticated, and more inclusive and empathetic. The Millennial and Z generations will be some of the most diverse and inclusive generations in US history, (as will the generations to come after them), thanks to having grown up with a world of knowledge, and personal experiences, at their fingertips.
Marginalized identities, are capable now, more than ever before, of communicating to the mainstream dominant culture what their lives are like, be able tell people that they are being hurt, why it hurts, and most importantly, be able to tell people to stop. And this is something transgender men and women have been trying to impress upon people for the past thirty years.
The first minstrel shows depicted black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual.
Negative representations of non-white people date back to the mid-19th century. White actors performing in minstrel shows would darken their skin with polish and cork to look stereotypically “black.”
The shows were intended to be funny to white audiences, but they were hurtful and demeaning to African-Americans because they reinforced white people’s notions of superiority.
Today, someone wearing blackface, (or any color face), is properly condemned as racist, insensitive and, at the very least, mean spirited, and as an activity which no right-thinking person engages in, and if they do, should be correctly be held to account. Blackface gained its popularity in vaudeville, which is no longer a form of comedy that’s popular now, because times change. Sensibilities change. If a comedian got on a stage wearing blackface today, he /she would be rightfully boo’ed off that stage.
White men have had over a hundred years to mock, and/or invent, stereotypes of Black and Brown men and women. For one of them to get on a stage today, and do the same thing now, would correctly be seen as racist.
There is a saying, (originally attributed to the owner of a newspaper), that the point of comedy is:To afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. Throughout history, court jesters and comedians were the only ones who could make fun of the king. The bawdy playhouses of England and France often mocked the nobility. Yes, the poor and underclass were mocked too, but since the narrators came from the same classes, the point of it was not the same as when they made fun of the king and his court.
In America, comedy was used to express White male anxieties about different out groups, show the members of those groups their proper place, and reinforce White male structures of privilege, in society. That is the purpose being served by transphobia in comedy, as transgender people have progressed, more than ever before, into mainstream consciousness, and their voices have become more prevalent, the internet has allowed them to speak back to a society that, when it has acknowledged their existence at all, has demeaned, devalued, and outright murdered them. Cis-gender men, of all races, have begun expressing their anxieties about gender roles and sexuality, and expressing contempt for those they believe transgress societal rules.
Homophobia and transphobia have always been part of mainstream culture, sometimes codified into law, sometimes just reinforced by “phobic” individuals, but it is rare, in most modern societies, for LGBT people to ever consider themselves completely safe. There have always been assaults and murders of people in those communities, from Venus Xtravaganza in 1988, Brandon Teena in 1993, to Matthew Sheppard in 1998.
Ashanti Carmon, Paris Cameron, and Claire Legato, are Black transgender women who were murdered in 2019, along with 23 other transgender women of color. These women were killed by family members, partners, and strangers. One thing that the murderers all have in common, is that they are not transgender themselves, so it is of primary interest to the gay and transgender community, (most especially communities of color), when straight, cis- gender men get up on a stage, and make a mockery of their deaths, by joking about “men in dresses”. It shows a cluelessness, and a lack of sensitivity, that is not surprising, given the amount of privilege some of these men have in mainstream society. They have never had to think about the vectors of oppression the people they are mocking have had to navigate.
These are straight, cis-gender men cracking jokes about transgender women, and calling it edgy. It is not edgy, nor is it funny. It is most definitely not funny coming from the very sort of people who look and sound like the kind of people who regularly kill transgender men and women. Transmisogyny in comedy is not new. Its lazy, tired, and meanspirited, and far too often, people defend this level of verbal oppression by claiming that it’s just a joke.
I would ask such people to imagine what they would do if someone called them a racial or ethnic slur to their face, in one of the worse moments of their life, and when they became rightfully offended by it, were told it was just a joke, and they’re being thin skinned.
And yes, I want to specifically address the more recent comedy of Dave Chappelle. He himself said that he didn’t know much about the issues surrounding being transgender, and that he didn’t understand it. That said, he should have simply kept his mouth shut, until he rectified that ignorance, as it is particularly insensitive that a cis-gender Black man is standing on such a massive platform, making jokes about transgender women, when so many cis-gender Black men have not only expressed murderous intent regarding such women, simply because they exist, but actually killed transgender women of color. Around the same time as Dave Chappelle’s comedy special appeared on Netflix, in late August, Pebbles LaDime Doe, age 24, Bee Love, age 23, and Bailey Reeves, age 17, had all been murdered.
