25 Years Of Transphobia In Comedy
Men don't vomit at the sight of trans women in comedies anymore, but recent releases like Deadpool and Zoolander 2 demonstrate how trans and gender-nonconforming people are still reduced to empty punchlines.
There’s a scene from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) in which the title character, played by Jim Carrey, is so disgusted with himself that he pukes in the toilet twice and has to empty an entire tube of toothpaste to brush his teeth. He then takes off all his clothes, puts them in a trash can, and burns them, before getting into the shower and weeping as the camera pans out. It’s a clear parody of scenes in dramas involving women who take showers after being sexually assaulted.
The traumatic event that caused this reaction? The discovery that Lois Einhorn, a female police detective played by Sean Young — who had just kissed Ace in a previous scene — is the same person as Ray Finkel, a man Ace suspects of kidnapping the Miami Dolphins’ mascot Snowflake and quarterback Dan Marino. The knowledge that Ace has kissed “a man” sends him into a shamed panic spiral. And when Ace reveals Einhorn’s former identity by forcibly exposing the bulge in her underwear to practically her entire police department at the end of the movie, all the men retch as Ace’s “real” woman love interest Melissa (Courteney Cox) observes in puzzlement.
More than two decades later, Ace Ventura comes across as blatantly transmisogynist (a term the author Julia Serano coined to specify the intersection of transphobia and misogyny that trans women too often deal with). Lois ceases to be a full-fledged human being as soon as she’s revealed to be trans, so she can be subjected to such cruelties as having her body forcibly exposed for public display without consequence. Lois’s humiliation itself is the butt of the joke — and the men’s disgust centers the movie’s attempt at ick-factor body humor.
On the surface, there isn’t much comparison between Ace Ventura’s explicit transphobia and the in-bad-taste but certainly tamer jokes in two comedies that opened recently: Zoolander 2 and Deadpool. In a reprise of their roles as preening male supermodel Derek Zoolander and his sidekick Hansel, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have been supplanted as the most popular models on the planet by the nonbinary, agender model All (Benedict Cumberbatch). In Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds plays the pansexual title character prone to bawdy jokes about queer people.
But threading a line from comedies of the early '90s to those that feature transgender themes today reveals that even though there has been steady progress in humanizing trans characters, harmful stereotypes still plague trans women and gender-nonconforming characters. Transfeminine people are nearly always presented as villains and objects of derision or disgust, especially in comparison to conventionally attractive cisgender love interests.
The last 25 years of evolving transgender themes in mainstream comedy also demonstrate the projections and fears of the cisgender men both behind and in front of the camera. Trans characters — particularly trans women — are often inserted into a comedy’s narrative to fulfill a gross-out shock factor (“Lol! I can’t believe a ‘normal’ man got tricked into sleeping with a disgusting, ‘abnormal’ she-male!” is the audience reaction these filmmakers are going for). The audience is also supposed to laugh because a man has been “deceived” by these women, and straight male viewers can take comfort since the humiliation is not their own. The way trans characters are used and abused exemplifies the lengths heterosexual cisgender men will go to demonize trans women in order to deny them womanhood, as well as reaffirm their own desperately fragile masculinity.
The '90s, When Trans Women Were Disgusting Villains
If Ace Ventura marked the full-fledged incorporation of transphobia into movie comedies, then Soapdish (1991) was an essential precursor. In that movie, a scheming Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty) tries to topple Celeste Talbert (Sally Field), as the star of the soap opera The Sun Also Sets, by seducing producer David Seton Barnes (Robert Downey Jr.). After a series of twists and turns involving David and Montana conniving to give Celeste more and more absurd and unsympathetic scenes to act out so the show’s fans would reject her, it’s brought to light that Montana used to be Milton Moorehead; cast and crew react in horror and wonderment, while Montana runs from the set in shame.
Though the transgender-woman-as-villain trope in American movie comedies did not originate with Soapdish — that dubious honor arguably belongs to the roundly panned film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge (1970) — the '90s comedy demonstrated the trope's effectiveness as a modern plot device. Montana’s “transgender reveal” is a shocking and absurd twist that elucidates her deceitful nature; if she lied about being trans, then she’s a liar at heart. David, who’d slept with her, attempts to control his retching reaction, as he excuses himself from the set to presumably vomit.
By the time Ace Ventura and Jim Carrey’s over-the-top antics rolled around in 1994, the forced exposure of a character’s trans status was amplified by using the outlines of her genitals. In between Soapdish and Ace Ventura was the much-talked-about drama The Crying Game (1992), which became a cause célèbre when, during what feels like a gritty drama involving the love affair between a man and a woman, the woman is shown to have a penis and the man pukes in the bathroom.
