In the late seventies and early eighties, my Dad (Jack Sandeen) worked at Disney Studios — first as a costumer, and then as the head of the Wardrobe Department. He worked on films such as Splash, The Black Hole, and the original Tron. He passed away on June 17, 2002, and I began my transition to Autumn on February 6th of the following year.
I actually had wanted to discuss my then soon likely transition with him and my Mom, but he was terminally ill. I decided I just didn’t want to add that discussion of my gender identity to the things he and my Mom were dealing with in the last year of his life.
Disney of course now owns ABC, and so somehow it seems personal when discussing a new television show scheduled to air in January where cross-gender expression and costume are key elements to a temporary transvestite genre program. The new ABC program in question is called Work It.
The premise of the temporary transvestite genre, per Chris Straayer, includes the following:
Temporary transvestite films share a large number of generic elements: the narrative necessity of disguise; adoption by a character of the opposite sex’s specifically gender-coded costume (and often its accessories, makeup, gestures, behaviors, and attitudes); the simultaneous believability of this disguise to the film’s characters and its unbelievably to the film’s audience; visual, behavioral, and narrative cues to the character’s “real” sex; the transvestite character’s sensitization to the plight and pleasures of the opposite sex; references to the biological sex differences and the “necessary” cultural separation of the sexes; a progression toward slap-stick comedy and increased physicality; heterosexual desire thwarted by the character’s disguise; accusation of homosexuality regarding the disguised character; romantic encounters that are mistakenly interpreted as homosexual or heterosexual; and “unmasking” of the transvestite; and, finally, heterosexual coupling.
And there is “necessity” for disguise:
The plot of temporary transvestite films always necessitates disguise, usually disguise as the opposite sex. Transvestism pursued as a pleasure in and of itself is outside the hermeneutic code of the main plot. Although these films are often set in a context that incorporates costume (e.g., show biz), the temporary transvestism serves some need other than spectacle or theater. Generally, this need relates to problems of access, as in the case of getting a job, or escape.
And beyond that, within this film and television genre there is “necessity” for adopting gender-coded behavior and characteristics, as well as a theoretical sufficiency of cross-gender disguise to trick other characters in the comedy — while at the same time that disguise is not sufficient enough to trick the audience.
In the brick-and-mortar world, most of us late-transitioning trans women didn’t have the benefit of make-up and wardrobe departments to facilitate our transitions. Many of us started our transitions with deep voices, heavy beards, and bone structures that didn’t say “woman.” Many of us were — many of us are — visibly trans, not “passing” in our target sex of female.
As such, many of us experience harassment and discrimination. I’ve personally been misgendered with male pronouns, and referred to as “tranny,” “it,” and “thing.” My new friend Brooke Fantelli told me she was called “it” and “that whatever” by the BLM ranger who tazed her this past October. The Task Force’s and National Center for Transgender Equality’s report Injustice At Every Turn speaks to how trans people have an unemployment rate twice the national average; the Transgender Law Center’s 2009 The State Of Transgender California Report indicated 67% of us have been harassed or discriminated in the workplace while only 12% of us reported it.
In the brick-and-mortar world, the two crossdressers in Work It would be having uncomfortable discussions with the HR department of their new employer about transitioning in the workplace, including negotiating restroom use. They would likely at least face workplace harassment, and if they lived in the 35 states without employment protections based on gender identity, they might not have been hired — or if already hired might have been fired — specifically for being trans…and without much legal recourse.
The HRC and GLAAD have both asked ABC not to air the series. GLAAD describes some of what’s wrong with Work It! in their piece Why ABC’s New Sitcom Work It Hurts the Transgender Community:
GLAAD has seen the pilot and while the show’s pilot does not explicitly address transgender people, many home viewers unfamiliar with the realities of being transgender will still make the connection. Work It invites the audience to laugh at images of men trying to adopt a feminine appearance, thereby also making it easier to mock people whose gender identity and expression are different than the one they were assigned at birth. Said GLAAD’s Acting President Mike Thompson, “Transphobia is still all too prevalent in our society and this show will only contribute to it. It will reinforce the mistaken belief that transgender women are simply ‘men pretending to be women,’ and that their efforts to live their lives authentically as women are a form of lying or deception.”
These problems are even more pronounced in the show’s printed ad, which depicts the two main characters dressed as women while standing at men’s room urinals. Not only does it inadvertently further notions that transgender identities are humorous or artificial, but imagery like this are one of the first things anti-LGBT activists resort to when trying to deny transgender people protections against discrimination. As Mark Snyder from the Transgender Law Center said in a recent article, a printed image like this in magazines or the sides of city buses will “make it more difficult for transgender people to gain full equality — including the important right to access public accommodations appropriate to their gender identity.”
Work It comes from a network with a track record of inclusive LGBT content that has often included the transgender community. When ABC cast Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money, it was the first time a transgender actress was featured in a recurring role on broadcast television. Around the same time, they featured Alexis Meade on Ugly Betty, who was television’s first regular transgender character. Most recently, ABC cast transgender advocate Chaz Bono on their hit series Dancing with the Stars. When it comes to representing the transgender community in a fair and accurate way, ABC has routinely led the network pack.
If there is a discussion with GLAAD and ABC in Disney office space on Buena Vista Blvd, I’d like to be there in the meeting. I’d first tell the representatives of Disney and/or ABC about how I’m the adult transgender child of one of the former heads of Disney Studios’ Wardrobe Department, and then tell them why “Work It” is a show based on a genre that should be put to bed as a now offensive genre…telling them why this is personal to me. It feels like my Dad’s former company is mocking one of his children…trivializing the sometimes difficult trans experience of that adult child and her community peers.
It’s not just my opinion that the temporary transvestite genre plays to stereotypes that are deleterious to brick-and-mortar world trans women. The genre may have been considered an acceptable film and television genre in years past, but most trans activists I’ve talked to about believe this genre believe it should no longer be considered a reasonable and acceptable one.
Personally, I would really like “Work It” to just not see any airtime — I’d appreciate it if the company that employed my Dad for so many years not air a show that has a premise that many of my peers in community and I find deleterious to brick-and-mortar world trans people.
But, of course, the decision to air or not air the show is up to ABC. And that said, I know what my opinion of ABC and Disney Studios will be if they do air the program.