What Chappelle did isn’t new, and it isn’t edgy, because Black men have a long history of openly, publicly, demeaning and vilifying (both cis and transgender) women of color, informed by decades of open mockery, and stereotyping, in movies and television. Dave Chappelle, and others like him, have expressed exactly the ideas (the jokes) that mainstream cinema has been teaching them about transgender women, that, due to the cis-gender fixation on their genitalia, that they are not “real” women, and that they are of villains of this narrative, and are trying to deceive straight men into having sex with them.
…In the end, movies that depict trans women as deceitful, disgusting villains divulge more about the cisgender male psyche than they do about transgender women (after all, the filmmakers and writers who imagined these characters are overwhelmingly cisgender men). The trans-woman-as-villain plot device represents men’s fear of being duped into sacrificing their heterosexual male privilege by deigning to sleep with a person they consider to be a man.
This is what is known in comedy as punching down. For me, its not about certain people being off limits, being offended, cancel culture, or being too sensitive.This goes beyond those things. Comedy about transgender men and women is about making fun of people who have the LEAST amount of power in this society, (and there is no group of people with less power than transgender women of color). Nobody is saying that transgender people cannot be made fun of, (as there are plenty of transgender comedians who do so). What people are saying is that it is tasteless, mean , and unfunny, when being made by cisgender men. When those jokes are coming, almost exclusively, from the group of people who are responsible for their oppression, then it is an exceptionally bad look. Cisgender men shouldn’t do this, for the same reason that white people can’t say the N*word.
The criticism of these comedians isn’t coming from a bunch of overly sensitive, snowflake, White, suburban teenagers, which is who these comedians want you to picture, when they complain about audiences being too sensitive. The criticism is coming directly from the people these comedians just mocked. These are adults, not kids with the free time to harass celebrities on Twitter, and transgender people are allowed to feel some type of way about being made fun of, yet again, by the very types of men who have been responsible for most of their pain and bullying in life, without their feelings being dismissed as them being thin-skinned.
Yes, there are transgender comedians, and because they are members of that group, they are free to make jokes about their community, just as any member of a community can make jokes about it. But if it was wrong for White people (the ones who invented the racism and stereotypes that were responsible for so much Black death) to make jokes that demean the Black community, then it is equally wrong for straight, cis-gender men to stand on a stage, and make jokes about the kinds of people who get murdered by people who look like them.
This isn’t about being offended, thin-skinned, or a snowflake. This is about actively harming a group of people who have told you, over and over, that your words are harming them, as those words are reinforcing, and contributing to, an environment of hatred of them.
Wearing blackface is wrong when worn by the people who invented racism. Making fun of LGBTQ people is wrong when done by those who are not part of that community. Rape jokes are wrong when done by men, as men are the primary perpetrators, (and less likely to experience rape themselves.)
The jokes are wrong when they are being told by the kinds of people who perpetuate the harm.
This is the equivalent of a bully, beating someone up on the playground, and then laughing at their victim, who is crying on the ground.
It’s kicking people when they are already powerless, being harmed, and have repeatedly told their oppressors, again and again, that what is being said is harmful to them, and must stop.
I can forgive ignorance. People commit all kinds of harm when they don’t know something. I’ve committed ignorant acts of harm when I didn’t know any better. If I step on someone’s foot, one time, that can be forgiven as being an accident. But if I deliberately do it again, and again, after having been told that it hurts them, and try to defend why I kept doing it, (because I thought it was funny!), that’s considered willful and malicious harm, and they would have a right to be angry about that.
Because that’s bullying.
Once A person has been told that they are causing harm, yet still happily , sometimes even spitefully, continue to do so, and then have the nerve to get angry, because people are upset at what they’re doing, that is not ignorance.
That is malice.
They should not receive applause for being edgy, or pushing the boundaries of free speech, because privileged cis-gender men and women have always had the freedom to speak down to those they thought were lower than them.
They are a lot of things. They are lazy, ignorant, stupid, and malicious, all words they can claim, but they cannot claim to be funny.
They’re just bullies on a much larger playground.
Trans comedian and writer Shon Faye also criticised Gervais, explaining to indy100 how devastating dead-naming can be to a trans person:
People often feel justified to dead name Caitlyn Jenner — three years into her public transition — because she was famous before she came out. But I find this highly suspect reasoning when everyone knows her name, Caitlyn, and who is being referred to.
Dead-naming is such a horrifying thing to do to any trans person because it says that their true identity and their authentic self and the steps they have taken to be recognised by society more authentically can be snatched away at any time. It’s also just courtesy. If you change your name that is your name and people should respect it.
The reason people don’t is because they wish to express dominance over trans people and remind us they can invalidate and belittle us at any time. Which is why trans people don’t find dead-naming Jenner or anyone else funny.
I would add that taking a swipe at trans people is the laziest comedy under the sun. We are the easiest group to target right now and everyone is doing it. Comedians like Gervais should try harder.