Ace Ventura is an overt comedic take on this revelation, as was Naked Gun 33 ⅓ (1994) from the same year. In that movie, police detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) has an ongoing flirtation with the villain’s girlfriend and accomplice Tanya Peters (Anna Nicole Smith), who attempts to seduce him several times during the movie. Near the end of the film, the two find themselves alone in a dressing room at the Academy Awards, when Tanya undresses in silhouette and her shadow gives away her penis. Frank reacts in utter disgust, and ends up puking inside a tuba for laughs.
One of the major indicators of trans women’s villainy in these movies: They did not disclose their trans status. The fact that they’re killers, blackmailers, or terrorists is intertwined with them “hiding” their male past, though the humiliating revelation that they’re trans is typically treated as more shocking and important than the crimes they’ve committed. The exposure of these women becomes synonymous with “catching” them; there’s no meaningful difference made between finding out a woman is trans and discovering that she’s a criminal.
In the end, movies that depict trans women as deceitful, disgusting villains divulge more about the cisgender male psyche than they do about transgender women (after all, the filmmakers and writers who imagined these characters are overwhelmingly cisgender men). The trans-woman-as-villain plot device represents men’s fear of being duped into sacrificing their heterosexual male privilege by deigning to sleep with a person they consider to be a man.
Seen in this way, the puking reaction to trans revelation in these movies is not really borne of disgust at the women themselves, who are played by conventionally-attractive cisgender actresses — rather, the disgust is borne of men’s self-loathing for continuing to be attracted to these women.
2000–2015: When Trans Women Were Obstacles for Weak Men
Since the '90s, male-focused comedies have had a fascinating, almost obsessive preoccupation with transgender women, in movies like Dude Where’s My Car? (2000), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), and The Hangover Part 2 (2011), not to mention a plethora of TV comedies and movies with one-off gags at trans women’s expense, most notably in Ted 2 (2015). The message in these movies and shows is almost always that trans women are revolting and less than human.
Dude Where’s My Car? explicitly uses the trans woman-as-criminal trope, when Jesse and Chester (Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott), two teenage stoner dudes, wake up not knowing where their car is, and find themselves at a strip joint called the Kitty Kat Club. There they meet Tania (Teressa Tunney), a stripper who gave Jesse a lap dance the night before that he doesn’t end up remembering. Tania turns out to be a transgender thief who gave the guys a suitcase full of cash for safekeeping and wants it back.
There are the standard gags, inherited from '90s comedies, of Tania demonstrating the bulge in her underwear to come out as trans — at least she’s empowered enough to do it herself, rather than being outed against her will. Typically, Jesse reacts by retching. Tania also speaks in a low, masculine voice whenever she demands her money from Jesse and Chester, and an artificially feminine one when she doesn’t want people to know she’s trans. Tania’s voice (dubbed, since she’s played by a cis woman) is meant to once again underline the connection between “deceiving” other people and her criminal behavior.
Later movies of the 2000s have shied away from this trans woman as deceiver trope, replacing it instead with another method for distancing “normal” men from transgender attraction. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the virgin man in question, Andy (Steve Carell) gets set up with a transgender sex worker whom he rejects. Later, Andy confronts his friends about the incident, in a scene rife with transphobic jokes, designed to depict the trans woman as inhuman and disgusting.
Part of the joke is that Andy’s friend Jay (Romany Malco), who hired the sex worker, couldn’t tell she was trans despite the obvious signs. It’s curious that in a bro comedy genre dominated by white men (none of the previous movies discussed so far have any prominent male minority characters), it’s now the black guy who can’t tell an “obvious” trans woman apart from a cis woman. It seems as though the white male director (Judd Apatow) and screenwriters (Apatow and Carell) were hesitant to have a white man play the part of a trans-attracted male.
Of course, the other part of the joke is the vulgarity of Andy’s description — how he seems eager to denigrate the trans woman’s identity in the harshest words possible. The joke can be funny only if the audience, like the characters in the movie, refuses to treat the trans woman as a person. But we’re supposed to empathize with Andy’s plight and root for him to get properly laid, even if he’s this weird guy who’s 40 and hasn’t had sex. Andy finally succeeds when he ends up with a “normal” woman and has old-fashioned heterosexual sex by the end of the movie.
