On January 3, ABC is set to premiere the new comedy Work It, a sitcom about two men who dress as women to secure employment. During a period in which the transgender community now routinely finds itself in the cultural crosshairs, the timing couldn’t be worse for a show based on the notion that men dressed as women is inherently funny. In fact, shows like this have the power to put the transgender community in an even more dangerous position.
GLAAD has seen the pilot and while the show’s pilot does not explicitly address transgender people, many home viewers unfamiliar with the realities of being transgender will still make the connection. Work It invites the audience to laugh at images of men trying to adopt a feminine appearance, thereby also making it easier to mock people whose gender identity and expression are different than the one they were assigned at birth. Said GLAAD’s Acting President Mike Thompson, “Transphobia is still all too prevalent in our society and this show will only contribute to it. It will reinforce the mistaken belief that transgender women are simply ‘men pretending to be women,’ and that their efforts to live their lives authentically as women are a form of lying or deception.”
These problems are even more pronounced in the show’s printed ad, which depicts the two main characters dressed as women while standing at men’s room urinals. Not only does it inadvertently further notions that transgender identities are humorous or artificial, but imagery like this is one of the first things anti-LGBT activists resort to when trying to deny transgender people protections against discrimination. As Mark Snyder from the Transgender Law Center said in a recent article, a printed image like this in magazines or the sides of city buses will “make it more difficult for transgender people to gain full equality -- including the important right to access public accommodations appropriate to their gender identity.”
Work It comes from a network with a track record of inclusive LGBT content that has often included the transgender community. When ABC cast Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money, it was the first time a transgender actress was featured in a recurring role on broadcast television. Around the same time, they featured Alexis Meade on Ugly Betty, who was television’s first regular transgender character. Most recently, ABC cast transgender advocate Chaz Bono on their hit series Dancing with the Stars. When it comes to representing the transgender community in a fair and accurate way, ABC has routinely led the network pack.
But the fact that this show is coming from what has been one of the LGBT community’s strongest media allies perhaps makes the sting worse. When speaking about the show to an audience of television critics at this summer’s TCA executive panel, ABC president Paul Lee said, “I’m a Brit, it is in my contract that I have to do one cross-dressing show a year; I was brought up on Monty Python. What can I do?” For starters, Mr. Lee can recognize that there has been forty years of progressive social change since Monty Python’s television heyday. Not to mention the birth and continuing advancement of the modern LGBT movement.
We are at a crucial point in transgender representation in our culture. While public awareness continues to increase and there have been great milestones reached in the past few years, thanks in part to networks like ABC, all too often the community is still depicted in a problematic light. Creators often resort to the same tired stereotypes and insulting language to depict transgender people, and the slur “tr*nny” is still used with alarming frequency. Off-screen, transgender people experience disproportionately higher rates of violence, harassment, discrimination, poverty, and homelessness. While the straight men on the show may have gotten jobs by dressing as women, transgender people also face double the rates of unemployment. At a time when we need greater understanding of the transgender community, a show like Work It will ultimately have the opposite effect.
We ask that ABC recognize this fact, keep the show’s bathroom advertisement out of circulation, and seriously consider whether airing this show is worth the damage it has the potential to do. The fact is ABC should not air this show at all, as it will contribute to a climate in which transgender people are something to be laughed at, rather than treated with the respect and dignity that everyone deserves.