Sunday, January 15, 2012

boy, girl, girl, boy.

i assume we have all seen this routine. or if not this one, maybe something like it. men dressing and acting like women is a standard comic device that has been used in popular media for a long time. if you've never seen the classic version like some like it hot, you've at least seen bosom buddies or tootsie, or mrs. doubtfire, or, god forbid, big momma's house #whatever. in all of these examples (except for bing and kaye) at least one man tries to hide his identity by dressing up and acting like a woman.

this situation is 'comic' for three reasons:
1) it subverts social convention (which was more true when women weren't wearing pants, but still applies because very few men would be caught dead in a dress)
2) it creates dramatic irony (where the audience knows something that a character doesn't--namely that those who interact with the cross-dressing character are unaware of his true identity and therefore treat him differently)
3) it banks on the belief that a man in women's clothes is funny in and of itself because what man would want to demean himself by dressing as a woman? (sentiment not my own)

now, i'm all for subverting convention, and i think dramatic irony is one of the most compelling ways of bringing tension into a scene, but there is a fine line between laughing because someone thinks they are dealing with a woman when in fact they are interacting with a cross-dressing man, and laughing because the idea that a man to would want to be treated as if he were a woman is absurd.

and god help me if i'm going to sit here and let you tell me there is something inherently amusing about a person dressed in the clothes of the 'opposite' gender. i'm not even going to address the fact that i do it everyday, mostly because at this point in history, it's not in any way outrageous for a woman to dress in men's clothes. (also, talking about the transphobic consequences of this sort of 'comedy' is more than i can handle right now. i'm just gonna stick with the misogynist ones here)
however, society has some really strong negative feelings around men putting on women's clothes. why is that? is it because most men would find it absurd to dress in revealing and uncomfortable clothing only so they could be thought of as attractive by other people? if so, why do those same men want nothing more than for women to do so for their enjoyment? (and why are we still having this argument 50 years after second-wave feminism started?)
if you were going to make a show about such a thing in this day and age, i feel it would be highly irresponsible to not consciously address this double standard of gender stereotypes. (among other things)

abc, however, seems to disagree with me. they just started airing a new show called work it which is described on the website as a "high-concept comedy [that] centers on two unrepentant guy's guys who, unable to find work, dress as women to get jobs as pharmaceutical reps. Not only do they pull it off, but they might just learn to be better men in the process." yes, we are back in the 60's, folks. in the pilot episode one of the women who works in the office, when asked by the main character if he could apply for a job, says, and this is a direct quote, "we're kinda just looking for girls...we've had some guys, but the doctors seem to want to nail them less." and this, friends, is supposed to be funny.
it's 'bosom buddies' all over again, except one of the guys is latino and their boss is an african american woman (at least they can do better with race than they can with gender, which isn't saying much).
the main character, lee, is a straight white male with a wife and daughter both of whom he doesn't really understand--thinks taking his wife to the bar with his drinking buddies is 'going out'--you know, standard network sitcom man.
the best friend, angel, who also dresses as a woman for work, is a single, blue-collar latino man who, of course, is billed as "a hot-headed ladies' man" (direct quote from abc website).
there is not a round character in the whole bunch. (granted, two 20 minute episodes doesn't give one much to work with in character development, but still) the wife has a nasal voice and is usually annoyed with her clueless husband, the daughter freaks out when they have to shut off her cell phone to save money, the women at the office fall safely into the 'bitch', 'ditz' and 'nice one' categories.

the main dramatic arc of the second episode is lee trying to figure out what kind of saleswoman he is. angel knows nothing about the drugs he is selling but is good at flirting with the doctors and does just fine. lee knows so much he lectures his clients, which they can't handle coming from a woman, so he tries the sexy approach (which includes a red bra and thong), which also fails. finally he goes for promising good customer service--always answering the phone, always 'being there' for his clients. which means we have gone from being too smart, to too slutty, to too maternal--the last of which, for a male doctor/client is just right.
and you guessed it, no analysis of the 'sex sells' situation. in fact, his wife even tells lee that when she asked for a raise at her job (she is a nurse) she didn't wear a bra. of course, angel's flirting bites him in the ass when a doctor wants to take him out to dinner because they hit it off so well. he says yes, and is squirming about how to get out of the situation without it getting intimate, when lee comes sweeping into the restaurant and pretends to be angel's boyfriend. yep, the man saves the day once again. we are going backwards in time, people. not to mention the jokes about food (lee brings a huge sandwich to work while the other women are eating salads) and fashion (the 'ditz' wants to help lee with his frumpy and outdated wardrobe) and size (the 'bitch' harps on lee being an 'amazon woman').
but i guess this is just what network tv is like. i forget. i've gotten so spoiled with bbc and hbo shows and miniseries that i have lost track of what advertisers feel 'middle america' is ready for when it comes to social conventions. which seems to be nothing but stereotypes. excuse me for saying so but i don't think "i guess there really *is* more to being a woman than makeup and high heels" is a legitimate family sitcom lesson to come away with.
thank god for subscription based and nationally funded programming that creates things like 'queer as folk' and 'hung', the latter of which actually cast a trans woman to play a trans-feminine role in at least one episode. (btw, hung is about a regular family man (sound familiar?) resorting to prostitution to support his kids. why? because he is, ahem, 'well hung'.)

