Douchebag Decree: Saturday Night Live Makes Trans* People Their Punchline

Douchebag Decree header

I’ll be the first to admit that Saturday Night Live is a totally hit or miss show these days. There are definitely some skits that cause me to cramp up from laughing so hard, while others leave me bored. I get it - it takes a lot to put on a live, hour-and-a-half variety show every week, and not every joke will be a zinger. And while I don’t expect every second to make me laugh, I also don’t expect there to be parts of the show that will make me cringe and rage.

This past Saturday night started off promising. Host and musical guest Justin Timberlake was taking on his fifth show, and in honor of that, an array of talented and hilarious cameos made an appearance - from Tom Hanks to Steve Martin to Candice Bergen. I admit to laughing out loud at the commercial spoof for NuvaBling, and I got a little giddy at JT’s “Bring it on down to Veganville” sketch.

she's got a dick logoBut then, it all went downhill with the pre-recorded clip parodying a rom-com movie trailer. There was such promise in the concept. Most romantic comedies follow a pretty stereotypical blueprint of: boy meets girl - misunderstanding ensues - boy gets girl, allowing SNL a great chance to mock it. The set-up was interesting, Timberlake and cast member Nasim Pedrad were the boy and girl who accidentally cross paths and begin dating. The trailer then starts to build up the suspense, as JT insinuates to his pal that the girl he’s dating has some big secret. They draw it out as long as possible before, surprise! The girl has a penis. Actually, according to the crassly worded fake movie title: “She’s Got a D!#k.” Apparently SNL hasn’t yet received the memo that trans* individuals are people, not punchlines for jokes. 

Perhaps the skit was meant to be a critique of transphobia. But if so, it was a very sloppy one that wound up making non-confming bodies the butt of its humor. SNL was making fun of the absurdity of rom-coms and the couple ended up happily ever after in the end, so that means it couldn’t have possibly been transphobic, could it? Sorry, I don’t buy it. The “reveal” of the beautiful woman having a dick was made to not only be funny, but shocking and abnormal as well. That directly translates to larger societal (non)acceptance of trans* individuals. The joke would have been just as strong and the point about schlocky rom-coms would still have been made if the reveal was something actually absurd, like if she ended up being a robot or a mermaid or the Angel of Death or something.

This wasn’t the first time that SNL has used trans* individuals as punchlines either. A few years ago, GLAAD called out the program for a commercial spoof for the fake product Estro-Maxx, an estrogen drug for male-to-female transgender people. In a call for action on their website, GLAAD explained why the commercial was so problematic:

“This segment cannot be defended as “just a joke” because there was no “joke” to speak of. The attempted comedy of the skit hinges solely on degrading the lives and experiences of transgender women. Holding people up for ridicule simply on the basis of their identity fuels a hurtful climate and puts people in danger, especially given how infrequently the media shines a fair and accurate light on the lives of transgender people.”

The same holds true for this past weekend’s attempt at a “joke” made at trans* women’s expense. SNL had the opportunity to really skewer the ridiculous, eye-rolling formula that most rom-coms follow, yet instead, they relied on offensive, demeaning and dehumanizing “humor” by having the punchline be a trans* woman. The “joke” plays off harmful stereotypes and allows for the acceptance of transphobic comedy and derision.

One would have hoped that SNL would have learned from the vocal outrage over the Estro-Maxx commercial that transphobia is not fodder for comedy, yet it seems they clearly still have a ways to go till they stop being douchebags. 

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

On the fence

I was initially offended, but the more exaggerated lines from Kenan Thompson made me reconsider that perhaps the humour still lies in the structure of the romcom and the narrow roles that each play (likeable heroine and earnest hero meetcute, black friend expresses offensive hilarity). I also thought that perhaps the first mainstream romcom with a transgendered lead would be strikingly similar to this trailer, in that it will have a lot of the same problems that you're writing about.

I think there's something hopeful in that Justin Timberlake wasn't the one flipping out about his girlfriend's transgendered identity. Mostly we see him being aware of a 'secret' and pursuing her even after that secret is out (in the pouring rain, of course!). It's still also a segment that makes you aware of how the black friend is used as the mouthpiece for opinions and expressions that the white male lead can't get away with. Which is problematic too.


I think I agree with you. I guess the joke wasn't in the fact that she has a penis or in her transgender identity but in how Hollywood would imagine, market and sell a transgender character in a rom-com package.

It wasn't perfect though, still some problematic issues/angles. But I think an article exploring those issues would be more productive than lumping the SNL skit with the other Douchebag Decree recipients.

Perhaps, but

SNL didn't do very well in their attempt. Not very original or very witty.

I don't care if cis people aren't offended.

Are either of you fence-sitters trans? If not, then shut up.

SNL going from airing an extremely transphobic sketch to a more ambiguously transphobic one is not progress.

Does it even need to be noted that SNL has never had an openly transgender cast member, writer, guest host or musical guest?

Seriously, this!

Are either of you fence-sitters trans? If not, then shut up.

As a matter of fact, I am.

As a matter of fact, I am. Would've been great if you didn't assume you knew anything about my identity from 4 lines of text on the Internet.

I don't really understand your attack since I didn't mention if I was or wasn't offended or if the sketch should be regarded as "progress" in the context of SNL history because those things were completely irrelevant to my response to the first comment.

"Does it even need to be noted that SNL has never had an openly transgender cast member, writer, guest host or musical guest?"

No, but does it need to be noted that SNL is not alone in that? That's American TV across the board. It doesn't justify it, but it does suggest that it's a larger cultural context that needs to be addressed, not only a specific show.

I think it's interesting how

I think it's interesting how the sketch doesn't specify that it's about a trans character but that is the first assumption we as an audience make. The title character could also be intersex or someone who refuses to identify as trans.

I'm not sure what this says about our culture as a whole but it would certainly be worth exploring.

Well, Dunno if the Sketch is Problematice but the Criticism Is

"refuses to identify as trans."

Still trans. I know it's hard to get one's head around, but while everyone is free to accurately identify their sex and who they're attracted to, they can't from there define their relationship to power structures. The reason I know this is that I've run into enough misogynistic cisfeminists who've tried lines akin to "I identify as rich, so where's my Rolls Royce?"

Trans refers to sex that does not agree with CASAB or Coercively Assigned Sex At Birth.

For that matter, I'm pretty sure we can call female neurology and Wolffian genital morphology coexisting an intersex condition, non? Also, let it be noted that it's really unlikely that a child is going to be born with a penis of any significant size and find themselves being CAFAB.

Speaking of borked terminology, and this isn't you, but the author... "male-to-female..." just wow. You need some 101 on how centering assigned sex and treating it as equivalent to presented sex or identified sex is ever so slightly cisnormative. I don't know if I'll be offended by the SNL short, but at least I didn't get out of this article without being pissed off a bit.

PS: When referring to trans women, you probably want to avoid assiduous avoidance of pronouns. You can say the goddessdamned word 'she' now and again. I don't know what your intent was, but the de-pronouning is something I've seen happen with friends who are worse at standing up for themselves than I am.

"Still Trans...?"

I think... if someone refuses to identify as trans, even if you consider them "trans" under your book, shouldn't you .... not... say that they're "still trans"?

I mean, that's pretty much what anti-trans folks do, yes? "You're born female and say you're male!? Still female!"

Someone might "transition" in your form of the word, or live their life by how you understand "trans" to be, but not consider themselves trans.

There is some semblance of my

There is some semblance of my being able to actually believe that dudes in skirts are actually women for realz...and that's because women think they're special and overly important enough to think they're above criticism and mockery as well.

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