The CBS sitcom Mike & Molly went over the line last night with an offensive scene predicated on the hateful notion that transgender people are inherently disgusting. After constituents and trans community leaders spoke out against the joke last night, GLAAD discussed the issue with CBS directly, with additional follow up planned.
The offensive scene came within the first few minutes of the February 11 episode entitled "The Princess and the Troll." In the scene, the show's main character Mike is talking with his police partner and best friend Carl about Carl's checkered romantic past of picking up downtrodden women off the street:
Carl: It's been a long time since I've trolled for bus pass ass.
Mike: (Laughing) Not since the shemale incident of '08. You spent the whole night crying and gargling!
Carl: Learned a lot of lessons that night.
The use of the derogatory term "shemale" is offensive in and of itself, but Mike goes on to categorize what happened as a traumatic experience which left Carl disgusted and weeping with regret. The joke relies on the assumption that transgender people (and the thought of being with one) are revolting, and invites the audience to laugh right along. And last night that audience was 10.4 million people.
Humor like this is unfortunately much more than "just a joke." When a minority group is repeatedly made the object of ridicule, the majority finds it much harder to see them as fellow human beings deserving of dignity and respect, which can have direct real-life consequences. In addition to being hurtful and dehumanizing, it's sentiments like the ones driving these jokes that fuel the disproportionately high levels of discrimination and violence faced by transgender women.
What's worse, in this instance, it's the show's main character that is making the jokes. Rather than coming from a secondary character the audience already recognizes as ignorant and bigoted (such as Joyce's boyfriend Vince), in this case it's Mike himself. He is the character the audience is expected to identify with and root for, which gives the anti-transgender sentiment he expresses an added layer of validity.
A 2011 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that transgender people faced twice the rates of unemployment and four times the rate of homeless compared to the general population, with 47% saying coming out as transgender cost them a job or promotion. In schools, 78% transgender and gender-nonconforming kids reported being harassed, with 35% also reported having been physically assaulted. 57% of respondents reported significant family rejection, and a staggering 41% said they had at once point attempted suicide. The national average is 1.6%.
As their repeated failing grades in GLAAD's Network Responsibility Index demonstrate, CBS has long struggled to include fair and accurate depictions of the LGBT community and have ranked last among the broadcast networks for four years in a row. Transgender representation on the network is easily their worst area, as transgender people are typically mentioned only as off-screen punchlines, as was the case here. In the rare instances that they actually are allowed to appear, it's often as victims or killers on police procedurals, like a recent episode of CSI which depicted a transgender drug mule who graphically kills herself in a fit of insanity. In fact, GLAAD's 2012 survey of transgender representation on television over the last decade found that CSI was one of the worst repeat offenders.
Ironically, this comes just as Mike & Molly star Melissa McCarthy's personal appearance was attacked by a film critic, who among other things referred to her as a "hippo" in a film review. McCarthy's legions of fans rightly came to her defense and decried Reed's insults as cheap shots. Her show's writers might want to consider how hurtful and damaging their own words can be the next time they think about targeting transgender people to get a laugh.
This morning, GLAAD spoke with CBS's Vice President of Diversity & Communications who is discussing the issues directly with the show. CBS has also committed to meeting with GLAAD staff to discuss the offensive scene, as well as a number of other incidents on CBS comedies and dramas in the past year that increasingly add up to a disturbing trend. GLAAD is calling on CBS to put an end to anti-trans content for the sake of a laugh and to treat trans issues with greater sensitivity.
Viewers who wish to report additional defamatory content they witness can do by sharing the information here.