Transgender Representation 101. The genre: comedy.
A crucial point in the current debate about transgender representations in movies and TV series revolves around the ways in which, historically, trans* individuals have been (re)presented: either as punchlines and jokes, as figures who were there to be laughed at; or as grotesque, when not openly threatening, characters who were in serious need of medical and legal sanctioning because of their deviant, and oftentimes murdering, inclinations. Clearly, these two main modes of representations are stereotypical in their construction and function within the fictional narrative, with the consequence that they limit how members of the audience who are not gender-variant see transgender individuals, and also affect how trans* people see themselves.
The most common genre in which stereotypes are used is comedy, since they are effective short-cuts to write characters in such a way that they become immediately recognized by the audience without the need of providing additional background information.
One of the most successful characters in comedies and sitcoms is the “man in a dress”, a caricature of the practice of cross-dressing. This type of trope ridicules effeminate homosexuals and transvestites at the same time. In this regarad, Phillips (2006) notes that as homosexuality became more accepted as activistic and medical processes led to its depathologization, it was considered less fashionable to make fun of this sexual minority. However, figures who transgress the gender and sexual norms were still needed in order to construct examples of illegitimate behavior: this is the role that transvestites came to fill within mediatic representations. Transvestites are then considered appropriate figures to include in the comedy genre as a consequence of the fact that the practice of cross-dressing is seen as temporary, and thus is tolerated by the heteropatriarchal society because it is a reversible condition, a momentary transgression that cannot really challenge the existing set of gender norms. Fundamentally, it can be argued that transvestism is domesticated by the ridiculing of not just the practice, but also the very idea that a man could, even for a short period of time, decide to dress up, to behave, and to live like a woman. For a society based on the patriarchal norm is highly problematic to give up masculinity and decide instead to present oneself as being (more) feminine because of the history of the supposed superiority of men that had been constructed throughout centuries of work by medical, legal, political, and philosophical reflection and action. It should be noted in this regard that the “comic” image of the man in a dress is disparaging towards all women (both cisgender and trans), but also towards trans men because their identity is similarly considered to be illegitimate. As a matter of fact, comedic narratives are constructed to privilege heteronormative identities and therefore, in humor movies and TV series, the trans-gende