10 January 2012

Why "Work It" Doesn't Work

In "Think Progress," Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a very perceptive post about the new TV show Work It.  In her discussion of the negative reaction the program has receieved from transgenders, she includes this response from ABC entertainment president Paul Lee:

"Certainly in terms of the lesbian and gay community, we’re incredibly proud of the work ABC does, and that’s not just Modern Family, it’s Grey’s Anatomy, it’s Private Practice. In that case, I didn’t really get it," he said.    He contiI loved Tootsie, I think it’s a great thing, so in that particular case, I didn’t get it. But I think that’s me.” And he said that given the sophistication of the rest of the network’s fall lineup, “I thought there was room for a very, very, very, very silly show."

And that "very, very, very, very silly show" just happens to be about a couple of guys who dress like girls to get jobs.  Hmm...I guess the man doesn't understand the difference between a "very, very, very, very silly show" and something that uses a gender inversion, if you will, for the purposes of irony and satire. 

Some of you might remember the movie Tootsie, in which Dustin Hoffman plays a desperate out-of-work actor who presents himself as female in order to get work.  While I think it had its banalities, at least the situation wasn't played for "yuck"s.  Rather, it was an attempt, however crude, to show some of the sometimes-contradictory ideas people have about work and gender.  At least at that level, it was ironic and almost satirical.

A much better treatment of the same theme can be found, interestingly enough, in a short story written half a century before Tootsie was made:  Richard Wright's A Man Of All Work.  In fact, it's still one of my favorite short stories.  The male protagonist of the story, who is a husband and father during the Great Depression, decides to dress as a woman in order to get work as a domestic.  "Who ever looks at us folks anyhow?," he says to his horrified bedridden wife.

In the story--which is told entirely in dialogue--the man's portrayal of a woman is so convincing that he is sexually assaulted by a male employer.  As you can imagine, Wright brilliantly used the situation to expose some of the misconceptions and hypocrisies surrounding attitudes about race and gender.

Though that story is about eighty years old, it is light years ahead of Work It, not only in its incisiveness into questions about race, gender, sexuality and economics, but is also--if unintentionally--a much more sensitive treatment of gender-variant people. 

A Man Of All Work at least acknowledged--better yet, showed--some of the potential dangers faced by those who do not live in accordance with the gender to which they were assigned at birth.  Now, that protagonist's situation and mine are undoubtedly very different, but he did suffer from at least one of the dangers about which I've been warned ever since I started my gender transition:  We are more likely to be assaulted--whether sexually or not--or murdered than anyone else.  And, for those of us who "change" sexes--or even for crossdressers-- putting on the clothes of the "opposite" gender is not simply a game or fetish:  We do it so that our bodies, and our overall physical apperance, can be more congruent with the gender of our minds and spirits.

Living by the dictates of our mind and spirit:  I can't think of a more fundamental human right than that.  That's something Paul Lee and the writers and producers of Work It will never have to understand.  At least Ms. Rosenberg does.

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