This contrast between the type of guy who ends up with a trans woman and the one who doesn’t is even more stark in The Hangover Part II, when the wimpy Stu (Ed Helms) is about to get married in Thailand and invites the debonair Phil (Bradley Cooper) to join him. When they end up getting drugged and blacking out, they retrace their steps and find out that Stu ended up having sex with a transgender bar girl the previous night, when they visit her dressing room at a club.
“Hey, you’re in Bangkok sweetie,” the bar girl begins, “There’s a reason they don’t call it Bangcunt.” She turns around to reveal her penis, and both Stu and Andy reel. The comedy in the rest of the scene comes from the woman detailing Stu’s exploits with her, including how much he enjoyed having sex with her and the fact that he was the bottom in their encounter. The soft, unmanly Stu flails and cries in misery while the type-A, macho Phil visibly tries to keep himself from puking, recalling the reaction of many men before him. Phil acts as the comforting, normative presence for the audience — the one straight guy viewers are supposed to identify with — in contrast to the inadequate Stu, who can now add an accidental attraction to trans women to his list of faults.
Phil’s solution to Stu’s distress is even more telling. “I promise you, no one’s going to ever find out about this,” Phil says when Stu asks him what he should do. And when Stu replies that he can’t prevent himself from knowing he’s had sex with a trans woman and enjoyed it, Phil consoles him further by saying: “You just forget. It goes away.”
This is the lesson these comedies want us to learn: Men should forget about their attractions to trans women or, if they can’t, at least not acknowledge their existence. To me, it’s clear that the revulsion expressed in these movies is simply a symptom of how much straight men are privately attracted to what they publicly reject. If the prevalence of transgender porn and the number of well-known men who’ve been caught cavorting with trans women are any indication, then the transgender comedy in these movies says more about male fetish (especially for preoperative trans women) than it does about trans women themselves. It doesn’t matter if their experiences are pleasurable or that the trans women they interact with are actual human beings with individual qualities — societal taboo prevents these male characters from acknowledging trans humanity, because doing so would compromise their precious heteromasculinity.
Now: Permitting Transphobia By Co-Opting LGBT Identity
This is where we come to Deadpool and Zoolander 2, two movies that seem to account for previous history as well as the recent conversations about trans people. They've arrived at a time when trans visibility and political power have grown in Hollywood, especially over the past year with the advent of Caitlyn Jenner, and the continued success of Laverne Cox and other trans actors, as well as shows like Transparent and Sense8. We seem to have arrived at an era where blatantly dehumanizing depictions of trans people run enough risk of deterring a mainstream audience that filmmakers and writers are careful to avoid them explicitly.
Both Zoolander 2 and Deadpool take aim at less obvious and more indirect targets. A petition to boycott Zoolander had already garnered almost 25,000 signatures immediately after the trailer came out, mainly on the basis that the gender non-binary character All is played by a cisgender man, Benedict Cumberbatch. As the petitioner Sarah Rose wrote, All is portrayed as “an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals.”
The problem is not just that All is over-the-top, as so many portrayals of minorities in these mainstream movies are, but the specific ways that All is made fun of, as well as the surrounding depictions of queer people in the movie. Already, the entire premise of the Zoolander movies is to make fun of male models for having qualities traditionally associated with women — namely vanity and appearance-consciousness. In Zoolander 2, Derek Zoolander and his sidekick Hansel are brought out of retirement to supposedly headline a big-time fashion show. But after a decade out of the limelight, they find that they’re out of touch with the current fashion world. At the fashion show, they’re introduced to the agender model All, who has supplanted them as the most sought-after model in the world.
Upon meeting All, Hansel first asks whether All has “a hot dog or a bun,” then specifies, “Do you have a wiener or a vaginer?” The movie happily mocks Hansel for being out-of-touch with current culture for any number of reasons, but not for asking about a trans person’s genitals, or basing his judgment of a person’s gender on them. He later shouts, “Definitely a hot dog!” after All dresses as a gargoyle and whips Zoolander and Hansel with their tail. This scene once again brings back the trope of trans femme as villain.
Since the movie makes fun of All by saying that All is marrying “hermself,” it treats the possibility of non-binary gender identification as obviously absurd, trivializing the concerns of an increasingly important segment of the transgender community. There’s also the head-scratching appearance of Kiefer Sutherland as a man who’s been impregnated by Hansel, who in his time off has been a part of a group relationship that includes people of various fetishes as well as a goat. In the world of Zoolander 2, transgender people blend flatly together with polyamorists, sado-masochists, and people who practice beastiality, because they’re all just part of the same joke.