but i digress. 'work it' is only one of many shows/films that have used this device for laughs. the thing i'm trying to get at is that it's not funny. or shouldn't be. if there was a mistaken identity situation and it led to both romantic mix-ups and teaching moments between people in different gender roles, without all the crazy misogynistic societal baggage, then we would have something interesting. actually, then we would have shakespeare. which is why i love twelfth night, or what you will so goddamned much. of course, it helps that the story is of a woman dressing up as a man and not the other way around. takes the 'absurdity' factor out of things. (in fact, movies like Shakespeare in Love and victor/victoria aren't thought of as comedies at all. think about that one for a bit.)
cuz the common theme of all of the men-dressing-as-women performances that i mentioned above is that the cross-dressing situation only happens out of desperation. the premise is set up that no man in his right mind would do such a thing unless absolutely necessary; that he is stuck in this predicament against his will (or at least against his preference) and he has to figure out how to deal with the consequences of this action. it's a 'fish out of water' routine, really. and of course, through learning how to make it as a woman, the cross-dressing characters learn how to be more sensitive men, which is a 'walk a mile in her shoes' routine.
all of these are old hat, sure. and you can argue that tired shtick is still shtick and can still get laughs. but at what cost? because the part that really upsets me is the undeniable yet disconcerting fact that once you get to 'a man dressed as a woman is inherently absurd' you are spitting distance away from saying 'women are inherently absurd'. and that, my friends, is what this is really about.
cuz again, if it was just a 'fish out of water' routine coupled with a 'walk a mile in their shoes' routine, without all the gender baggage, i would be entertained. however, that insidious third reason up top, the one that you can prove is fucked up because scenes where women dress as men are not as 'hilarious' somehow, that reason does not make me laugh.
this image below, however, this makes me smile a mile wide.

ps--if you want to see a good, non-comic movie about a man dressing up as a woman (but with slightly too much of a hetero-hollywood ending for my taste) watch stage beauty. billy crudup treats his female role as the pinnacle of artistic expression. totally worth a viewing. or better yet, there is a phenomenal movie directed by neil jordan called breakfast on pluto about a transwoman in the u.k. and cillian murphy kills it in the role of kitten.


m.L.e. said...

Breakfast on Pluto was phenomenal... Of course, I spent the whole movie waiting for Kitten to be mangled by one of the locals (Priscilla left me scarred for life, i tell ya!). 1960's Ireland is such a charged setting for any story. This one, especially so.

Starz Inside did a doc called Ladies or Gentleman (Netflix has it available for streaming). It delved nicely into this subject... I especially found their treatment of Hairspray, Ed Wood and The Rocky Horror Picture show to be compelling.

There is so much nuance to this subject, but, I agree with you that the majority of pop culture representations fall flat or seem farcical and often condone bigotry (and, therefore, violence) towards the trans population. Or, really, any 'other' that people care to lash out against.

Also, if you haven't watched The Celluloid Closet, it is an excellent overview of LGBQT cinema through the years. Quite captivating, in my opinion!

Hope this all makes sense... it has been a long night!

PA said...

Nice job, Ray.
American TV & film-makers have such trouble finding beautifully feminine men who can convincingly cross-dress. The shows you mention are meant to make their audiences feel smarter b/c only the other characters on the shows can't tell those are men under those dresses. As a straight old male, I've only ever been fooled by cross-dressing in the movies "Kinky Boots" and, of course, "Crying Game." (Both British) "Tootsie" had Dustin Hoffmann play an older woman. (These work-a-day guys always seem to have armies of expert makeup people around.) As entertaining as it was, in the end, Tootsie's message was: "It takes a man to show a woman how to be a better human." Which was sad even back in the 80s.