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The transgender community is more than a punchline

By Jillian Cung, August 5 2022

Mainstream media continues to use the transgender community as a punching bag to land jokes that are not only distasteful but harmful. 

Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The Closer faces criticism for his comments regarding the transgender community, comparing being transgender to wearing blackface and stating that he’s a member of “team TERF” — an acronym referring to trans-exclusionary radical feminists. This prompted a walkout from hundreds of Netflix employees in protest of the controversial special that was released in October 2021. The recent Emmy nomination for The Closer‘ reinforces that Chappelle’s comments are appropriate and acceptable in mainstream media — resulting in backlash from the transgender community.

“Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth,” said Chappelle. 

Chappelle’s comments are harmful to the transgender community because it reinforces the cisgender binary as what is normal and acceptable — but the transgender community is tired of their identities being invalidated by Chapelle and mainstream media at large. 

“We’re exhausted from constantly having to debate our existence. We’re exhausted by constantly having to self-advocate in the face of ignorance,” said Anna Murphy, a Calgarian trans woman and LGBTQ+ activist.

“I’m heartbroken because I recognize what seeing that in the media, or seeing that message or seeing that narrative, does to those kids who are honestly just trying to go out and be welcomed and safe and affirmed in the world,” Murphy continued, in relation to the prevalent rise of anti-transgender narratives in mainstream media.

Chappelle’s special is certainly not the first when it comes to using anti-transgender narratives to entertain the hegemony. The popular 90s sitcom Friends implies the main character Chandler Bing’s “father” is a transgender woman. Not only is she deadnamed and misgendered throughout the series, but she is the punching bag for the sitcom’s entertainment. Although what others find entertaining can differ between individuals it is important to recognize that encouraging an anti-transgender stigma is determinantal to the transgender community.

“When he [Chappelle] talks about the trans community, he’s not talking about them, he’s speaking out against them, and that’s the difference between saying something funny about the trans community and saying something offensive about the trans community,” said Nat Puff, known better as Left at London, who is a trans lesbian, comedian and musician.

Why is it important to prevent anti-transgender stigma? If media portrayals of transgender people are overwhelmingly negative, this will reflect how society views and treats transgender people. Mainstream media outlets need to understand there are real-life consequences for continuing to encourage an anti-transgender stigma. Chapelle’s Emmy nomination is proof that Hollywood continues to hold onto such problematic narratives, condemning cancel culture and “wokeness” in the face of accountability. 

A study published in 2020 by Sage Journals suggests an anti-transgender stigma has been associated with sexual, physical and psychological forms of violence, as well as transgender-specific forms of violence, such as controlling someone’s gender transition. When mainstream media promotes an anti-transgender stigma it leads to the transgender community facing violence. The majority of individuals only encounter transgender people in the media because they are a small minority, therefore, forms of representation matter more than ever because of their ability to shape narratives. 

Not only can accurate representation of the transgender community prevent an anti-transgender stigma, it can do so much more according to Laverne Cox, transgender actress and LGBTQ+.

“[Trangender representation] change[s] some hearts and minds, it can inspire people, but it needs to be combined with efforts to shift ideology and institutions and public policy – and, again, the material conditions of people’s lives,” said Cox.

Since transgender individuals are often introduced to audiences for the first time through media — insulting transgender people and discrediting their existence is detrimental to their safety. Chapelle, for instance, is an individual whose comedy special was nominated for an Emmy, at the expense of the transgender community. When the media celebrates the use of the transgender community as a punchline it reiterates that this behaviour is appropriate and acceptable. The prevalence of anti-transgender narratives in the media is an issue that needs more awareness to push for accurate representation. Calling out mainstream media for its unacceptable behaviour towards the transgender community puts us one step closer to dismantling the anti-transgender stigma.

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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