I shouldn’t be surprised by blatant transphobia and transmisogyny on television by now. The past year alone has brought us an SNL skit mocking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), an invasive and judgmental Nightline “documentary” on trans* youth, drummed-up controversy over Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing With the Stars, and ABC’s Work It. At this point, I really should know better — but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I watched a commercial this morning for an online gambling website, Paddy Power.
The ad claims to have sent a number of trans women to Ladies’ Day at Cheltenham Festival (a horse racecourse in England), and invites viewers to “spot the stallions from the mares.” The camera then zooms in on several women in the crowd, with the narrator excitedly proclaiming each as either a “woman!” or “man!” He nearly loses it when a woman emerges from the men’s restroom: “Dog! I mean, uh, man!” (Why does it always come back to the bathrooms?)
In just 30 seconds, the commercial manages to broadcast the following not-so-subtle messages: that trans women are inherently ugly and should be ridiculed, that they aren’t even women at all, and that it’s perfectly acceptable for society to affirm or deny a trans* person’s gender identity based solely on their physical appearance. Never mind that trans* people face routine harassment, discrimination, and violence simply for living life authentically. If you’re like me, you might be shocked that such a horribly offensive ad was allowed to air repeatedly on television in 2012. But it was. Go ahead and watch it for yourself, but be forewarned: it’s really fucking upsetting.
Unsurprisingly, this commercial has enraged and offended a lot of people since it first aired last week. According to the BBC, the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has already received nearly 500 complaints. In response, a spokesman for Paddy Power defended the ad, claiming that it was “simply a bit of mild-mannered fun” that featured several members of the UK trans* community as willing participants. Sorry Paddy Power, but I don’t buy it. Just because some members of a marginalized group agree to participate in their continued oppression doesn’t make it okay to propagate bigotry and transphobia in your commercials. That is some flawed fucking logic. Not to mention it’s a terrible advertising strategy. I have no idea what they were trying to sell — do you? Oh, and as if you needed another reason to hate Paddy Power, in 2010 it aired the most complained-about ad of the year, which featured a group of blind football (soccer) players kicking a cat.
So now you’re upset and I’m upset. But what can we do about it? For starters, if you live in the UK, you can file an official complaint with the ASA. You can vent your frustration in the comments section below. I, for one, would love the chance to show the executive board at Paddy Power my well-manicured middle finger. But I think this is also a good opportunity for us to take a step back and address the underlying cissexist attitudes that allow a commercial like this to exist in the first place. It’s a cissexism that many of us are complicit in (myself included), whether we realize it or not.
Let me explain. None of us think that trans women are actually men, and we certainly don’t believe that trans* people deserve the shit that is routinely piled on them by the media. But this notion that looking cisgender (“passing”) is somehow desirable or worthy of praise is really harmful, and ultimately leads the (presumably cis) narrator to feel he has the right to pass judgment on these women’s genders based solely on whether or not they appear to be cis. It creates this false hierarchy among trans* people based on physical appearance and gives cis people all the power in determining who is worthy of joining their club and who isn’t. It’s an attitude that tolerates and helps perpetuate violence against people who are visibly trans*.
Now, I’m not saying that any of you would ever consciously discriminate against a trans* person based how they looked. But I can’t tell you how many times well-intentioned allies have offered me support coated in thinly-veiled cissexism. It’s usually something along the lines of “Wow, you’re trans? I never would have guessed! You go, girl!” It’s as though they’re giving me their stamp of approval for looking like them. It’s like telling a person of color “Your skin is so light! I would have never guessed that you weren’t white! Congrats!”
And I’m guilty for silently going along with it. At a recent checkup, my doctor announced with a smile that I “definitely pass”, even though I hadn’t asked. When I made my first laser appointment a few months ago, the woman I met with was so excited when I told her I was trans that she ran up and kissed my cheek, gushing praise over how she “would have never known” and that out of the hundreds of trans women she’s worked with, this was only the second time she was truly shocked. In both instances, instead of calling them out on their cissexism, I smiled politely and thanked them. Why? Because validation feels nice, and I’m not immune to the societal messages that looking cis = good and looking trans* = bad. But that doesn’t change the fact I am trans*, and playing along with this cissexist game ultimately leaves me feeling inadequate.
There is nothing wrong with blending as cis, of course — and there are often very real safety concerns that would lead someone to not want to wear their trans* status on their sleeve. I also don’t think that anyone has an obligation to be forthcoming about the sex they were assigned at birth — I’m certainly not a lot of the time. But my fellow trans* people (especially those of you who are white), let’s stop pretending that it’s only about safety. We are often the worst offenders in propping up cissexism; policing our appearances, our voices, and our mannerisms. The “Do I Pass?” threads on sites like Susans.org are filled with hundreds of posts from trans girls, desperate to do anything to look like “genetic” [read: cis] females. Considering that a recent study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that only 16% of trans women report never being “clocked,” that’s an absurdly high standard to hold ourselves to. Women already have to deal with pervasive beauty culture without this added pressure. Many of the terms that we use are harmful as well. “Passing”(as cis) implies that “not passing” is failing. Going “stealth” (living as one’s true gender without disclosing trans history) is laden with the notion that trans* people are somehow sneaky or deceptive. We as a community need to stop using discourse that only ends up hurting us.
The Paddy Power commercial is awful and offensive. Be upset, file a complaint, write a rant about it on tumblr. But let’s also make a renewed effort to check ourselves for cissexist ways of thinking — and not let cissexist remarks slide when others make them, regardless of their intentions. If we can’t do that, assholes like the advert’s narrator will continue to think it’s ok to say shit like this about trans* people.