ABC has its fingers crossed that a sitcom featuring fictionalized married, "manly" characters stumbling in heels, donning mascara, ripping hosiery, and otherwise fumbling through hyperbolized "femininity" still guarantees a laugh.
Executives at the network have given the green light to a clumsy sitcom harkening to the gender-variant satire of yore. Work It is an obviously botched Bosom Buddies remake, modernized by recession overtones and taking place in the office. The show is slated to premiere on the network in early January.
"Looking for a job in today's economy can be a real drag," reads the show's website. "Take Lee Standish (played by Ben Koldyke), one-time breadwinner and current unemployment statistic. After being laid off, Lee will do anything it takes to support his family -- even if it means putting on a skirt and heels."
The argument that there's nothing offensive about Work It -- besides poor writing and a bad laugh track -- is circulating the Internet, mostly with reference to the show's "tame" comedy predecessors (e.g., Mrs. Doubtfire).
What's the difference?
Well, when Tom Hanks, who played our fluffy-haired protagonist in Bosom Buddies, was hiking up a bustier in the '80s, there were no summer camps for transgender kids. When Robin Williams was readjusting his wig for Mrs. Doubtfire, there was no media coverage of Transgender Day of Remembrance. There was no controversy about hormone blockers and young-adult trans people. There were no reality shows, period, and zero reality television highlighting gender-variant people -- nothing, none.
So, has the national spotlight on gender variance gotten trans/genderqueer people anywhere? A quick look at the Work It trailer makes me begin to doubt it.
The show's most loyal enthusiasts are furiously defending Work It as gender-progressive. To those folks, the story of two cisgender men attempting (very poorly done) female impersonation is enlightening. The dudes learn that it's not easy being ladies and gain some respect for the other side of the binary. Done.
What's the inherent difference between a show like Work It and the wildly popular RuPaul's Drag Race, some episodes of which feature virgin drag performers made over by a group of professional Drag Race hopefuls?
At one point in season three, contestants were challenged to help a group of "jocks" develop a drag persona -- lip-sync, vogue, the whole bit. I distinctly remember when one of the "jocks" massaged his calves and groaned in pain over high heels. Carmen Carrera, a drag queen on the show, quipped, "That's just the manhood leaving your body."
In short, I see the difference between Work It and Drag Race as, most simply, a level of consciousness. With episodes like the aforementioned, RuPaul's Drag Race is actually trying to deconstruct normative views of the gender binary. Work It is an unconscious caricature of drag performance.
As for the trans/genderqueer community, our lives are hugely, distinctly different from drag performance. Living my chosen gender as a trans person is not a performance. Period.
Still, as a male-identified trans/genderqueer person, I am known to perform in drag. My gender identity is still on the "masculine" spectrum while I wear lipstick and vogue. I love it.
I don't love Work It.
Neither does Kelli Busy, the author of a petition to bump Work It off the air, which is currently going viral on the Internet.
"I first became aware of Work It during my 15-minute breaks at my part-time second job," Busey told me. Busey watched the trailer for the show and found the outright mockery of gender-variant, female-identified people appalling.
"I did a little research and found article after article condemning the sitcom. And amazingly, [those articles] were written by cisgender people," said Busey. "So I decided I would write about it. But when I read the article about ABC's president dismissing concerns about the sitcom because it made him "cackle," that really got me mad. So I went to Twitter, and there were quite a few tweets condemning it, some from drag queens, as well. There was so much outright dislike within our community [that] I decided to write a petition, since none was started."
As of Dec. 6, the petition has already garnered nearly 400 signatures. ABC -- or, more specifically, its parent company, Disney -- is no stranger to public outcry against current programming. A petition to get the Kardashians bumped off E! has over 70,601 signatures and has been circulating for months, with no result other than a level of validation for the tens of thousands of people tired of the show.
Personally, I have little doubt that Work It will shove past all of us dissenters and air. But I doubt it'll last long. Not because the content is offensive to queers, but because the show itself is just bad.
In response, I'll continue to keep my fingers crossed for a world where gender variance is no longer considered comedy.
Follow Emerson Whitney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emwhitney