In a Trump America, working to tackle transphobia in TV culture

Representation is improving, but identity-delegitimizing jokes persist.

by Kate McCarthy

The Trump administration last week withdrew protections for transgender public school students to use whichever bathroom corresponds with their gender identity. This new policy is a direct attack on the safety and wellbeing of transgender individuals across the country. A large part of the fear and hate behind it stems from perpetual degradation of transgender identities in our TV culture.

We have access to complex, boundary-pushing entertainment that reflects the values of a vocal socially-conscious demographic. A lot of the homophobia and poor representation we’ve seen even in this decade has been called out and discussed. But somehow, casual transphobia has a constant presence. Perhaps not always blatantly, but a latent version has slipped by on low simmer.

The 1970s television show M*A*S*H* — about a Korean War army surgical unit — has made it into the canon of classic TV. One character, Klinger, regularly cross-dresses in an attempt to be dismissed from the army for being “mentally unfit.” A man dressing in traditionally female clothing conflated with mental illness or instability. Every person watching M*A*S*H surely stored that idea away somewhere. “Come on, it was the ‘70s!” you might say.

How about on “Friends”, when it’s revealed that Chandler’s father is a cross-dresser and could be a transgender woman? That alone proved to be fertile ground for lots of absolutely cutting-edge and truly hysterical comedy. We’re up to the 1990s-early 2000s now. What about modern- day sitcoms like “Mike and Molly,” “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” all laced with transphobic jokes? The problem is not as distant as we think.

It’s worth acknowledging that these examples only center on men hilariously playing women. That is not the only instance — these are just a few of the many examples. While we have more transgender visibility than ever before with shows like “Transparentand stars like Laverne Cox, there’s still a lot of work to be done in reversing the subtle notions and language we’ve encoded.

With every joke and casual usage of “tranny,” we communicate the idea that transgender rights aren’t as important as gay rights or other segments of the LGBT community.

Representation matters, and whether we know it or not, every time the hilarious punch line is a gruff dude in a dress, a message is sent that to identify as transgender isn’t legitimate or regarded with respect. And sure, we’re just talking TV here, but it contributes to and reinforces a public perception, eventually seeping into our government and policies. Every time we accept portrayals like this in the entertainment we consume, we’re making it that much more inevitable that our politics will reflect the flaws of our culture.