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Depiction Of Transgender Characters On Television

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Transgender Characters: Television’s Ultimate Punchline

There are new stories of transgender role models coming to the forefront of media every day, yet we are still plagued with the perpetuation of transphobic tropes in television. Transgender characters are put into uncomfortable situations and used for lewd jokes. There are several tropes that are often seen repeated, including the persistent questioning of trans people’s genitals and unrelenting disgust at having been ‘tricked into’ dating a transgender character. Not only are these jokes tired and unfunny, they are just plain cruel and transphobic. They serve to perpetuate the idea of transgender people as ‘other’ and as comedic relief.

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Transgender characters are often used as a sort of sideshow, with constant questioning and disbelief of their identity. One example of this is in an episode of Mike and Molly where the two main characters meet a trans woman who they “repeatedly misgender and question about her genitals” (Lang 1). These actions are not at all necessary to the plot of the show and instead serve as an attempt at making this trans woman’s existence into a joke. The very action of misgendering a trans person is somehow supposed to be funny, as if the denying of someone’s identity makes for a good laugh. This show has before come under fire for transphobic jokes, such as when it used the term “shemale,” a dehumanizing term that invalidates a transgender person’s existence. Mike and Molly has a history of treating trans people as less than human and attempting to make a joke out of their very identity.

This show is just one of many that has made distasteful jokes that serve to marginalize the trans community. There are many television shows that have treated transgender people as comedic relief or shown great shock and disgust at their existence. How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) often takes cheap shots at trans people, “a kneejerk reaction to the portrayal of transgender [people] as something unfamiliar to be feared” (Lang 1). The transphobia in this TV show pervades all seasons. Most jokes are about fears of potential partners being transgender. At one point Barney, one of the main characters, says, “Ted, you’re my cabron, you think I’m going to stick you with some toothless tranny from Port Authority?” (Season 1, Episode 19). There are also many scenes in which Ted is shown to be having a nightmare-type fantasy sequence about discovering that his partner is transgender. In these so-called jokes, there is repetition of the use of the word tranny along with the revealing of a character’s genitals or use of a certain restroom to define them as transgender. This reinforces a message “that biology trumps any internal sense of self or personal choice” (Wang 2). The main joke that involves trans people in this show is the fear that Ted will find out that his girlfriend is actually a MTF trans person. Apparently Ted “lives in constant fear of transgender people and his friends are not much better (2). This portrayal of transgender people as source of worry for the main characters is incredibly dehumanizing. According to HIMYM, the worst possible thing that could happen in a relationship is finding out that your partner is trans. The writers assume that people will laugh at these transphobic jokes because they assume that everyone agrees that “a person undergoing a gender transition is the least desirable partner possible, someone’s worst nightmare” (2). Trans people, usually trans women, are portrayed in this show as being inherently unattractive. Accordingly, Ted’s nightmares of finding out that his partner is transgender help to portray the thought of trans people as immoral and predatory. He seems to believe that trans women have to trap “poor deceived straight men into marriage… because how else would they find a romantic partner!” (2). This view of transgender people is cruel and harmful, continuing to dehumanize trans people and perpetuate the idea that transgender people cannot easily find love because cisgender people would never knowingly or willingly date them.

Transphobia is seen in many television shows, from Family Guy to Glee. For example, Two and a Half Men devoted “an entire episode to showing how disgusting it thinks trans men are” (Lang 2). This particular episode circled around one of the main character’s ex-girlfriends who had undergone the transition to living as male. The main point of this storyline was to mock trans men and to show how disgusted the main character was with the idea of transgender people, especially with someone he had dated being transgender.

Transphobic jokes in television shows do not exist in a bubble. They perpetuate hatred of a group of people and this hatred has real life consequences. There have been an outstanding number of transgender people murdered in recent years. In 2012, trans women “accounted for a majority of all anti-LGBT hate crimes” (Lang 2). From 2008 to 2013, “at least 1,200 transgender people [were] killed around the world” (2), with many unreported crimes bringing these numbers even higher. These are all hate crimes, brought into existence by the detestation and dehumanization of transgender people. Cruel and transphobic jokes in television help to normalize the mistreatment of transgender people, helping to lead to these devastating crimes. Trans people are often thought of to be ‘other,’ and these transphobic jokes do nothing but reinforce that viewpoint.

While we cannot place blame solely on transphobic television for the murders and mistreatment of transgender people, we must realize that the media has influence and that that influence has consequences. We need to “show that this isn’t just about television. There is a human cost of transphobia (Lang 2). Television is not a contained medium, and there is a cost of perpetuating dehumanizing standards of hate. Treating transgender people as less than human, something to be laughed at, and a sort of sideshow does not make for good television. It is not comedy, it is not laughable. It is cruel, hate-filled, and ultimately damaging in every and any possible way.

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