UPDATE: NBC has now removed the video from the series' official social media channels including YouTube, Facebook and the America's Got Talent website.
PREVIOUSLY: Last night, NBC's reality competition show America's Got Talent ended its final audition episode with a musical performance from an 84-year-old man singing an original song about not wanting to date a woman because she had "male genitalia," and which included lyrics like "there's always some failure, always some flaw." As the song's "joke" dawned on the audience and judges, they erupted in laughter and the contestant received nothing but praise from the judges, who unanimously voted him onto the next round.
While some people may have been laughing in surprise at seeing an 84-year-old man singing the word "penis," many were laughing at the song's lyrics mocking the notion of dating a transgender woman. Judge Howard Stern praised him for his sense of humor, Mel B called him a "naughty, funny, dirty old man," and Heidi Klum said her kids would soon be singing the song around the house.
It's hard to imagine they would have said the same things if an actual transgender woman had been seated next to them on that panel.
Regardless of how charming the performer was himself, the song's premise is emblematic of the fact that transgender people, and transgender women in particular, are still seen as perfectly acceptable targets for outright mockery. A similar song where the humorous "reveal" hinged on someone's race or religion probably wouldn't have made it to air, much less won the performer a spot in the next round. It's this same pervasive mentality that makes it difficult for the public to see transgender people as human beings, which has significant consequences in the real world, including increased rates of discrimination, poverty, and violence. Last month alone four transgender women were found dead: Tiffany Edwards of Ohio, Zoraida Reyes of California, Kandy Hall of Maryland, and Yaz'min Shancez of Florida. Local police have ruled all of the deaths a homicide, except Reyes's, which has been listed as "suspicious."
NBC not only chose to run the performance as the final act of the episode, they also went out of their way to promote it on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where they're inviting people to "laugh along to the lyrics of his naughty tune." Many people aren't laughing though. Here are a few of the tweets from viewers who don't find the song or NBC's response to it amusing:
Nooo I can't laugh at jokes about gender trans even if a sweet old man sings about it, disrespectful to amazing friends. #AmericasGotTalent
— La Gatita Negra (@the_march4ward) July 2, 2014
.@Nbcagt thank you for airing a contestant that once again paints trans women as freaks. I will no longer watch your show.
— Saving Throw (@NovalG) July 2, 2014
— Jessica May Dempsey (@jmaydempsey) July 2, 2014
— Raƒe ℙosey (@ponyonabalcony) July 2, 2014
— Danielle Paris (@myfairdani) July 2, 2014
Last night's episode contrasts with NBC's track record of groundbreaking depictions of gay and lesbian people, including shows like Will & Grace, E.R., and The New Normal. Immediately following last night's broadcast of America's Got Talent, NBC aired an episode of The Night Shift in which a closeted military doctor comes out to his coworkers as he supports his soldier boyfriend who was gravely injured in an accident. NBC should be just as thoughtful about the messages it broadcasts about transgender people.
Trans visibility has never been higher, with Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME magazine, President Obama protecting transgender Federal employees, and trans leaders invited to the White House for last month's Pride celebrations. NBC's decision to air this performance and promote it as the highlight of the episode indicates the continuing need for education in the television industry.