March 12, 2016 at 6:00 pm EST | by Suzi Chase
Tracy Morgan’s transphobic Oscar spoof
Tracy Morgan, gay news, Washington Blade

Tracy Morgan (Image courtesy VideoSource)

Among the controversies surrounding last week’s Oscars, debate raged about a skit in which comedian Tracy Morgan spoofed Eddie Redmayne’s performance as a pioneering transgender woman in “The Danish Girl.” Morgan is pictured wearing delicate feminine garments, stroking his smooth skin while waxing ecstatic in a feminine voice about eating a Danish pastry and starring in his first dramatic role.

Most reaction has been positive. USA Today’s Erin Jensen declared it to be “our favorite.” TMZ called it a “brilliant skit” and according to Landon Haaf at our local ABC affiliate WUSA channel 9, it deserves an Oscar.

A few isolated voices expressed qualms. MTV’s Marcus Patrick Ellsworth examined what it “really asks us to laugh at,” concluding it “asks us to giggle at the sight of Morgan in a dress.” Kelli Busey of Planet Transgender goes further, labeling the performance “transface” and calling it “offensive on so many levels.”

Calling out offensive humor may be the hardest line activists walk. Nobody wants to be accused of inability to take a joke, or worse, political correctness. Morgan’s skit had a social justice message of its own, compounding that problem. He’s lampooning the plight of minority actors, long relegated to stereotypical roles. It’s an important issue, deserving of serious redress. Even pointing out the skit’s shortcomings feels like participating in the oppression.

But it does have shortcomings.

Morgan’s transgender portrayal reinforces and amplifies three of the most pernicious prejudices held about us. His self-caresses portray transness as fetishistic, an out-of-control sexual urge, rather than the need to express a gender identity. The man-in-a-dress image visually categorizes trans women as male. And his furtive motions play into the common notion of transgender people as deceitful.

While trans people would like to be capable of laughing at ourselves, this skit simply cannot be divorced from its national context. We are only a few months removed from seeing Houston’s anti-bias HERO law defeated amid fears of masculine trans women using female-only bathroom facilities. Last week, a law forbidding transgender students from using correct restrooms narrowly missed enactment in South Dakota. And in North Carolina, calls mount for a special legislative session to reverse Charlotte’s recent anti-discrimination ordinance, yes, over the possibility of trans women using ladies’ restrooms.

Media must counter, not compound decades of unfavorable portrayals. These portrayals matter. When voters and legislators support draconian bathroom rules or reject civil rights protections, they rely on internalized images of transgender people. Does their mind’s eye show competent professionals like accomplished author Jennifer Finney Boylan, computer chip pioneer Lynn Conway, or technology visionary Martine Rothblatt? Or do they visualize Morgan’s unsettling performance?

Am I saying we should prohibit humor involving transgender people? Of course not. But a thick line separates humor around transgender people from humor in which a trans person is the joke. Anyone familiar with Sophie LaBelle’s hilarious Assigned Male webcomic knows transgender humor can be funny without offending. But it’s harder. As long as it’s acceptable to draw easy laughs by putting a man onscreen in drag, writers will see no incentive to accept the challenge of creating humor that doesn’t rely on degrading images.

The saddest takeaway from the reaction to Morgan’s “Danish Girl” sketch is that it still is acceptable to denigrate the image of transgender people in the name of humor. That Morgan and ABC were not concerned whether it offended us underscores how far we still have to go before we command the respect and deference given to other marginalized groups.

True, the general audience has no problem with it. But the prerogative to determine whether a given portrayal is offensive to trans people rests with us and only us. Cisgender performers, writers, producers and media executives can have no conception of how tired we are of seeing ourselves drawn that way. The fact that they were not even interested in what offense we might take shows how much work still lies ahead.

