When Zoolander 2’s trailer emerged in November, it was met with an outcry from the transgender community, over jokes made at the expense of the gender non-conforming character All, played by Benedict Cumberbach, and the seemingly derogatory, anti-trans manner in which Cumberbach approaches the role. Accusations of transphobia have been leveled at the film, a sequel to 2001 hit Zoolander, both of which were co-written by, star, and feature the direction of Ben Stiller.
As in many cases involving charges of prejudice and insensitivity in comedic works, the reaction to Zoolander 2’s trailer has been split between those incensed and hurt by the material, and those who argue it’s just a joke. If you’re unclear why trans folks and their allies, including the nearly 23,000 of those who’ve signed a petition calling for the film’s boycott, argue for the former, here are some explanations:
Trans People Lack Positive Representations in the Media: Saying the Zoolander trailer is just comedy, and that everyone is made fun of within it, overlooks the fact that, on the whole, trans people are still nearly invisible in our culture. Ridiculing the way the All looks and speaks, as the trailer does, and asking crass questions about the character’s genitalia, dehumanizes them. Arguing, as many have, that the trailer makes just as much fun of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s characters overlooks the fact that positive messages about white, cisgender males are everywhere in the media. Conversely, all too often, trans characters, and particularly trans women, are treated as visual punch lines and laughingstocks, which can lead to terrible, and even violent outcomes for trans people in real life, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
Trans People are Not Jokes: Zoolander 2’s trailer completely “otherizes” All. The whole point of All’s existence, judging from the trailer, is to baffle, and perhaps titillate, Stiller and Wilson. For real transgender people, who need to visit the doctor, buy groceries, and apply for jobs, etc., portrayals like this, where a famous cisgender actor inhabits a trans part and treats it as an exotic departure and a joke, only contribute to the considerable bias and discrimination they already encounter. While complex, multi-dimensional trans characters played by trans actors, like those in this summer’s film Tangerine, help humanize transgender identities, ones like All reduce them to caricatures.
Trans People Face Great Discrimination and Violence: Two days after Zoolander 2’s trailer appeared, Trans Day of Remembrance ceremonies were held around the world, commemorating the loss of transgender people murdered because of their identities. In the U.S. this year, there have been 23 transgender people murdered, mostly young women of color. The message jokes about the character All send – that trans people aren’t real, that it’s fine to gawk at and objectify them, and that it’s a cisgender male stranger’s business to know about their genitalia – is the same message that leads people to harass, physically assault and murder trans people, particularly young trans people of color, all across our country.
“Jokes” like the ones in the Zoolander 2 trailer have never been funny to transgender people. Hopefully the current outcry, and the education accompanying it, will help others learn to agree that trans lives are no laughing matter.
By Mikki Gillete, is the Donor Outreach Coordinator at Basic Rights Oregon
image via Flickr