The Last N!gg3r…
My husband has been trying to get me to write a book by this title for 17 years. It started when we were dating. At some point in a courtship, there comes a time when it just seems right to stay at home and enjoy each other’s company, rather than go out. It was just such a night, our first night simply staying at his house, when he suggested that we watch some television and cuddle together quietly. I resisted, saying, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not… I just can’t seem to watch a single night of TV and not be exposed to tranny-trashing.” He thought I was WAY over exaggerating… but sure enough, later that evening, during the cartoon section of Saturday Night Live, a character tells another to “take the right at the corner with the transsexual”… cut to street corner scene where we see a very burly, broad-shouldered, hairy-chested man wearing a merry-widow corset, fish-net stockings, and high heels, provocatively poised, obviously “working” the corner. I looked at my boyfriend/future husband drolly, “Que, Laugh, Track”.
I’m minded to write this essay because for the past several days, we’ve all be subjected to numerous articles lionizing Robin Williams as a hero to the LGBT communities. Well, he might have been a hero to the LGB, but not to the T. All I can remember of him is his tranny-trashing. But more on that later.
Humor has been used since time immemorial to attack, denigrate, humiliate, and dehumanize minority groups. We have “Pollack”, Asian, “Blond”, Jewish, “women drivers”, “Fag”, and of course, “N-word” jokes. In the United States, we have a history of an entire genre of denigrating ‘coloreds’, most especially African-Americans… with stereotypes of lazy, shiftless, clueless, careless, Black men and women. It can be very instructive to review how ugly, and how “entertaining” for racists, it can be, so here’s a great video compilation of some of it, from the mid-20th Century.
Sometimes, the message is more subtle. The best example of this the way that all women were denigrated in the film Tootsie. I still recall with horror my first viewing of the film in the theater, in the company of another transwoman, at the personal invitation from a non-trans* person who thought that we should enjoy the film for its trans* theme. Not so. First, its not really about trans* anything. But it is an example of subtle anti-feminist agit-prop. The underlying message of the film is that any, random, second-rate man is better than all female people ever could be. The plot is that a has-been ham dresses en-femme drag to pass as a woman… and very soon thereafter becomes a national sensation as a feminist heroine, a role model for all women to emulate. The, hit-the-audience-over-the-head, message is that any random man makes a better “woman” than all females. To add insult to injury, Dustin Hoffman has in recent years portrayed his experience as “Tootsie” as having given him insight into women’s lives, that Tootsie was an enlightening feminist film. (No Mr. Hoffman, it wasn’t and it didn’t. Instead, you should be apologizing for your role in the film’s production.)
While they have not truly disappeared, offensive stereotypes, images, and jokes about other groups are at least pointed out, and often removed and/or resulted in apologies in the recent decades. But not so for such offensive stereotypes, images, and jokes portraying transgender people in a negative, often extremely derogatory, manner. We are, “The Last N!gg3r”.
Which brings me back to Robin Williams, and the underlying messaging of his tranny-trashing jokes and gags. While they were no doubt not limited to Mrs. Doubtfire, this is one of his most well known films in which the underlying premise of the film, augmented by very pointed jokes, is that transgendered people of all types are to be belittled and dehumanized.
For example, in Mrs. Doubtfire, he sets up a joke in which he switched the phone # in an ad… so that he was the only one calling his wife about the position of nanny to her children… then called up to pretend to be various undesirable caretakers, including a post-op transwoman… which when “she” revealed this fact, his wife is horrified and hangs up… thus, the message is that transwomen are not to be trusted with children and the audience knows and agrees. Que laugh track.
As a transwoman who, in real life, was just such a nanny as a teenager, who later was a foster-mother to two girls, adoptive mother to one of them… and who continues to have contact with children and teens, I’m deeply offended at this message and the manner in which it was delivered. I’m also deeply concerned that this very message could be delivered and not immediately repudiated. And even more deeply concerned that this message, though a scurrilous falsehood, is one that many people actually agree with.
Lest we think this is a one off for Williams, in the very same movie, later on, we see a scene in which “Mrs.” Doubtfire is standing up to urinate when his eldest son accidentally discovers him. His instant reaction is horror and the need to protect himself and his younger siblings from this male bodied transgendered person. The gag depends on the audience knowing who Mrs. Doubtfire really is and that it is OK for him to be doing this… after all, he’s not really transgendered, but it wouldn’t be OK for a REAL transgendered person to be working as a nanny.
But Williams (and the film’s writers, producers, actors, etc.) aren’t done educating us on the dangers of transgender people being around children.
In yet another scene, we see our putative hero having to hide the fact that he is dressing as a woman from the social worker coming over to check him out. While it could be argued that that had he been discovered, it would blow his cover as Mrs. Doubtfire, the real subtext is that it is not OK for a parent to be transgendered in any way; That the social worker would have, rightly, recommended against him as a parent of his own children. Nowhere in the film was there a parenthetical comment that this discrimination against transgender natural parents is wrong or unacceptable. In fact, given the above scenes (and others in the film) the subtext is clear:
The entire premise of Mrs. Doubtfire is that transgender people are not to be trusted with children, neither their own, nor others. This underlying message is not funny, but is dangerous. This false stereotype has caused many late transitioning transfolk to lose parental rights, visitation rights, etc. It is unknown how many transkids have lost opportunities to be foster-parents or adopt.
I’m saddened by Mr. William’s untimely death. No one should have to turn to suicide and I’m sorry to see such talent lost… But more because I will never get to hear that apology he owes to me, and others, as a transwoman who cares deeply about children. Perhaps we can get one from Harvey Fierstein, who should have known better?