Suzi Chase is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

11 Comments
  • What kind of an outcry would there be if a white actor decided to put on black face and parody Bill Cosby’s current legal trouble for his alleged misadventures with so many women and pills? I dare say that there would be a massive reaction to the many ways that such a skit is so very wrong. But, it’s still acceptable for damaging transphobic portrayals such this act by Tracy Morgan to be considered humor. It’s no wonder so many trans women are being murdered with that kind of dehumanizing attitude. Disgusting.

    • Eddie Murphy and others have done White Face. There has been no public outcry over that.

      Gay men have been portrayed as feminine, into S&M or only wearing women’s clothing. That stereotype is offensive to some gay men but reality for others. That’s what heterosexuals assume is a gay norm.

      I think it’s going to be hard to convince people these images are offensive in humor. Plays like Charlie’s Aunt, and comics like Milton Berle, Flip Wilson doing Geraldine, or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot are standard comic gags. That’s really the context in which heterosexuals feel comfortable with it by laughing at it not with it.

      Some of the issues mentioned in this article that were highlighted as offensive and transphobic never even entered my mind. I doubt most people think of them either.

      I recall Tracy Morgan used homophobic dialogue in his act before. Perhaps he thought his performance was showing that he lighten up.

      • The very fact that so many people feel that they have the right to use transgender people as the foil for derogatory humor is unacceptable. Most especially when such humor comes at the expense of human life. The act of dehumanizing people for the sake of cheap, witless humor only serves to reenforce the many degrees of prejudice, and discrimination so prevalient in society.This kind of viscous humor comes at the expense of other people’s lives.

        • Dressing in drag and pretending to be a woman is now vicious humor if you’re not transgender? What about the gay men who do it and perform on stage? Will you be picketing their shows now?

          I don’t know that people think transgender automatically like you do. People of an older generation like baby boomers likely do not. I don’t think about that.

          How did Tracy Morgan’s antics come at the expense of human life exactly? You seem to read more into it than people who are not transgender would. I think Tracy Morgan once said if he had a gay son he would want to kill him in his act. That is a lot more diifferent when he specifically calls for violence.

          Who died because Milton Berle, flip Wilson or Harvey korman performed in drag?

          Do you expect people to burn all film and TV shows with that content or to have it censored? Next you’ll say it’s like Amos and Andy episodes.

          Your allegations of cause and effect sound outrageous if not ridiculous. Things offend me all the time but no one forces me to watch them.

          If people are offended by seeing transgender people on TV in a positive light should those shows be censoerd or should those offended simply change the channel and watch something else?

          • The act of lampooning the condition of any other persons birth is the most despicable form of low intellect humor there is.

            Period. End of discussion.

          • Just because you curtly say end of discussion doesn’t make it so! Get over yourself.
            You need to develop a tougher skin. Gay men have been lampooned and ridiculed for centuries. They haven’t melted. It’s made them stronger. Sometimes you have to learn to laugh at yourself.
            You attitude isn’t going to many hearts and minds! You don’t live in a vacuum so that matters!

          • The excuse that something has been being done for a long time is among the most lame possible. The continued verbal abuse of gay and transgender people is part and parcel of discrimination and bigotry. When demeaning jokes are directed at people, what is really happening is the dehumanizing of the target of verbal abuse. Dehumanizing is part of discrimination.

          • That’s fine but where is the fine line drawn? When gay men perform in drag is that demeaning and dehumanizing? How about Dr. Frankenfurter in rocky horror? How about Dustin Hoffman in tootsie? Or robin Williams as mrs doubtfire?

            Are you advocating banning all men from performing in drag both on stage, TV and the movies or just certain depictions of them?

            What specifically is your endgame here?

  • White HS and college kids are doing that everyday!

    • Seriously!? NO. I will not shut up. I have the same free speech rights as any other citizen of this country, regardless of the fact that we now have a fascist dictator in office. Free speech is STILL MY RIGHT.

      Don’t you have anything better to do than dredge up[ year old comments against bigoted wannabe comedians who aren’t even funny?

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