On the Science of Changing Sex

It was just a joke!

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on September 2, 2017

Kay Brown 2010I recently had a very unpleasant facebook “dialog” when an old colleague posted a “humorous” piece in which the second “joke” was making fun of the growing acceptance of transfolk, in this case, a transman, in college today, as an example of “political correctness run amok”.  I tried to point out how vile that joke was and why posting the link to it was not OK.  He and several other people dumped on me saying that “It was just a joke!”  Well – no, it’s not just a joke.  It is a means to denigrate and dehumanize transfolk.  It is an example of “disparagement humor”.

I’ve written about this before, when I tried to explain why Robin Williams was no hero to the transgender communities.  But I feel that we need to have a larger exploration of the phenomena and to catalog some of the types of jokes that target transfolk and place it into the larger context of disparagement humor theory.

A number of researchers are exploring the psychology and sociology of disparagement humor and its effects.  Thomas Ford is one such researcher who explains this phenomena,

“Disparagement humor is paradoxical: It simultaneously communicates two conflicting messages. One is an explicit hostile or prejudiced message. But delivered alongside is a second implicit message that “it doesn’t count as hostility or prejudice because I didn’t mean it — it’s just a joke.”

By disguising expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, disparagement humor, like the jokes above, appears harmless and trivial. However, a large and growing body of psychology research suggests just the opposite – that disparagement humor can foster discrimination against targeted groups.”

It can be frustrating to explain why such jokes are both offensive and destructive to those who hold implicit negative evaluations of transpeople.  I have found that even people who can recognize ugly racism in jokes about minorities can fail, epically, to recognize its cognate in transphobic jokes.  To them, “it’s just a joke!”.  Disparagement humor, as Ford has shown, fosters further discrimination against the targeted groups in those that hear the jokes when they already harbor implicit bias against those groups,

“On the basis of these findings, one might conclude that disparagement humor targeting oppressed or disadvantaged groups is inherently destructive and thus should be censured. However, the real problem might not be with the humor itself but rather with an audience’s dismissive viewpoint that “a joke is just a joke,” even if disparaging. One study found that such a “cavalier humor belief” might indeed be responsible for some of the negative effects of disparagement humor. For prejudiced people, the belief that “a disparaging joke is just a joke” trivializes the mistreatment of historically oppressed social groups – including women, gay people, racial minorities and religious minorities – which further contributes to their prejudiced attitude.”

These jokes are meant to signal to other biased people that they are not alone in holding their biased views while at the same time hiding their malicious intent from those who do not currently hold such bias yet subtly stretching the social acceptability of such bias even in the minds of those who previously didn’t hold such bias.  As Hodson puts it,

“The appreciation of humor is arguably a fundamental aspect of social life. Yet passing jokes off as “just jokes” can have serious and negative intergroup consequences (e.g., discrimination; denial of rights). We review some recent findings concerning how group dominance motives are expressed in humor contexts through cavalier beliefs about humor. These beliefs legitimize and provide psychological cover to avoid the appearance of bias. We propose that humor and ridicule play a critical part of the delegitimization process, operating in tandem with processes such as dehumanization (representing others as animal-like and/or machine-like) and system justification (i.e., maintaining the status quo in terms of intergroup hierarchies). As such, humor plays a key role in the delegitimization of others that occurs in much of everyday life, such as in the workplace or schoolyard setting. Disparaging intergroup humor effectively rules social groups in as acceptable targets for devaluation, working in tandem with dehumanization processes that rule others out as targets worthy of protection.”

Thus, these “jokes” which aren’t really jokes, are sociopolitical statements of who may be targeted for dehuminization and discrimination and even signal how they may do so (e.g. Dave Chappelle telling his audience that disrespecting and misgendering transwomen is not only acceptable, but trans-allies suggesting that he and others respect transwomen is morally wrong, “Motherfucker!”).

Interestingly, I believe the number and frequency of transphobic jokes has dramatically increased over the past several decades.  Part of this may be increased awareness of the existence of transfolk.  But there is another explanation which paradoxically may be good news for transfolk as Ford explains,

In another study, my colleagues and I demonstrated that this prejudice-releasing effect of disparagement humor varies depending on the position in society occupied by the butt of the joke. Social groups are vulnerable to different degrees depending on their overall status.

Some groups occupy a unique social position of what social psychologists call “shifting acceptability.” For these groups, the overall culture is changing from considering prejudice and discrimination against them completely justified to considering them completely unjustified. But even as society as a whole becomes increasingly accepting of them, many individuals still harbor mixed feelings.

In this research, we can understand that these disparaging “jokes” represent a sort of culture war pushback on the growing acceptance of transfolk in our larger society.

So what kind of transphobic or should I say, “tranny trashing” jokes do we hear?  Interestingly, the jokes seem to take two forms, not surprisingly, based upon the two types of transsexuals, one “homosexual” and the other autogynephilic.

As a blatant and ugly example of humor targeting autogynephiles, one may start with the 1972 film, The Ruling Class in which during the opening scenes, we see very dry humor poking fun at Lord Gurney wearing a tutu (cross-dressing, but not a typical choice) while engaging in auto-erotic asphyxiation by hanging, all the while maintaining an air of upper-class distinction while his valet maintains an air of non-judgemental subservience as he aids his master to prepare for his masturbatory session (not shown).  His death due to mis-adventure during the act is meant to be “humorous”. Cue. Laugh. Track.

Analyzing the joke we see that it is meant to skewer the British upper-class, but it is done with the tacit understanding assumed to be shared with the audience that being an autogynephile and devotee of autoerotic asphyxiation (which are only loosely related, as one-third of those men found dead from similar misadventures, are at least partially cross-dressed, usually in lingerie, but the vast majority of autogynephiles are NOT into auto-asphyxiation) is a disreputable and dishonorable sexual behavior.

