Spotting sly transphobia in pop culture

A meme briefly went around earlier this year featuring the head of Donald Trump pasted onto the body of Dolores Umbridge, evil incarnate. The intent, of course, was to get a laugh at the idea of uniting two figures of evil, but that laugh was also at a very specific expense: It wasn’t just that Umbridge and Trump have a lot in common, but that, specifically, his head was pasted onto the body of a woman and people were all supposed to laugh at that, because it’s hilarious when men’s heads are pasted onto women’s bodies in some sort of brave, bold act of political commentary.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a similar photoshopping move, and I commented, as I often do, that it was transphobic. People promptly piled into my mentions with one of two things: ‘Wow, I didn’t notice that! You’re totally right!’ or ‘No it’s not, you’re just being too sensitive.’ The responses highlighted an issue not just with transphobia in pop culture, but with other -isms. The whole point is that they’re subtle, they’re dogwhistles, they rely on underlying attitudes generally taken and accepted to be true by the population as a whole. So familiar that they don’t even need to be explained. Trump in a dress is instantly familiar and funny. Obama as a monkey is hilarious.

I don’t mention the first set of comments in an attempt to boast or self-aggrandise. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me at all times and in all ways — and actually have a lot of great conversations with people who challenge my thoughts on a variety of things. I mention them because many of those people were conscientious people who consider themselves careful when it comes to evaluating memes and pop culture and being careful about what they perpetuate, but many of them had missed the dogwhistle in that particular meme, just as I sometimes miss clearly racialised dogwhistles because I’m not as highly attuned to them, though I try extremely hard to analyse situations for traces of something that should strike me as off.

Those people are nice, well-meaning, perfectly lovely individuals, and they didn’t mean it, but their comments kind of stung. They were reminders that transphobia isn’t something people notice, and that it’s my job and responsibility to point it out to cis people, instead of being their job to be something to watch out for and advocate against. In a paraphrased version of the old adage, if you have to ask if something is transphobic, is probably is, and if something twinges or feels uncomfortable, go with your gut. Similarly, if I encounter a piece of racialised media and something about it strikes me as troubling, that’s probably because it’s racist, and I should probably say something about it, e.g. ‘so this cartoon depicting Obama as a monkey is racist, even if the intent is xyz,’ or ‘enlarging the lips of this Black woman in a political cartoon is racist, turning it into a caricature of a minstrel stereotype.’

Confidence is a valuable trait, and we’re good at picking up on subconscious social cues, so when we feel something tingling…it’s probably a sign that we’re growing more aware of social cues, and we should roll with it. The thing we definitely shouldn’t be doing is responding to members of a marginalised group with a ‘gosh golly doughnuts, you’re right!’ when they point it out — no matter how kindly this is meant. (Inevitably, it also feeds into a bit of self-flagellation, i.e. ‘please punish and forgive me for not seeing this myself,’ which I don’t really have time for. I’d like all of us to focus on more important things. Note it, spread the word, move on, okay?)

As for the ‘too sensitive’ lot, well. This is a common response too when people discuss things arising in pop culture that trouble them, especially when people are members of marginalised groups, and it’s used to dismiss what they’re saying. If you identify something as a problem and ‘no one else sees it,’ then obviously you’re making it up or overstating or ruining fun. Worse yet, if you haul out the ‘best friend’ who doesn’t notice it or doesn’t have a problem with it, you’re not winning any points with me. Do I notice every single piece of transphobia in every piece of media ever? No, of course not, but my failure to notice isn’t an indictment on someone who does notice and comment — so don’t use the fact that I didn’t bring it up as some sort of evidence that someone is wrong. Similarly, if I say I’m not offended by something, don’t assume that others are not. Marginalised people are not a monolith, and their diverse experiences as they move through the world mean very different things to themselves and each other.

The notions of ‘political correctness’ and ‘sensitivity’ get very old and very obnoxious very fast, and also very troubling, because they’re often iterated by people on the left, people who really ought to know better and behave in a responsible way when encountering pop culture criticism. This comes especially in response to darlings of pop culture, like Amy Schumer and her transphobia — rather than engaging with the issue, people dismiss it as just ‘sensitivity’ and move on. Well, yeah, the trans community is sensitive. We’re sensitive because these kinds of things get us killed, because these kinds of things lead to our continued marginalisation, because these things create discrimination. So yeah, I’m sensitive to dogwhistles, and I don’t really have a problem with that — nor do I have a problem with people who belong to other marginalised groups citing their concerns about dogwhistles they identify in media and pop culture, because I know firsthand that their concerns are painfully valid.

Image: Sensitive Species, Rennett Stowe, Flickr