“Work It” and the need for LGB activism on T issues
This week, I lost quite a bit of faith in the LGBT student movement. What started off as a link left on a wall of a Facebook group, turned into a week-long debate that has left me somewhat disillusioned and if I’m honest, a little bit heartbroken.
The basic premise of the series is that, due to the recession, two men have to present and pass as women in order to gain employment because ZOMG IT’S A “MANCESSION” LOOK WE’RE SO HILARIOUS. They actually use the term “mancession” and blame the fact that they don’t have jobs on women… In the show, they are told that the pharmaceutical company will only hire women, as the doctors want to “nail” them more. (I really wish I was making this up, believe me.)
On account of how offensive and damaging the show could be to the general public’s perception of trans* people, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) urged a boycott and took out a full page ad in Daily Variety condemning the show. In a statement, the Acting President of GLAAD Mike Thompson said:
This show could contribute to the high levels of job discrimination that transgender Americans face and will give license for people to mock and ridicule those whose gender expression might not fit with what society considers the norm
The media should use this as an opportunity to address the huge number of inaccurate or offensive images of transgender people in news and entertainment today. [http://www.glaad.org/workit]
This is all the more poignant when you go on to read in the same statement that currently in the US, members of the trans* community can be legally fired in 34 states, that 97% of self-identified transgender people reported being harassed or abused at work and 26% reported losing their jobs simply because they are transgender. In Ireland, things aren’t much better. Research from Mayock et al (2009) found that out of 46 trans* identified respondents, over 80% had been verbally insulted, and over 39% had someone threaten to ‘out’ them. The 2009 NLGF Burning Issues Survey found trans* identified respondents stated ‘Equal rights at work’ as their top issue of concern. Harassment and discrimination both in and outside of the workplace is the simple every-day reality faced by trans* people the world over; yet ABC has chosen to make a complete mockery out of this oppression.
The debate began when someone posted a link to an article condemning Work It, adding a comment saying how offensive the show was. On a page that is full of self-identified LGBT Activists, you would naturally assume that most members of the group would be outraged by the mere existence of such a show. Disappointingly, this was far from the case. The first few comments were people basically saying “Ah sure, stereotypes are hilarious, it’s only a bit of fun, people shouldn’t be so sensitive”. I bit my tongue and waited, as I was curious to see where the conversation would go.
I looked at the thread in disbelief for a couple of hours, as comment after comment defended the show and thought Work It was not offensive to trans* people, because it’s only “two guys pretending to be women”. Some group members trudged up comparisons with films and programmes of eras past, justifying that if something like this was funny before than it is harmless now. Others even implied that Work It might even be a platform from which to inform the public about trans* issues sensitively. I found it interesting that the conversation on this activists’ forum page focused more on a debate over if Work It was indeed offensive, rather than a discussion of how it offends, or the best way for us, as LGBT Activists, to take action.
This image sums up perfectly why we shouldn’t need a group to prove to us why something is offensive or oppresive:
Thankfully, the voice of reason soon appeared in the form of Sinead Dolan (author of this post ). After trying and failing to get the others to understand why this show was dangerous to the trans* cause through a serious of well reasoned posts, she came out with this statement, which I think summed up this issue in a brilliant and succinct manner:
This show is about men actually living their lives as women, which is a totally different thing. They are going to be using the same techniques that trans people spend literally their whole lives trying to perfect, and make them into The Biggest Joke. Imagine if you were trans, and had spent years working on the makeup, and the walk, and the voice, and the way you move, literally every tiny thing your body does is a learned skill, a way to make the world see you as you see yourself. Now imagine that ABC has taken all those tiny things that are so, so important to you, to your actual survival, and is using them as the butt of every joke in one of it’s sitcoms. That’s not only offensive, it’s wildly irresponsible.
And that right there is really the crux of the issue in my opinion. Whether intentionally or not (and that’s really not the point here) ABC has created and written a show that is essentially taking the piss out of some people’s actual lives.
To the people who watch the show who are thinking “ah sure it’s grand, it’s only a bit of fun cos stereotypes are hilarious” – well, they’re not. Being the butt of someone’s jokes is never funny, particularly when it is compounded by oppression and discrimination in a similar vein in
your daily life. And the people who think that it’s all ok because the show is “only” making a mockery of drag queens/cross-dressers, well guess what? IT’S STILL NOT OK! Drag kings and queens, cross-dressers and transvestites, as well as people who identify as transsexual, transgender, genderqueer or any other variety of gender identity or expression, are all part of the trans* umbrella and the wider LGBT rainbow. We are all part of the same community, and no one individual’s reality is less than another.
Last night, I forced myself to watch Work It. Sitting through an episode was like an endurance sport, and I honestly wanted to weep by the end of it. I quickly realised how this programme relies on sexism, racism and homophobia alongside its transphobia in order to get cheap laughs at the expense of those of us with marginalised identities. Less than one minute into it, there was a rape joke. The protagonist of the piece apparently regularly compares a prostate exam to the pinball scene in ‘The Accused’ (which if you haven’t seen it, is one of the most horrific rape scenes I have ever seen in a film) in conversation with his wife regarding medical checks. Stay classy, Work It. After hearing that “joke”, I knew it could only get worse. And it really did. Next we had the friend who was bitter towards women for causing the “mancession”, and later a lovely racist joke with “I’m Puerto Rican, I’d be great at selling drugs”. All the women that work in the office are portrayed as total airheads (obviously, because women working in an office isn’t real work). They also make jokes about everything from sexual harassment to someone being a lesbian…because clearly, as she is a lesbian, one of the protagonists can now feel free to hit on her. UGH. Fucking hell, HOW DID THIS SHOW GET GREENLIT?! It is honestly the most offensive show I have ever seen. And I used to watch Family Guy!! Emphasis on the used to part of that…
I’d love to get a good discussion of this issue going here. It’s a sad fact of the LGBT movement in Ireland that so often we ignore the inequalities faced by T identified people of the acronym. And that’s to say nothing of the invisibility of bisexual people, but that’s a whole other discussion we need to have.
The LGBT movement is never going to progress if we don’t fight for the rights of the entire community. We’re either a community or we’re not, we’re either activists or we’re not. We need to wake up and realise that we can’t *just* fight for the rights of lesbian and gay people, we have to fight for equal rights for all. The roots of homophobia and transphobia are the same, in the end we have a shared experience in the LGBT community of breaking gender role stereotypes. Whether we do this through our gender identity or expression, or through our romantic and sexual relationships, we are all punished by wider society for breaking these norms. We will never eradicate homophobia as long as there is transphobia. After all, it was the trans* members of the LGBT community that kicked off the entire global LGBT rights movement in Stonewall over 40 years ago. Without them, where would we be today?
The last couple of years have seen some great leaps forward for the Irish trans* rights movement, when LGBT NOISE started campaigning on trans* issues. A trans* activist spoke at the March for Marriage, raising awareness about the Gender Recognition legislation, and how trans* people are being excluded from Civil Partnership legislation. It seemed that people were finally recognising that the trans* community has stood in solidarity with LGB efforts in Ireland for ages, and realising that we all need to work together to combat transphobia and homophobia. I was hopeful that the situation was improving, that people were coming on board, educating themselves and properly putting the T in LGBT – but then this discussion happened.
I need your help, and your suggestions. What can we do, as an LGBT community, to address this problem? How can we counter the apparent apathy among so many LGB people towards trans* issues? And, most importantly of all, what can we do to educate people on trans* issues?
For information on being a good trans* ally, please see:
For more information on trans* issues in Ireland, visit:
To begin exploring the concept of cisgender privilege and how it operates, check out: