I’ve finally had a chance to have a sitdown and watch Arrested Development’s fourth season, which I was super excited about. I was sad to see the show canceled all those years ago, and I was delighted to have a chance to delve back in with all the characters. It’s a sharp, funny, topical, fun show — and that’s why I was so deeply disappointed when the creators decided to throw transphobia into the mix. It was a reminder that nowhere is ever really truly safe when it comes to finding a refuge from the worst parts of humanity.
I strongly suspect that the gross trans storyline was included in a response to Jeffrey Tambor’s work on Transparent, as a sort of homage to the other streaming show he’s working on and a ‘tee hee’ nod. And it was a storyline that may have flown over the heads of cis viewers, because it was subtle, operating by stealth and dogwhistles rather than out in the open. Because that’s how these things work: People are crafty about slipping transphobia into things, taking advantage of tacit social understanding to do something ugly and dark.
It’s George picking up a frilly, super-femme blouse, putting it on, and seeming oddly at home. It’s grabbing a discarded wig and feeling ‘right.’ It’s a slow but steady literal emasculation as his testosterone levels drop: See, he’s becoming a woman! We have stripped away his manhood and now he wants to be a lady, gosh, isn’t this all just hilarious! Let’s all laugh at George, who has come undone, transforming from a generally thoughtless and self-centred schemer into a weak, floppy, anaemic girl.
So I’m not sure that everyone caught that this was a trans storyline, or that they understood why it was offensive. Being trans is not about cross-dressing, which is what George is doing. He’s not just wearing clothes, he’s titillated by wearing women’s clothes, pulling on a costume. Trans women who wear women’s clothes do it because they’re…wearing clothes that they feel comfortable in. Sure, some trans women do feel like their gender is deeply affirmed when they wear socially coded clothing that corresponds with who they are, but cis men don’t magically turn into women by putting on flowery blouses. The trans relationship with clothing is complicated, from being forced to wear clothing that conflicts with your gender identity and experiencing extreme distress to finally being able to wear things that make you feel at home in your body, but it’s not just about clothing. It’s about experiential knowledge, social coding, finding your identity. Slipping into a wig might make some women feel more feminine, but that’s not true of everyone, and again, plopping a wig on your head doesn’t magically turn you trans.
The storyline had George feminised and made lesser by nature of wearing and being intrigued by women’s clothing and wigs, and it was a really unpleasant, sour note. It was hammered home when we discovered that his behavioural changes were the result of low testosterone. The storyline boiled gender down to hormones and nothing more, suggesting that a cis man with suppressed testosterone and other androgens would somehow be drawn to the feminine side.
This isn’t funny. It’s tied with a lot of complex social attitudes about gender and identity, and it’s reinforcing a lot of attitudes that are very specifically harmful. I don’t know if any trans people work on Arrested Development, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise to me to learn that Tambor thinks he’s some kind of expert on the subject and either didn’t notice the problems with this storyline or didn’t care, because it was such a giggly fun time homage to his role on Transparent. This is taking place in the culture of an industry that thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to have cis men play trans women, and is happy to trot out a whole host of excuses when challenged on it. We are too small minded and simple to understand the importance of great art, apparently.
The thing about Arrested Development is that it makes delightfully recursive, fun, and hilarious references to pop culture and its actors. It’s one complicated inside joke and arch commentary on a variety of subjects, and it’s got whip-smart dialogue and really fantastic characters. And while the show stumbles, an unfortunately common problem with comedy, where cheap laughs are sometimes viewed as worth the cost, it’s a lot better than many other half-hour comedies. I’d be the first to say that every season has some significant problems, but this was one that felt particularly glaring and painful.
Cis people who picked up on it undoubtedly thought it was a cute and funny nod to Transparent, and undoubtedly they’re also the same people who love that show and think it’s just a spectacular example of trans media. Others likely missed the dogwhistles altogether, or focused on what it was saying about his masculinity, and how real men need to be characterised by their hormone levels. But for trans people who picked up on it, I’m sure I’m not the only one who was left feeling deeply unhappy and uncomfortable — this went from being a fun season with an interesting narrative style to a painful record scratch.
I expected better, and I honestly don’t know why I did, because Hollywood certainly hasn’t given me any reason to be so optimistic about its offerings.