Work It: More damaging than ever
“ABC’s new high-concept comedy about two unrepentant guy’s [sic] guys who, unable to find work, dress as women to get jobs. Not only do they pull it off, but they just might learn to be better men in the process.”
By Wesley Garson, Interim Policy Advocate, Transgender Civil Rights Project, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
2011 has been a year of amazing gains for transgender people. We saw four states enact transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination laws. We are now protected in approximately 140 local jurisdictions. We have a seat at the table with elected officials on every level. We are winning. It’s that simple. We are winning because we work hard, we work smart and we know we will forever be seen on the right side of history and can be proud we were around and instrumental in these wins.
So, why get upset by a couple of “guys who, unable to find work, dress as women to get jobs”? Why get upset about a silly TV show that’s on par with Bosom Buddies and Mrs. Doubtfire? Why be so sensitive? Where’s my sense of humor?
To be honest, I’m truly not easily offended and I didn’t think this ridiculous plot would even phase me. (Men dressing as women to take advantage of the economic privilege? We’ve already started out on a faulty premise.[i]) But after watching the preview, it really did offend and deeply sadden me and I struggled to understand why. I think I now know – it is because we are winning. We are winning and I still have to tolerate these ludicrous plots and offensive portrayals of gender identity. I still have to defend my friends and my community against these harmful images. We are winning, yet ABC, a major network, can still get away with debuting a show about how hilarious it is when people born as males wear women’s clothing.
I understand these characters do not claim to identify as transgender. But even more so, I understand the fear society still holds toward transgender people. Many believe “guys in dresses” will start taking advantage of access to women’s spaces and “privilege,” including bathrooms and other private spaces. This is an argument every individual fighting for trans-inclusive nondiscrimination legislation has had to disaffirm when advocating to legislators or even within the broader LGBT community. These characters are actually justifying this fear and making it harder to advocate for the laws that we already know are so desperately needed.
Work It also reaffirms the notion that “guys dress as women” for fraudulent purposes. It affirms discriminatory behavior that transgender women face every day because the entire plot implies the plausibility that there is something to be gained when a male-bodied individual presents as a woman. It teaches the greater population, who are generally uneducated when it comes to transgender issues, that when they encounter a transgender person, they should question the validity of their identity; that there just might be fraudulent reasons for their gender presentation. These notions make it much more difficult to advocate for equal protection for all transgender individuals.
As shown by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are consistently discriminated against in every aspect of their lives. Specifically, they are harassed and discriminated in education settings, employment, housing, and public spaces. In order to end the pervasive inequality transgender people face, the fight for equality includes advocacy for trans-inclusive non-discrimination legislation and policies.
Work It mocks the very nature of the discrimination that shuts countless transgender people out of jobs, housing, health care settings, family gatherings and other public spaces. This twisted representation makes the general population question the need for policies and laws to protect us. When our identities are mocked and our motives are questioned, it directly impacts our work for transgender equality. It also affirms the false concept that male-bodied people dress as women to gain access to “privilege” and women-only spaces.
Those pushing for gender equity in the workplace will attest – this could not be further from the truth. Women are still underrepresented in higher paying professional positions and still make only 80 cents for every dollar that is earned by men.[ii] It perpetuates the patently false notion that there is something to be gained by presenting as the transgender. This is and will continue to be a difficult, but noble and ultimately successful fight. The success we have already achieved has been too hard won. I am not willing to sacrifice our success, both past and future, to a poorly conceptualized sitcom based on a misogynistic, false premise. The fact that Work It will make our goal of equality even more difficult is the reason I hope ABC will ultimately decide not air this show.
[i] “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2009,” U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2010, Report 1025, (available at http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2009.pdf), (accessed Dec. 12, 2011).