Other jokes about autogynephiles abound, especially in Britain, where the mere fact that a man is wearing female typical clothing is considered automatically funny.  The trope has a common name “man in a dress” (Cue Laugh Track).  This trope and the jokes surrounding it extend to post-transition transwomen who do not pass well, who become figures of ridicule and sniggering jokes in both media and in person.  This attitude comes from misogyny.  For a man to take on the attributes, even if only temporarily, of a woman is to degrade himself in the eyes of these misogynists, and by doing so, becomes worthy of being disparaged.  Proof?  A woman dressed as a man elicits no reciprocal humor.  For a woman to take on the attributes of a man is seen as attempting to raise her status in life.  Movies with men dressing as women are labeled comedies.  Movies with women dressing as men are labeled adventure/action.  (e.g. “Some Like It Hot” and “Sorority Boys” vs. “Mulan“)

(As an aside, this trope of women passing as men to raise their status is one of the reasons why historical examples of transmen are misappropriated by heterosexual and even lesbian feminists who disregard their transgender / gender dysphoric natures, misgendering them.)

Jokes about androphilic transwomen also abound.  But here the twist incorporates the fact that most androphilic transwomen typically pass unremarkably as women in their day-to-day lives.  So, the trope becomes that of the predatory homosexual man passing as a women to dupe innocent straight men into having gay sex with them.

A common trope is that the audience, and possibly other characters, in a story or film know that a lovely woman is “really a man” and laugh at the duped straight man.  Such a scene in shown at the ending of the 1988 Sherlock Holmes spoof, Without a Clue when our heroes Holmes and Watson knowingly and maliciously allow Inspector Lastrade, unknowingly to court a professional “female impersonator” (an historically common profession for androphilic transwomen before and during the early introduction of medical feminization treatment for transsexuality) and laugh behind his back at the ‘joke’.  This exact ‘joke’ has been repeatedly used in other films and TV sit-coms.  It relies on the notion that for a straight man to be romantically involved with an androphilic transwoman, no matter how physically and behaviorially feminine, no matter how desirable a personality or moral character, he is demeaned by the experience.  He becomes less of a man, either homosexual, clueless, or both, a figure of ridicule, while the transwoman is to be despised as a liar and a cheat, as well as an effeminate (misogyny) homosexual (homophobia).  The joke disparages both parties, increasing the discrimination that androphilic tranwomen experience and the likelihood of being severely beaten and murdered by transphobic straight men who find themselves attracted to such transwomen (whether or not they knew beforehand).  This “joke” is deadly to androphilic transwomen (no hyperbole).

Another common trope is that of the “confused” or “delusional” transgender… who doesn’t understand what sex they are.  This trope overlaps with transfolk stigmatized as mentally ill.  An example is a photo of a dog with the caption “Caitlyn Jenner’s cat”.   Another example was the reason for writing this essay, the ‘joke’ that parents helping their son move into his freshman year dorm room aren’t supposed to call his obviously female bodied transman roommie “her”.  This “joke” is essentially predicated on the belief that transfolk do not have any real medical or psychological reason for being gender dysphoric and should just, “look in your pants!”

Jokes about “Chicks with Dicks” trope is quite old.  I found a subtle example of it in a pre-WWII vintage limerick,

“Dame Catherine of Ashton on Lynches
Got it on with grooms and her wenches
She went down on the gents
And pronged the girl’s vents
With a “clitorus” reaching six inches”

In my essay on Robin Williams I observed how he uses a variant of this ‘joke’ when his character’s son discovers him urinating while standing in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire.  This entire film is one long “man in a dress” joke, punctuated by another very ugly and sinister false trope of the transgender as pedophile and rapist.  It is no coincidence that the movie included the bathroom discovery scene followed by his children’s horror, disgust, and fear for their safety.  This type of ‘joke’ about transwomen in women’s bathrooms has led directly to the so-called “transgender bathroom” bills in multiple states.

Transphobic jokes are not just jokes.  They are invitations to mistreat and discriminate against transfolk and as such are morally repugnant.  As Ford points out, sometime humor can be used to poke fun of such bias… but runs the risk of backfiring when viewed by biased individuals.  Subtly ironic satire of transphobic attitudes are not discerned by the transphobe…  So, at risk of such happening here, I share this wonderful comic strip.

Fears

Further Reading:

Essay on Robin Williams and his disparaging of transwomen as child care-givers.

Essay on the very high murder rate of young androphilic transwomen

“Psychology behind the unfunny consequences of jokes that denigrate – A joke isn’t just a joke.” by Thomas Ford

“Dave Chappelle Is Back—But His Transphobic Jokes Are No Laughing Matter” by Dan Avery

“Lil Duval Jokes He’d Kill a Sexual Partner If He Found Out She Was Transgender: ‘I Don’t Care, She’s Dying’” by Titiana Cirisano

References:

Hodson, Gordon, Rush, Jonathan, MacInnis, Cara C., “A joke is just a joke (except when it isn’t): Cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010)
http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0019627

Hodson, Gordon, MacInnis, Cara C., “Derogating humor as a delegitimization strategy in intergroup contexts.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science (2016)
http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Ftps0000052


Fun Reading:

 

All the Stars are Suns ebook completeSincerity Espinoza didn’t go looking for trouble, it found her. All she wants out of life is the chance to go to the stars but she is caught in a web of misunderstandings, political & legal maneuvering, and the growing threat of terrorist plots by religious fanatics. She has a secret that if found out too soon could mean not only her own death but the ruin of the hope for humanity ever going to the stars. But even amidst momentous events, life is still about the small moments of love, laughter, and sadness.   Available as an ebook at Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

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