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.