I watch a lot of sitcoms. Lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve run out of good shows to watch. I’ve exhausted the options on Canadian Netflix.
Sitcoms are part of my wind-down bedtime routine, and I’m a little lost without them. So I’m hunting for anything that’s even tolerable to watch. But as a trans person with radical politics, tolerable is hard to find.
There’s this moment that I’m always bracing myself for when I watch sitcoms. The moment when the writers first punch me in the stomach with a transphobic joke. It’s usually a trans-misogynistic joke about sex workers.
I recently went back to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and started watching from the beginning. The show makes it to episode 19 before putting a man in a dress as an object of ridicule. Feeling gross, I stop watching the show. I return to The Mindy Project, which I’d stopped watching at S2E2 because of some horrible jokes about consent. I decide to give it one more chance. I get two episodes farther before a joke centres around de-gendering a sex worker and laughing at her because she’s trans. I quit another show, feeling gross. I’ve quit at least a dozen sitcoms because of their dehumanizing transphobia.
(Pictured: The Fresh Prince, dabbling in trans-misogynist jokes.)
It’s not just transphobia, though - sitcoms are full of regressive writing. They kick down more often than they punch up. Sitcoms are too often a landscape full of misogyny, racism, ableism, classism, and other garbage.
So why keep watching? Why not abandon the genre altogether? Well, for starters, because The Wire doesn’t help me fall asleep.
But beyond that, I think there is something important about sitcoms and other television comedies. They are amazingly well-positioned to both normalize things and make other things absurd. Brooklyn Nine Nine is an excellent example of this - Raymond Holt is a strong, gay, Black commanding officer. He’s competent and no-nonsense. The fact that he’s a gay captain is normalized. What the show points its absurdity spotlight on, however, is how Jake Peralta’s stereotypes about LGBT identities are so narrow and reductive. Similarly, the show normalizes having a racially diverse working environment. What it often shines its absurdity spotlight on, however, is the white privilege carried by some of its characters.
(Pictured: the cast of Brooklyn Nine Nine.)
Comedy brings levity to difficult issues, and in doing so can make them more accessible to explore and deconstruct. But it’s a tool to be used thoughtfully. It can punch up at oppressive structures or kick down at the people who are already hurting the most.
The world needs more progressive sitcoms. The world needs shows willing to normalize human diversity and call out the absurdity of oppressive ideas. The world needs more laughter that is life-affirming rather than life-demeaning.
That’s why I’m excited about working on The Switch. It’s a show written by trans people about the diversity of transgender experiences. It touches upon sex work, employment discrimination, housing crises, dating fears, race, and more. It normalizes transgender protagonists while shining a spotlight on the absurdity that trans people have to navigate in their daily lives.
I think the show is really important. I hope you’ll check it out and support it. It’s on Kickstarter until August 8.
(Pictured: The Switch.)