But what isn’t a joke is the attraction between Zoolander and the hot cisgender woman Valentina (Penelope Cruz). She’s in charge of solving crimes against fashion, and helps Zoolander find his long-lost son, another symbol of his sympathetic normalcy despite his unorthodox behavior. The two of them end up together in a celebration of heterosexuality, and Zoolander’s male-model eccentricities are redeemed by both fatherhood and traditional straight attraction.
This reverence for cisgender heterosexual coupling is something Zoolander 2 and Deadpool have in common, even though both director Tim Miller and actor Ryan Reynolds describe the titular character as pansexual. At the beginning of the movie, Wade Wilson is just an ordinary Special Forces veteran who works as mercenary in New York and falls in love with sex worker Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin). After Wade gets diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to join a secret program that promises to cure him and give him special powers. He’s subjected to a series of tortures that artificially brings out his inborn genetic mutation; he transforms into Deadpool, a mutant with super-healing powers.
Deadpool allows itself a great deal of license to make fun of the LGBT community, in large part because it presents Deadpool as part of that community — a knowing, pansexual New Yorker who isn’t uptight about established gender and sexuality norms. When he and his best friend joke about giving each other blow jobs, or when he yells “Teabag!” after sitting on top of a villain after vanquishing him, his jokes are presented as progressive in-group humor, rather than an outsider making fun of queer people.
Yet no actual same-gender action happens in the film (except in an easy-to-miss animation as part of the credits). The one relationship treated seriously is the love between Deadpool and his ideal soulmate-esque cis woman girlfriend, Vanessa. The one hint of queerness between them — when Vanessa pegs Deadpool in a montage of humorous sex scenarios — is played for comedy. Since the devotion between the two forms the serious heart of the movie, queer attraction is presented as humorous, trivial, and fleeting, while overarching heterosexual love is forever.
But more regressive than the appropriations of queerness such as Wade’s gratingly fey intonation, or his campy love of musicals as evidenced by his RENT shirt and Bernadette Peters purse, is the movie’s treatment of women: trans, lesbian, and cisgender. One of the villains in the movie is Angel Dust (Gina Carano), a super-strong, buff woman who is part of a group that subjects Deadpool to a series of tortures, and ends up plotting to enslave him. Upon first meeting Angel Dust, Deadpool says, “Aren’t you a little strong for a lady? I’m calling wang.” And later, as another villain Ajax leaves the room, Wade says, “Oh come on, you’re going to leave me all alone here with less-angry Rosie O’Donnell?” The original trailer has this moment as “Jose Canseco” instead of “Rosie O’Donnell,” which, according to Entertainment Weekly, is one of several options the director Tim Miller considered, including “Louise Ferrigno.”
Again, the trope of the villainous trans or butch woman who is really “a man dressed as a woman” comes into play, which is insulting both to trans and cis women. Whether Angel Dust is transgender or cisgender isn’t addressed in the movie, but either way, it presents trans women or cis women with muscular body types as evil, while the conventionally beautiful woman, Vanessa, is painted as good almost to the point of sacredness.
Deadpool’s biggest problem is not necessarily that it treats LGBT people as punchlines — many movies do that — but that it does so while trying to pretend to be politically progressive at the same time, circumventing the antipathy of a general public that has over the last 25 years become a little less tolerant of blatant anti-LGBT humor. Both the movie and the character are happy to dangle Ryan Reynolds as fleeting gaybait, in order to excuse the actual ways it represents such tired stereotypes as hypersexed queer men, references to gay sex acts as ways to humiliate men, and depicting women who are not cisnormatively attractive as evil compared to conventionally hot women. Despite its makers touting the title character’s pansexuality, and at least one outlet calling the movie progressive, Deadpool trades on well-worn anti-LGBT tropes, repackaged to be palatable to mainstream audiences.
In one sense, trans people in Hollywood movies are better-off now than we were 25 years ago. Male characters in such movies (at least for now), no longer puke at the mere discovery of someone’s trans identity. But in another sense, the more things change the more things stay the same. Trans people continue to be jokey plot devices, rather than full-fledged human beings. This may not change until trans people themselves have the opportunity to write and direct blockbuster Hollywood comedies in the future — maybe ones that depict how hilarious it is when cisgender men publicly revile trans women, but often privately go to absurd lengths to try to sleep with them. There’s a scenario, so common in life yet unrepresented in mainstream movies, that is truly ripe for comedy.
The character of Hansel in Zoolander 2 is played by Owen Wilson. A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the actor as Luke Wilson.