I’ve learned a lot these last nine days.
By now, everyone is familiar with the Saturday Night Live sketch mocking transgender women who are transitioning. That ran last Saturday. We spent last Sunday thinking about it, Monday reacting to it, and Tuesday reacting to the reactions to our reaction. (I know.)
On Thursday, San Diego’s Channel 10 ran a story about nationally-known transgender activist and blogger Autumn Sandeen, focusing on her history of military service and on how transgender people will still be denied the chance to serve their country even when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.
While the story was largely respectful and the reporter's tone was very fair - right in the middle of the segment, as the reporter was talking about military regulations, the station showed what looked like home video footage of a woman in a red dress posing provocatively. This footage had absolutely nothing to do with what the segment was talking about. The woman in the video was not Sandeen, and the footage was never explained.
Autumn called me on Friday morning to talk about the segment. Later that night, this showed up courtesy of the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. (Interestingly, that show also featured openly gay British actor/comedian Matt Lucas.)
(The video in this clip is a bit stuttery - if you would rather watch from the show's homepage, the sketch starts around 14 minutes in.)
Then two days later, viewers who had tuned into the Super Bowl pregame saw this ad for Living Social.
So what are we to think about all of this?
First, the fact that all four of these occurred within days of each other is pure coincidence. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something bigger at work here.
In all four of these cases, especially the latter three, you can easily point to the fact that people simply do not know what it means to be transgender.
Why would a producer at Channel 10 in San Diego run clips of a woman in a red dress posing provocatively in a story that otherwise had no “provocative” undertones whatsoever? Sure, it could have been someone deliberately trying to confuse the issue or make viewers uncomfortable, and the station doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to transgender issues. But it seems equally likely that a producer simply needed b-roll, googled a keyword or two, and popped in whatever came up on YouTube.
Either way, the station owes its viewers a better understanding of the issues – and it most definitely owes Autumn an apology.
Craig Ferguson gave us a very different problem, but with the exact same root. I don’t watch the Late Late Show, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, this actor who played Ferguson’s ugly half-sister usually plays Ferguson’s ugly brother (or half-brother, the accounts vary.) And the joke is probably MEANT to be on Ferguson and his family – not on transgender people in general. Does it come off that way? That depends on who you talk to. Were some people offended? Very much.
That brings us to the Living Social ad, which presents a character’s journey - from presenting himself as a burly and scruffy ‘man’s man’ to presenting herself as a woman. In fact, the ad uses this journey as a selling point for the Living Social service, sort-of a “hey, what a nice surprise!” and the character in the commercial is portrayed as clearly being very happy with the trajectory of the ad’s plot. Still, there’s a shock/laugh value at play, and it does portray an inaccurate journey through becoming more “cultured,” to being gay, and eventually to presenting as a woman. Did some people, including many LGBT activists, like the spot? Yes. Were some people offended? You bet. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely.
And that brings us to the common thread here, which is also the catch-22. The media’s main problem – and its biggest responsibility – both come from the fact that IT delivers the vast majority of the messages the public receives about what it actually means to be transgender. As bad as that SNL sketch was, there’s no doubt that many viewers had no idea before watching it that there even was such a thing as hormone therapy. So those people actually learned a little something from the sketch. Of course, they also learned that SNL wants you to laugh at images of transitioning women.
I wrote about this in great detail last year on the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The simple fact is that an overwhelming majority of Americans simply don’t know any transgender people. According to a study we commissioned in 2008, only eight percent of Americans said they knew someone who was transgender. And of those, almost half said that person was an “acquaintance” or a “non-immediate family member” – not a friend or a close relative.
That leaves about four or five percent of us with a transgender person close enough to us that we can learn about the lives of transgender people - from transgender people themselves. For the other 95%-96% of us, we rely on the media to teach us what it means to be transgender and to tell us their stories.
Here’s what I learned this week, watching these incidents rolling in - one after another, after another, after another. They are symptoms of the root problem, not the problem itself. You see, those 95%-96% of us? They're not just watching these shows, they are writing for Craig Ferguson, or working at Channel 10 in San Diego. They’re learning from problematic coverage, then turning around and creating more problematic coverage.
Autumn told me she specifically pointed the reporter from Channel 10 to our resource guide on how to report about transgender issues. But that guide might not have made it all the way to whoever edited the final product. And besides, nowhere in our guide does it say “don’t use inappropriately provocative b-roll.” Sure, that seemed like it should go without saying. But I learned over these last nine days that while it SHOULD go without saying, it doesn’t.
We have a lot of work to do – all of us – when it comes to educating each other about what it means to be transgender. These past nine days should be an important reminder of how much of that work is still undone.