Three comics crossed my browser in sufficiently short order that I sat up and took notice. (In all cases, click the image to view the original.)( Transcript )
"You think I'm transphobic... but all I really care about is accurate costuming!"( Transcript )
"You think I'm transphobic... but all I really care about is fashion!"( Transcript )
"You think I'm transphobic... but I'm just mad about you lying to me!"
The punchline in all three cases is that the cisgender authority figure could be an asshole, but is choosing not to be... and they want to make sure the person with no power--the child or employee, the trans* or GNC person--is aware that it's a choice
. It's a statement of power. I could make your life miserable, but I won't! Ha ha!
And I want to focus especially on the reaction shots, first distress:
And then elation:
These people are so upset at what sounds like scorn, and then so grateful for what turns out to be (or look like) respect and acceptance, that they don't even notice the way "respect and acceptance" have been recast as gifts rather than as simply what they deserve for being human. The children are particularly vulnerable to this, because few things are more devastating to a child than the threat of a parent's love being withheld. The relief on Sarah's face is heartbreaking
If respect and acceptance are gifts, rather than a person's birthright, they can be taken back, or bargained for. That makes for a very unpleasant dynamic when it's combined with the dependence of a parent/child or employer/employee relationship. And the emotional weight of that combination is what the creators of these comics are drawing on when they write these jokes.
When the power differential is removed, friends can come out to friends and have it be no big deal:( Transcript )( Transcript )
No tears or glowing relief there--just a brief awkward moment of "So what do we talk about now?".
Or they can talk and argue and say foolish things and learn from each other as equals, as in the Irma/Irving arc from The Princess
, which is too long to quote here but is really excellent.
But add the element of power and you get gripping emotional tension. And comics creators are choosing over and over to use that tension to fuel a joke, without really thinking about what it feels like when someone who has a lot of power over you, someone you respect very much and possibly even love, has just said something that sounds a lot like a condemnation of your identity and/or self-expression. That moment is devastating, and no table-turning additional context can redeem the thoughtless cruelty of an authority figure saying something like "Take that off immediately before the neighbors see you!" or "No one will take you seriously" to a person who is in a tremendously vulnerable place.
I will give some leeway to the creator of The Princess
, because so much of the comic is about Wendy and Sarah's relationship, and Wendy slowly coming to terms with Sarah being trans. The very first strip was Wendy yelling at Sarah to stop wearing a dress. The comic up there, where she says she's going to donate Sarah's boy clothes, is strip #500. So their relationship is a lot more than a one-off joke, and full credit for that! That said, the ellipsis between panels 3 and 4 is massively unfair to both Sarah and the reader, and so is Wendy's angry tone. Sarah has no happier expectations of "Go straight up to your room and open your closet--" than James/Batgirl has of "Take that off immediately before the neighbors see you!". Her face in panel 3 makes that clear.
As a bonus, in the first two comics we get cis people being experts on how to be trans*/GNC correctly
. "You don't want to be wearing the clothes you're wearing! You want to be wearing these other
clothes that follow the rules
. Poor clueless person who doesn't know how to gender. Since I am fortunate enough to have a lifetime's experience in being exactly one gender, I will help you to learn gendering, for you are like a newborn lamb tottering about on wobbly gender-legs." I'm the first to acknowledge that cis men have provided me with a tremendous amount of useful advice on menswear and I'm very grateful for it, but you know, if someone's first reaction to seeing me in a men's suit was to tell me that it was out of date and also my haircut sucked, I would find that really goddamn rude
. So even the "respect and acceptance" isn't, really. What if the employee's tie was his grandfather's and it means a lot to him to wear it? What if Batgirl hates wearing yellow and enjoys walking around in impractical shoes? Why does being accepted mean being pressed to conform to particular dictates of fashion?
Well, because this culture sucks and its notions of gender are inescapably about conforming to gender norms. But perpetuation of that is not acceptance
. Especially when it comes to GNC folks, and to people who are just starting down a new path of gender expression and have to maintain two separate wardrobes and are low-level employees who can't afford a lot of new clothes, and to people who have their own fashion sense, and to people--both children and adults, but especially children--who need room to play around and experiment and explore and figure out what they like. That newborn lamb needs to totter about on its own for its legs to get stronger so that it can leap off to wherever it pleases.
Accepting someone as e.g. male doesn't mean crushing them into a tidy little packet of 100% Grade A Extruded Maleness. It means saying "Oh hey, nice haircut, and I like that tie" the way you'd say it to anyone else who cut their hair and wore a tie. It means treating them like an individual person
who gets to make individual choices
I'm not criticizing people for laughing at these strips. I laughed at the Batgirl one, which was the first of the three that I saw. It's very easy to fall into the cultural pattern of thinking this sort of thing is funny, of sharing the trans*/GNC character's relief at not being stepped on like a bug and turning that relief into laughter even as the "respect" comes in the form of a backhanded insult compounded by social pressure that makes it nearly impossible to decline what crumbs are offered. (If the employee really liked his tie and didn't want to change it, do you think he felt free to say so to his very vehement boss? I don't.) But in actual real life, it's not funny. In actual real life, it hurts a lot. In actual real life, it's incredibly unpleasant to have people act like the only two ways to treat you are to either reject you or force you to conform. And the repetition of it really got to me.
I know pain is the root of a lot of comedy. But when this particular pain is made into a punchline over and over again, I have to ask why, and to challenge creators to do better.