Privilege in a dress: Arrested Development's transphobic slip

April 25, 2013

Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in. However, other times things just suck. This week, Arrested Development sucked.

I’ve been excited for months about the promise of the show’s return. Arrested Development is one of my favorite things in the world, a show that never sacrificed intelligence in its quest for jokes. Creator/writer/producer Mitchell Hurwitz created a show that was dense with jokes, some so brilliantly weird that it took viewers multiple views to pick up on the humor. Hurwitz reportedly spent weeks crafting some of the episodes, and it took Hurwitz five years to get the reboot off the ground. If the AD could come back, he wanted to get it right. The viewers deserved that.

However, a recent joke from the show’s promotional materials calls into question that capacity for caring about their audience. Writer Zinnia Jones reports that the show has been using transphobic humor to sell its relaunch. One advertisement, which has now been pulled, asks viewers, “Who’s your favorite tranny granny?” The caption is next to pictures of Tobias in drag, as Mrs. Featherbottom, and George Sr. in a dress.

On the joke, Jones writes,

“It’s...not funny at all. It’s the sort of lazy humor that every comedy, given enough time, will arrive at eventually – like a Godwin’s Law of transphobia. These low-effort attempts at comedy are made under the assumption that the mere idea of men in dresses, or trans people, is inherently laughable. Treating both as though they were the same is just the icing on the cake.”

Although the show heavily featured “men in dresses,” the joke was never about Tobias wearing a dress. It was about the delusion that he could trick his family into believing that he was a woman, despite giving one of the worst drag performances in history. Arrested Development wasn’t critiquing Tobias for wearing a dress; the show lampooned him for being a bad actor — and a hideously self-involved one.

Throughout the show, the characters’ persistent narcissism is the real target. The Bluths are the worst, most clueless people in the world, and that makes them hilarious. It’s smart comedy about stupid people.

However, this joke is what is clueless and stupid. Instead of making the Bluths the butt of the joke, it’s an affront to transgender viewers who believe in the show and are as happy to see it return as the rest of us. The show has a strong following in the queer and trans communities because a) it’s funny b) we hate George W. Bush, too and c) it’s hella queer inclusive, with multiple out recurring characters and a notable lesbian star. (Hi, Portia!)

Arrested Development premiered in 2003, when few shows would touch queer audiences with a 10-foot pole. AD made us feel embraced, and it’s treatment of Tobias is surprisingly sweet when you think about it. What’s considered funny about Tobias isn’t that he’s gay; it’s that he thinks people don’t know. Most shows would shame him for it. In Arrested Development, his wife and daughter stick by him anyway. What’s more affirming than that?

This humor achieves the opposite effect, using transphobic language to marginalize transgender viewers. Jones writes,

“Here it is, the all-too-frequent reminder that this is not for you. It’s meant for other people, so that they can laugh at you. It tells us that the fact of our humanity wasn’t actually taken into account at any point between someone having an idea, someone cobbling it together, someone approving it, and someone clicking ‘post’. Just being able to go about our lives would be too much to ask – we have to be someone’s punchline.”

Whenever jokes like these are made, people are quick to defend it as un-PC and the creators as equal opportunity offenders. However, what is equal opportunity about this joke? For the trans community, “tr*nny” is considered a hateful slur, comparable to using the “n-word,” the six letter “f-word” or the Jewish “k-word.” You would never see Arrested Development ask its audience who their favorite “n-word” is.

What makes it okay with trans people? Where was the outrage?

It’s because in comedy, we often see hierarchies of offense — people who are seen as okay to make fun of without much backlash. When The New Normal called intersex people “pathetic,” many viewers barely batted an eye. People don’t seem to give a flying truck that Two Broke Girls regularly makes Asians into desexualized, "Yellow Panic stereotypes." When someone says the word “f*ggot,” we know to be scandalized. Look at what’s happened to Isaiah Washington and Mel Gibson. Homophobia helped kill their careers.

When Stacy Lambe of Queerty wrote about Arrested Development’s transphobic slip up, many commenters called Lambe and Jones’ critique “attention-seeking outrage.” Eric Auerbach wrote, “Transphobic humor? Give me a f*cking break.” TinoTurner felt that the criticism only showed that Queerty is “really hard up for stories.” The respondent instructed Lambe to “f*ck off.”

By telling trans people they don’t have a right to be offended, it upholds the idea that it’s okay to make fun of some and not others, a marginalization that shows trans people aren’t worth caring about. We saw this same calculation in a Funny or Die video this week, when Michael Shannon read off Rebecca Martinson’s infamous “sorority girl letter.” Shannon and Funny or Die took out Martinson’s use of the word “f*ggot” but kept in “ret*rded.”

What makes it okay to offend differently abled folks? Funny or Die’s misguided idea that they aren’t part of the audience. They aren’t watching the video to get offended. My brother is differently abled. Just because he isn’t watching doesn’t mean he doesn’t receive that message every day, when kids push him at school or mock his inability to read. He isn’t just called a “ret*rd.” He’s also called a “f*ggot,” just like I was — but for different reasons. The other kids at school don’t think he’s gay. They want him to feel weak and pathetic. It’s about power.

These words shouldn't just be painful for him. They should be painful for all of us. Ableism, homophobia and transphobia are an embarassment to everyone.

At its best, comedy can work as a force for healing and take that power back. Jezebel’s Lindy West reminds us that the best jokes work upward, critiquing those who are in power, rather than mocking the already marginalized. The best comedy opens up a space to ask questions about society, offering us an avenue to laugh and to critique. Although we think about it just as entertainment, comedy is about social justice. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless by finding the laughter in our pain.

scene from the TV show Louie is a model for how boundary-pushing comedy should work. In the scene, Louie C.K. and his comedian friends discuss gay sex with Rick Crom, an out gay comedian. They ask Crom probing and often homophobic questions about his “lifestyle,” which exposes their discomfort with the issue. The scene sets itself up for bigotry as a way to combat it. Crom schools them:

"I don’t think about p*ssy. I don’t care what you guys do. You’re the one’s who asked me. You ask me this sh*t every time I’m here. I talk about gay sex more with you guys than I do any of my gay friends. You guys are obsessed."

The scene then abruptly turns. After Crom’s speech, Louie C.K. asks if Crom gets offended when C.K. uses the word “f*ggot” in his stand up. Crom tells him he can technically use any word he wants, because he knows C.K. doesn’t mean to offend, but C.K. has to realize what that word says to gay men. Using that word tells gay men that, like the bundle of sticks it refers to, they deserve to be tied up and burned. “F*ggot” affirms the our history of violence against queer people.

This scene was an extraordinary moment in television, proving that humor can be a tool for dialogue and education. It can help to heal our wounds, instead of reopening them. In taking the transphobic material down without apology or comment, Arrested Development hopes trans people and their allies weren't paying attention and that no blood will be shed over it. But we're watching. We're a part of your audience. We expect better.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on FacebookTwitter or Tumblr.