In Ted 2, a dirty-talking stuffed bear fights for his civil rights—while trans people are treated as a punchline.
Until just a few years ago, it was very common to for trans people to be seen as just a punchline. Think of how many transphobic jokes you’ve heard in films, how many times you’ve heard variations on “The girl I dated turned out to have a penis!” Male characters who encounter trans people often consider them icky. As Black Millenials writer Michelle Jones noted in an article last week, “Our culture has turned relationships with trans women into an ugly punchline.”
Thanks to increased visibility and acceptance for trans people, and the work of media watchdog organizations like GLAAD, such “humor” is starting to be scrubbed from movies and TV. This progress made it especially disappointing to encounter the noxious trailer for Seth MacFarlane’s new film Ted 2.
Yes, this is the film about the dirty-talking stuffed animal bear. Maybe you missed the first installment, but Ted was a 2012 box office hit by the retrograde dude-bro auteur behind Family Guy. It chronicles the friendship of regular guy John Bennett, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his living, weed-smoking stuffed bear Ted, voiced by MacFarlane.
In the just-released trailer for the sequel, Ted asks to use John’s laptop and is horrified by the amount of pornography he discovers on it. Though a bit embarrassed, John calmly defends his collection, until Ted describes a genre of porn in John’s collection:
Ted: Chicks with dicks?!
John: (crying) Oh my God. Oh my God. I need help. I have a disease!
Ted: There are no chicks with dicks, Johnny, only guys with tits.
Though only three lines long, the exchange is mammoth in the amount of transmisogyny it conveys. Because John enjoys pornography involving trans women, he is mentally ill, it suggests, reinforcing all the stigmas against being attracted to or loving trans women. Likewise, by having his stuffed mouthpiece nullify the existence of trans women, MacFarlane exhumes the old idea that trans people are liars and imposters and ignores the tenet, central to trans equality, that a person’s identity is their human right. Trans activists and their allies have expended so much effort to counter those stigmas over the years and create safe places where trans women are respected as themselves, so to see these hurtful old ideas trotted out for cheap laughs is especially dispiriting.
It’s an especially jarring joke since the film revolves around Ted suing the federal government for paternity rights. “They’ve denied you the same rights as everybody else, just because you’re different,” says his girlfriend in the trailer. Hmm… being denied rights because you’re different? That sounds like real life for trans people.
The first Ted movie was a surprise success, eventually becoming the highest grossing R-rated film of all time. For Universal pictures to produce a sequel to the movie is a given. But for them to okay cheap bigotry toward one of the most marginalized groups in our culture, and then prominently feature it in the film’s trailer, feels unconscionable. When will film and television studios finally learn that transphobia is not alright?
The Ted 2 trailer has already caused an outcry among trans people on Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr, with trans women asserting that their bodies are not disgusting and their lives are not a joke. Trans advocates draw clear lines between cultural attitudes toward trans people—which are shaped by pop culture like Hollywood films—and the high rates of harassment and violence trans folks suffer.
Seth McFarlane, King of Smug. Photo via Creative Commons.
This trailer is not the first time McFarlane has waded into transphobic waters. On both Family Guy and The Cleveland Show (a Family Guy spinoff), characters who unknowingly slept with trans women were shown vomiting at great length. Don’t jokes about sleeping with trans people ever get old? The episodes attracted a great deal of ire from observers, inspiring headlines such as, “Family Guy: Reaching New Transmisogynist Lows” and “What the Hell is the Matter with Family Guy and Seth MacFarlane?” Remarkably, MacFarlane defended the episode at the time, saying, “It’s probably the most sympathetic portrayal of a transsexual character that has ever been on television.”
That was 2010, however, a time, unfortunately, when even such liberal bastions as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report traded in cheap, transmisogynist humor, too. These days, I think John Stewart and Stephen Colbert would both know better. But outside these liberal spheres, it’s apparently still okay to mock trans people. I want to know: Would Universal release a trailer that openly made fun of gay people? I doubt it. While companies and politicians are scrambling to appear gay-friendly these days, they often disregard the T part of LGBT.
The transphobic messages in the Ted 2 trailer are especially disturbing when one remembers that MacFarlane’s core audience is young guys. Love him or hate him, MacFarlane is a powerful voice in our pop culture. He has a hand in shaping mainstream ideas about what’s funny, what’s important, and what’s cool. The fact that he uses his platform to say that trans people are gross is especially hurtful when trans youth face rampant harassment and hostility in schools. In the survey “Injustice at Every Turn,” conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78 percent of trans students reported having experienced harassment, while 35 percent had been physically assaulted. Of these respondents, one in six had either dropped out or been expelled because of their gender identities. So joking about “chicks with dicks” in a blockbuster film is comedy that punches down in the most dangerous way.
Trans youth—and trans people, in general—don’t need a stuffed teddy bear ridiculing their genitalia and denying their identities. We don’t need movie stars declaring themselves mentally ill and crying for help because they’re attracted to us. We need respect and equality. We need an end to the messages that make society so unsafe and discriminatory for us.
It’s time for the Seth MacFarlanes of the world to find something else to make jokes about—and time for the film industry to ensure they do. Trans people want to laugh with comedies, not be laughed at by them. That doesn’t seem like to too much to ask.
Related Reading: Dear Seth MacFarlane, Domestic Violence is an Awful Punchline.
Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch, and the Advocate.