The network is facing a growing tide of resentment in the form of multiple online petitions and scathing commentaries charging the series is insensitive to transgender people, based largely on ABC’s clips and promo campaign for the show. “Work It,” which premieres Jan. 3, depicts a pair of heterosexual men who dress up as women in order to get jobs at a pharmaceutical company.
The Alphabet agreed to meet with GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works for equal rights on behalf of LGBT individuals, at their behest, according to sources, but no meetings have yet taken place.
Though few outside the industry have seen a full episode of “Work It,” HRC has mobilized its followers to contact the network.
“Let them know we can’t support programming that belittles and mocks those who do not adhere to society’s gender norms,” reads an HRC website that enables readers to bombard ABC, which declined comment, with emails.
The protests are an unlikely development for “Work It,” which so far been mostly panned by critics who have dismissed the series for dusting off jokes about cross-dressing that seemed fresher decades ago coming from Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”
But while campy fare that bends gender conventions has a long history in Hollywood, a group increasingly vocal about the discrimination they face could raise new questions as to how this humor is being received.
Unlike critics, bloggers and other groups criticizing “Work It,” advocates leading the charge against the show haven’t actually seen the pilot. But the very premise of the series has raised hackles because its humor plays on a rigidity in traditional gender roles that LGBT advocates would like to see relaxed given the millions of people struggling with identities that blur the line between male and female.
An ABC ad for the series that depicts the male characters hiking up their skirts standing in front of urinals has been particularly inflammatory, according to advocates. The workplace is a very sensitive issue given the high levels of prejudicial behavior transgender people encounter there, according to numerous studies, as well as unemployment.
“Transgender people and anyone who doesn’t fit narrow gender stereotypes experience high rates of discrimination and bias in the workplace,” said Masen Davis, executive director of Transgender Law Center, one of the orgs alerting its members to the show. “The humor shouldn’t have to depend on negative portrayals of who folks who are already having a hard time on the job.”
That could make criticism of the series a stretch, as could the fact that cross-dressing has been the subject of numerous TV and film comedies. But as many objectors to “Work” are noting, this humor could now seem tone-deaf to those increasingly vocal in recent years about the discrimination and other social pressures faced by transgender people.
“When Tom Hanks, who played our fluffy-haired protagonist in ‘Bosom Buddies,’ was hiking up a bustier in the ’80s, there was no summer camps for transgender kids,” wrote Emerson Whitney, a writer on transgender issues for the Huffington Post. “When Robin Williams was readjusting his wig for ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ there was no media coverage of Transgender Day of Remembrance. There was no controversy about hormone blockers.”
Ironically, ABC drew praise earlier this season in some quarters for putting an openly transgender celebrity, Chaz Bono, on the latest season of “Dancing With the Stars.” The series drew plenty of protests from groups that objected to the casting because they claimed it “normalized” transgender behavior.
Even though GLAAD criticized “Work,” it also saluted the network’s track record with transgender characters and actors on “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Ugly Betty.” When it comes to representing the transgender community in a fair and accurate way, ABC has routinely led the network pack,” wrote GLAAD’s Matt Kane in a blog post on the organization’s website.
Now ABC will have to negotiate a delicate dance with advocacy groups, a rite no TV season seems to be without at least once a year upon invoking the wrath of a group representing some ethnicity, religion, political party or sexual orientation.
Transgender groups are no exception in that regard. Earlier this month, Neil Patrick Harris publicly apologized for offhandedly referring to a transgender individual as a “tranny” in an appearance on talk show “Live With Kelly.” Shows from “Saturday Night Live” to “Family Guy” have drawn protests for jokes playing on stereotypes about hetero revulsion toward transgenderhood.
The jokes might not be so offensive, notes Davis, if TV offered anything else in the way of more three-dimensional portrays of transgender people. “We tend to be on TV as either the murderer, the victim or the butt of a joke,” he said.
ABC Entertainment prexy Paul Lee himself has emerged as a target for LGBT critics. Kelli Busey of the Dallas Transgender Advocates and Allies, implores the exec in her own petition, “Mr. Lee, if you choose to continue ignoring the public outcry against ‘Work It,” your network will contribute directly in enhancing and promoting discrimination against transgender peoples.”
The potential to offend transgender people did not come up during a TCA press conference in July with Lee, who joked with critics attacking the show’s low-brow humor. “I’m a Brit, it is in my contract that I have to do one cross-dressing show a year; I was brought up on ‘Monty Python.'”