NWLC, here’s how you tell transgender jokes

Sarah Silverman, in a video released this week by the National Women's Law Center
Sarah Silverman, in a video released this week by the National Women’s Law Center

I saw two examples this week of satirists using transgender themes to address important issues. One failed miserably — and I, and many other people, were disappointed, since it came from the National Women’s Law Center, traditionally an ally of LGBT causes.

The other satire was a funny and — surprisingly — nuanced take from — of all places! — the sacred-cow slaughterhouse known as Comedy Central’s long-running cartoon, South Park.

NWLC this week launched the Equal Payback Project, designed to get people on social media talking about the gap between men and women who are doing the same jobs. Along with its advertising agency, Droga5, NWLC commissioned Sarah Silverman to star in a nearly four-minute video promoting the project.

In the spoof video (NSFW), Silverman decides the best way for her to address the salary gap is to become a man. She visits a gender-reassignment surgeon to select her new penis. Are you laughing yet?

It’s hardly a new joke — stories of men and women disguising themselves as the opposite gender go back to Greek and Roman times. Silverman just goes over the top (as she usually does) by getting extremely graphic and crude.

I didn’t find it funny. I found it labored, too long (no pun intended), and useless at swaying anyone’s opinion — people who don’t believe there’s a wage gap, or who don’t think we should do anything about that wage gap, are unlikely to watch a video full of penis jokes, right?

But many other people found fault for a different reason — they felt it trivialized gender-reassignment surgery and the plight of trans men, as ThinkProgress pointed out. On Twitter, journalist, activist and trans woman Janet Mock said, “Sex reassignment doesn’t help one advance in workplace. Ask one of the most underemployed populations: trans people.”

As someone who’s transgender, I wasn’t personally offended, but other people were, which (by definition!) makes it offensive.

In response, NWLC issued one of those mealy-mouthed “we’re-sorry-you-were-offended” apologies — “It was not our intent to make light of the serious issues transgender people face.”

Eric (temporarily "Erica") Cartman confronts Stan Marsh in a scene from South Park's "The Cissy."
Eric (temporarily “Erica”) Cartman confronts Stan Marsh in a scene from South Park’s “The Cissy.”

Now, compare Silverman and NWLC’s video to this week’s episode of South Park, entitled “The Cissy” (also NSFW) which might be the first mainstream show I’ve ever seen use the word “cisgender” (meaning, essentially, the opposite of “transgender”).

It’s a long riff on people who use “I don’t want a man (sic) in my ladies’ room!” as a reason to deny transgender people rights, and beneath the (literal!) toilet humor, “The Cissy” actually does a pretty good job of demolishing those arguments.

In “The Cissy,” 10-year-old Eric Cartman — South Park‘s amoral, unethical, completely selfish, and utterly unrestrained id — declares himself “transgender” simply because he doesn’t want to wait in line to use the boys’ bathroom any more.

Spoiler alert: The punchline is that (highlight to read text) instead of a transgender bathroom, the South Park school allows “any student to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in,” and sets up a special bathroom for “anyone who has a problem using a bathroom with someone who’s transgender, unlike the normal people who don’t care.”

In a subplot (another spoiler), (highlight to read text) the pop singer Lorde turns out to be Stan Marsh’s 45-year-old father — he’s been performing in drag and gets caught when his wife finds his fishnet hose in the laundry.

The story is essentially an episode-long discussion of what it really means to be transgender, including an impassioned plea for tolerance from Stan Marsh’s mother: “When someone’s not allowed to express who they are inside, then we all lose.”

Why were South Park‘s transgender jokes so sharply defined, while Sarah Silverman’s jokes were so flaccid? (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

I think it’s because Silverman and NWLC wanted to use transgender people as a punchline, while South Park took transgender people seriously — and yet they still used the transgender experience to tell a funny story.

That’s the difference between making someone the butt of a joke — which is usually cruel and belittling — and bringing people in on the joke. The second kind of storytelling, it seems to me, is much more effective — and South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have also used it very effectively, after all, in their hit Broadway spoof of the LDS Church, The Book of Mormon. (Although it’s a fairly pointed satire, the musical has developed a surprising fan base — among Mormons!)

Hey, NWLC: Maybe you and your ad agency can try including us trans people next time, instead of just making jokes at our expense? Then we can all have a laugh together.

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