Wednesday, July 2, 2014

America's Got Talent's Love of Un-Creative Transphobe Ray Jessel

July 25th Update (for original article scroll to page break):
I've been getting a lot of hits wondering what happened to Ray Jessel, who wasn't really mentioned in the last results show.  Based on the wording of these hits, I'm under the impression those of you coming here with these search questions are probably upset or confused that he did not progress further in the show and are wondering if it had something to do with the response from transgender viewers.  For those of you who are in this category, or close to it, this small update is for you.

I don't know if America's Got Talent cut Jessel because of the trans outcry and GLAAD statement.  I suspect that it might have had something to do with it based on the fact that they took the video off the AGT website and did not as far as I can tell feature his elimination at all on television.  If so, I'm glad they were quiet about it.  As a trans person, one of the most frustrating things I have dealt with in media is having to listen to cisgender (non-transgender) people lament and whine and pout whenever somebody makes the right call and removes a transphobic reference from their program.  If this is you, please recognize that you are promoting an attitude that for trans people--especially black and brown trans women who cannot afford medical care--can be harmful and even deadly (due to a high rate of suicide, murder, assault; and on top of that, less likelihood that justice will actually be served if the latter crimes are reported).

I don't dwell on these things too much in this essay, where I specifically am calling out the assertion that Kessel's song is "ahead of its time" or particularly creative.  I have chosen to focus more on the latter because I feel even people who truly do not think they are intolerant of transgender people were distracted by the shock value of Kessel's song without really considering just how hackneyed the entire concept really is.

I'm certain, of course, that at least some of you will click on this and then become outraged at me for having ruined your bigoted fun.  You are not my audience and I honestly couldn't give two shits what you have to say about it.  If this is you, you probably aren't used to people not thinking your opinions are significant or important (something which, unfortunately, transgender people have to live with on a daily basis).  And quite frankly, if you are not transgender and have never experienced what transgender people go through, no, your opinions and feelings on this just aren't that fucking important.

Finally, there really is no guarantee that Jessel was cut due to transgender outcry.  For all we know, his secondary audition was total piece of shit embarrassment.

Either way, I am personally relieved at the prospect of being able to watch America's Got Talent without seeing him again.

Anyway, for those of you actually interested in the content of the article as it was when I wrote it shortly after the original air date of Jessel's performance, it is below:


First, let me explain to you a bit what happened last night.

I sat down with my parents to watch "America's Got Talent."  This is one of my favorite shows.  I intensely look forward to it, especially the auditions, because you can see practically anything on it.  Where else am I going to see an awkward goth suddenly belt out opera, or a couple of lanky teens play Jimi Hendrix on cellos?  There was a little tenseness during a comedian whose name I can't remember's "trans parent" joke, but I brushed it off as a play on words.  It wasn't that funny, but it wasn't particularly offensive either, and moments of "what the fuck are people thinking" drifted in and out, as usual.

Then came the end, when an 84 year old man came out with a piano and sang what sounded like a pretty typical, sweet love song... and then the penis jokes came.  My father guffawed with the intense laughter of a cis man who finds the mere existence of trans women inherently hilarious and the very thought of falling in love with one repulsive.  And I felt absolutely awful.  The song isn't about me--people typically don't create the same jokes about trans men that they do trans women--but the fact that anybody can listen to this sort of thing and not immediately recognize the level of mean-spirited transphobia inherent in it is absolutely disgusting to me.

He got four "yes" votes, massive applause from the audience and judges, and this is what the America's Got Talent Twitter account said about him:

And if there's one thing that irritates me even more than having an obvious bigot applauded by thousands of people, it's the assumption that it's "original" or "ahead of its time."  Because you know what?  It's not.

You know what Ray Jessel's "talent" is?  Making the exact same goddamned joke that's been made by cis bigots since they learned transgender people exist, and being an old, white more-than-likely-cis man singing it.

"I fell in love with/had sex with a woman who had a penis/used to have a penis and this is somehow inherently disgusting and hilarious" is not original humor.  It and tropes similar to it (which are not meant to be humorous, but "dramatic" in a way where people sympathize with a bigoted cis person) been featured in scores of jokes, television shows, movies, and songs already.  Just a short list of media that has contained this same damn thing:
  • Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
  • Family Guy
  • South Park
  • The IT Crowd
  • Nip/Tuck
  • The Crying Game
  • Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World (this was an odd example that actually involved two gay cis men unknowingly sleeping with a trans man)
  • Cake Boss (particularly cruel prank that involved a trans woman who wasn't in on the "joke")
  • The song "HermAphrodite" by David Lynch (This is about an intersex person, but I add it because the "penis that's bigger than mine" gag is in it)

It's unoriginal, and it's ancient.  It's not "a breath of fresh air."  It's same old same old.

And I've said it before but I'll say it again:  Cis people do not as a general rule have the understanding or creativity to develop trans-related themes and humor that aren't offensive or at the very least ridiculously uncreative.  When your jokes about trans people end at "trans people are inherently hilarious and if I say or imply a person is transgender people will laugh at that joke," then where is the comedic complexity in that?

But more importantly, we need to recognize that just because cis people are laughing at it doesn't mean it's good humor.  This is oppressor humor.  People laugh at it because they aren't affected, they don't think they know people who are affected, and even if they do know people who are affected they either don't understand or don't give a fuck what the repercussions of those jokes really are.

And in this case?  Jokes like this one create an atmosphere of callous disregard for trans women and reinforce an environment where cis people are considered in some way "justified" if they go ballistic, harm, and even murder women when they learn they are trans.  Trans people, especially trans women and especially trans women who are members of other oppressed groups are a vulnerable population, and it's solidly irresponsible that America's Got Talent would not only broadcast this, but highlight it and sing its praises as if it's at the height of cutting edge humor.

Trans people deserve more than to serve as an unoriginal throwaway punchline.