Two years ago, groups representing Italian Americans were up in arms over promos for an upcoming series that was seen as perpetuating stereotypes about the ethnic group and called upon the network to scrap it. The backlash continued even after the series, MTV’s Jersey Shore, premiered, with several advertisers, including computer maker Dell, pulling out. But several months later, all was forgotten and the reality show went on to become a ratings mega hit and a pop culture phenomenon.
Now, LGBT advocacy groups are up in arms over ABC’s upcoming cross-dressing comedy Work It, urging the network not to air it because it “reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes about transgender people,” according to the Human Rights Campaign. Like with Jersey Shore, the backlash is based mostly on promos (video below), which are chock-full of gags featuring the leads, played by Ben Koldyke and Amaury Nolasco, dressed as women, while the show itself is split evenly between the characters’ normal lives as heterosexual men and their undercover jobs as female pharmaceutical reps. The outrage has zeroed in on a print ad for Work It featuring the two leads in drag, standing at urinals. An image like this 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,” Mark Snyder from the Transgender Law Center wrote. “We ask that ABC … keep the show’s bathroom advertisement out of circulation, and seriously consider whether airing this show is worth the damage it has the potential to do,” GLAAD’s Matt Kane wrote in a post titled “Why ABC’s New Sitcom Work It Hurts The Transgender Community.” (In addition to promos, GLAAD has also screened the pilot.) “The fact is ABC should not air this show at all, as it will contribute to a climate in which transgender people are something to be laughed at, rather than treated with the respect and dignity that everyone deserves.”
While LGBT’s advocates’ point is valid, transgender people do deserve equality, the problem is that Work It does not feature transgender characters. The assumption of protesters is that the images of guys dressed in women’s clothes would evoke associations with transgender people. And while the print ad with the urinals can be accused of being in poor taste, I don’t think the offense rises to transgender discrimination. As for the laughing at part, this is a comedy series, comedies’ purpose is to make people laugh, and no social group is immune, including nerds (The Big Bang Theory), overweight people (Mike & Molly), Asian Americans (2 Broke Girls) and just about anyone (Family Guy & South Park). But again, the characters in Work It are not transgender, they are out-of-work heterosexual car salesmen posing as women to get jobs as pharmaceutical reps. The premise is actually identical to that in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman’s struggling actor character too resorted to cross-dressing to land a job. And ABC should be the last network to be accused of intolerance towards transgender people — it was the first broadcast network to cast a transgender actor in a recurring, Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money, the first to introduce a regular transgender character, Alexis Meade on Ugly Betty, and the first to have a transgender contestant on a major reality series, Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars.
While it may have deeper implications today than it did decades ago, men dressing like women is one of the oldest forms of comedy. It is at the heart of one of the best feature comedies ever made, Some Like It Hot, as well as several other classic comedy films, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage, and it has had a presence on TV, most notably with the 1980 series Bosom Buddies starring Tom Hanks, and Saturday Night Live where male cast members regularly impersonate female celebrities. And then there is the British school of comedy with Monty Python and Benny Hill. ABC’s president Paul Lee brought up his heritage when explaining his decision to pick up Work It to critics at the summer TCA press tour. “I’m a Brit, it is in my contract that I have to do one cross-dressing show a year,” he said. “I was brought up on Monty Python. What can I do?” As a fellow European who also grew up with Monty Python and Benny Hill, I can actually relate to that. Maybe it’s my upbringing but, despite the deafening negative buzz from critics, I found the pilot of Work It not as bad as I expected it to be. Yes, it is silly (maybe too silly for American audiences) and preposterous as the two guys, especially Koldyke, would never pass as women in the real world, but it has its funny moments. And, contrary to the LGBT groups’ suggestions, the show may actually send a positive message as, despite their far-from-perfect metamorphoses, the two men are accepted by their co-workers the way they want to be perceived, as women, with no disrespect or discrimination.
When Lee found himself under fire from critics over Work It during TCA, the complaints were all about the quality of the show, with no one suggesting a potential negative impact on the transgender community. Sometimes a silly show is just that, with no deep subtext or political agenda. “When you pick up pilots, there are many reasons,” Lee said back then. “Sometimes you pick up a pilot just because it absolutely makes you cackle with laughter, and that was the case with Work It. I make absolutely no excuses for that show.”