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Sam Stiegler Headshot

Un(dress)ing Laughter

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Saturday Night Live has a problem with men wearing dresses.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with men wearing dresses. In fact, I welcome more men to wear dresses on TV, in the movies, on the street, anywhere, for that matter. The problem SNL faces (as does popular culture, generally) is that men in dresses are used as a comedic tool. That is, that the act of a man entering a scene while wearing a dress (or any form of women's clothing, for that matter) is intended to make the audience laugh. The man in the dress is the joke.

SNL's problems with gender aren't new; let's not forget they also brought us Pat, the completely gender-ambiguous character whose sex/gender no one could determine. Pat sent everyone into a tizzy because, 'Oh my god, I don't know what Pat is and if I don't know what sex a person is I can't interact with them!' While audiences had no problem laughing at Pat, let's replace Pat with a middle-school student struggling with gender identity and expression. Isn't the laughter of confusion aimed at Pat loaded with the same intentions behind the weird looks, pointed fingers, and taunting laughter directed at this young student? Why can we more easily acknowledge bullying of queer and trans youth when situated in reality but when the same bullying motives are masked through 'comedy' does their danger transform into something deemed uproariously funny? How does the notion of 'but it's just a joke' diminish and ignore the people for whom the 'jokes' have serious -- and sometimes dangerous -- consequences?

You may think Fred Armisen does entertaining impressions of Joy Behar and Queen Elizabeth (and he does, I agree). You may enjoy Bobby Moynihan as Snooki (I admit, I laughed when I saw it). But what does the show's usage of men to play female roles say not only about women's place in comedy but also about conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and of sex, gender, and sexuality in humor. I'm not arguing that men should only play men and women only play women. I'm all for messing with the gender binary. But, the question remains, what are the hidden messages behind the laughter that results from a male actor walking on-screen in a dress?

"Where Them Girls at?"

One could argue that, this season, SNL is suffering from the 'Kristen Wiig vacuum'. As one of the most celebrated cast members in the show's history, there is obviously a huge void given her departure at the end of last season. While I agree that Kristen hit a home run every time she was on camera, during her final seasons it's as if there were no other female cast members. Her comedic genius aside, why didn't the other women have as much to do? During these same past few seasons there have been numerous men in the cast who've made a name for themselves -- Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudekis, Kenan Thompson and Andy Samberg. Why is it that in the same stretch of time multiple men shared the show's spotlight, but there was only room for one woman?

It's no secret that female comedians are still striving for equal footing in the comedy world. While we love and cherish the Tina Feys, Molly Shannons, and Gilda Radners of SNL's past, for every one of them there are many more Will Ferrells, Chris Farleys, and Steve Martins. This season's cast has nearly double the number of men than women. (Alas, that folks are still getting the same notes on unbalanced gender ratios that Shakespeare did!) When you add to this disparity that men are often playing the female roles, women have even fewer chances to get on camera. What this seems to signal is two-fold: first, that women in the cast don't have the comedic chops to play the female characters; and, second, what the propensity to laugh at men in women's clothing says about societal acceptance of deviations from normative gendered expressions and presentations.

"Damnit, Janet": Why Are We Laughing at You?

What I think is worth examining is when and why men are chosen to play female roles. This season, in a sketch where guest host Adam Levine portrayed himself, SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan played a woman named Janet lusting after the sexy, tattooed rocker. Janet is self-described as looking like a "half-melted snowman" and notes that she "once, on a flight to Albuquerque, farted so hard in [her] sleep that the plane had to land." Despite these qualities, the premise of the sketch is that Janet has gotten Adam to come home with her after a Maroon Five concert -- you go, Janet! We learn later, however, she did so by drugging him -- because that's the only way a dowdy, chubby girl can bag a hot guy like Adam Levine, right? Date rape: it's hilarious! Also worth noting here is that if the characters' genders were flipped -- if it was a nerdy, chubby guy who had drugged a sexy female singer -- this skit wouldn't be funny at all. It is highly unsettling that, when the typical victim-assailant gender binary is switched, sexual assault, then, becomes a joke.

The problems with this sketch are too many to count. But it is a prime example of the show's problematic usage of men in female clothing. Through Janet's overt self-deprecation, it's almost as if she is saying, 'I am so obviously not a woman that it's okay to laugh at me.' In this case, the role has to be played by a man (and by 'has to' I mean for the joke to work as it was intended by the writers). It's 'okay' to laugh at Janet, the 'failed' woman, because the audience has decided it's a really just man in a dress. Whereas a female actor as Janet might make the scene seem desperate or unbelievable that a woman looking like she does could get a man looking like Adam Levine to come bed with her. Why is a male-bodied person in a dress fawning over another man supposed to funny, but a female-bodied person doing the same thing not? Isn't this joke implying it's funny for two men to be attracted to one another?

Since the audience has determined that Janet is 'just a man in a dress,' the laugh factor, then, comes from this 'man in a dress' hitting on another man who seems to be into it. That the laughs come from a man portraying a woman and from another man being interested in and touching that man is riddled deep with homophobic and transphobic overtones:

How funny, that man in wearing a dress!
Haha, that's so not a chick!
Those two dudes are groping each other--hilarious!

This laughter, even though it's on a late-night comedy show, must be taken seriously as it is impossible to ignore what it, and popular culture as a whole, teaches society. This laughter directed at on-screen characters that fall short of the audience's gender and sexual expectations has significant, real-life consequences and cannot simply be, well, 'laughed off'.

Moving Beyond "But It Was Just a Joke!"

If Janet and what she represents -- failing to meet societal expectations of the gender binary -- is deemed comedic on television, what happens when Janet steps off the screen? Isn't this laughter at Janet the same laughter directed at queer and trans kids in the classroom? Isn't this the same thinking that makes it okay to tease, bully, and beat-up kids who deviate from any number of gender and sexual norms? Isn't it the same laughter that gets directed at trans people who are unable to 'pass' for their intended gender? If this sketch intends to have the audience laugh at Janet (and all the ways she falls short of achieving normative standards of 'woman'), it's not too hard to imagine how and why laughter and ridicule are too often directed at those people, off-screen, who are similarly deemed not to satisfy what society expects of 'men' and 'women'.

The problem, let me be clear, isn't comedy nor is it solely the fault of SNL or any of its actors or writers. The problem is everywhere. Writer and activist Janet Mock talks about being a "critical fan". If we stopped watching a show because of some homophobic, transphobic, racist, or sexist moment (and SNL has been critiqued for all of the above), we'd all throw our TVs out the window. Rather, she argues, it's our job as fans and consumers of popular culture to call something out when we see it. Furthermore, I argue we should conceptualize the problem not as an individual one, but as a societal and systemic one.

Homophobia and transphobia are not endemic to one show, one group, or one person. Rather, they are part of the fabric that makes up almost everything around us. Our job as fans and viewers, then, is to call out the problematic jokes when we see them as a way of shifting and remolding the landscape so that people's expressions of sex, gender and sexuality are not simply fodder for a punch line. Pat and Janet's stories aren't just the creations from the writer's room. Stories of people struggling for acceptance of their gender identity and expression while navigating the normativizing pressures surrounding gender and sex are no laughing matter. It's about time we found something to laugh at that doesn't come at the expense of someone else's suffering.