by Sean Clark
There’s one skit that will guarantee laughter from any audience: a man dressed as a woman or vice versa. The context of the skit could be horrifically mundane, but for some reason, this is considered hilarious across the board in our predominantly cisgender (not transgender) community. This comedic technique enforces cisgender normalcy by mocking those who don’t identify within the gender binary.
This technique isn’t limited to skits on Saturday Night Live; it happens at our school. Students to Students, a group on campus dedicated to peer to peer education, teaches the sophomore class about life skills through an annual assembly. When I was a sophomore, I remember leaving the auditorium, abdomen sore from laughing so hard at the clever, relevant punchlines about life at LGHS. As an ignorant sophomore, I laughed when I saw my male peers waltzing around the stage in dresses, giggling in high-pitched voices in order to exaggerate their female character roles.
Students to Students is an amazing organization, and it’s safe to assume that its participants mean no harm to the student body, considering that would go against their sole purpose of building a safe environment at our school. While gender nonconformity is apparent throughout history, our generation has embraced the gender spectrum more than older generations. That being said, we need to treat gender identities with the same sensitivity we treat race, class, and the status of cis-women in our society.
Breaking the gender binary shouldn’t be received as a punchline, nor should it be thought of as funny in a world where nonbinary people are repeatedly murdered, bullied, and abused. While these skits are ignorantly light-hearted and not intentionally malevolent, they enforce the idea that being anything besides the gender assigned at birth is something to laugh at.
Yes, comedians aren’t portraying transgender people or nonbinary people; they’re portraying the gender they’re dressing up as. However, the punchline definitely takes advantage of the gender binary. The reality is, if someone cross-dresses in real life, they often face real consequences. Alternatively, one could say that this technique makes gender boundaries seem less strict. This argument gives the benefit of the doubt that the cisgender perpetrator and the majority cisgender audience are in support of transgender people. Representation is only effective if people become more understanding of the demographic in question. In this case, cisgender audience members are literally laughing at a cisgender person in what could be considered the transgender version of blackface.
If cross-dressing or the gender spectrum is portrayed through a single lense of comedy, that isn’t really inclusive. Instead, we should work toward including more transgender and nonbinary characters whose gender identity isn’t their defining trait.
There is nothing inherently funny about cross-dressing. The punchline lies within the fact that experimentation with gender is heavily stigmatized in our society. How are people supposed to feel comfortable with cross-dressing or identifying as transgender/nonbinary when their classmates and comedians do so to incite laughter? These skits put more pressure on nonbinary and transgender people to physically “pass” for their actual gender or remain in the confines of the gender assigned to them at birth. For some high school students, “passing” can be impossible due to financial and familial pressure to identify as cisgender.
In order to contribute to the increasingly popular dialogue on gender, it is important to realize how cisgender microaggressions affect the transgender and nonbinary community.