Bosom Buddies

01.03.12

Boycott the Cross-Dressing Show! ABC’s New Sitcom ‘Work It’ Doesn't Work

Tonight ABC debuts a sitcom in which two manly men don dresses to try to get jobs posing as women. The gay and lesbian community isn’t laughing. And neither will anyone else, says Noelle Howey, the daughter of a transgender parent.

Work It, ABC’s new men-in-dresses show, is billed as a comedy. Science fiction may be a more accurate description.

In a nutshell: After having been laid off, two manly men are unable to get new jobs. (How manly are they? So manly that they swill a half-dozen bottles of beer at every sitting, cracking jokes about consuming meals while using the toilet.) Of course, their habitual drinking and general boorishness are not why they are unemployed. The problem is that ladies have taken over the workforce. (And the reason for women’s dominance? Their sex appeal. Natch.)

So, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. In this case, don a pair of pumps, slip into a dress, and sashay into a shiny new job.

Who’d have ever thought that changing your gender identity would be such a winning employment strategy?

And who thought we needed to bring back a ruder, coarser version of Bosom Buddies?

Not the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation or the Human Rights Campaign. The two groups took out a recent full-page ad in Variety excoriating Work It. “[The network] should know how offensive this show is, and that it even has the potential to jeopardize the safety of many transgender Americans in the process,” the ad says.

It’s offensive not just to transgender people, with its stereotypical images of burly men in kitten heels hiking up their dresses to use the urinals, but also to any men, women, children—anyone—seeking entertainment.

The furor has continued online, with a number of bloggers and advocates calling for ABC to pull the program.

They’re right that Work It would be a negative addition to our cultural conversation. Happily, there’s little chance of that happening. That’s because the show is unwatchable.

It’s offensive not just to transgender people, with its stereotypical images of burly men in kitten heels hiking up their dresses to use the urinals, but also to any men, women, children—anyone—seeking entertainment. Sample knee-slapper: “Most of the girls who interview [for pharmaceutical-sales jobs] think clinical trials are something Lindsay Lohan has to go to.”

I watched advance episodes of the show with particular interest, as my own father transitioned in real life from male to female, back in 1990. There was nothing funny about it when it came to her career. Over the next few years, her earnings as an advertising creative director declined by 50 percent, and most of her job opportunities dried up. At one point, she got a position as a creative director of a small firm and nabbed the agency’s first million-dollar account—beating out a short list dominated by larger, glossier firms. One week later, Dad was fired. She wasn’t absolutely certain why; as a new employee, she could be let go at will. But it may have had something to do with the fact that, during that short period of time, her boss learned she used to be a man.

Video screenshot

Noelle Howey explains why 'Work It' doesn't work.

Discrimination of any kind is notoriously hard to prove. But in any case, it wouldn’t have mattered. In 34 states—including the one my dad lived in at the time—there are no laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. Meaning, yes, trans people can be fired simply for being who they are, with little or no recourse. About one in four transgender Americans reports losing a job because of gender identity, according to a national transgender-discrimination survey released last February by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Transgender people report double the unemployment rate as the rest of the population. And even for those who keep their jobs, a stunning 90 percent of trans people say they have experienced disrespect, discrimination, and even violence on the job. Cue the laugh track!

In a television season that has already seen the failure of other paleo-sitcoms featuring guys with masculinity issues (How to Be a Gentleman, Man Up!), it seems unlikely that this ham-handed entry will succeed.

It’s also unlikely to resonate with the public because the dude-in-a-dress genre itself is flirting with oblivion. Try to name the last wildly popular or critically acclaimed cross-dressing comedy. Chances are, you can think of many wincingly bad flops of the White Chicks variety.

Excluding star vehicles like Adam Sandler’s recent, reviled Jack and Jill or Tyler Perry’s Madea movies—both of which are a bit different, since the men actually play female characters—it’s a pretty sparse field of contenders. There’s a reason for that: in a world in which men and women, and gay people and straight, are increasingly perceived as having more commonalities than differences, gender-switcheroo comedies simply seem outdated.

ABC isn’t going to pull Work It from the schedule. And it shouldn’t. Better for all of us that it dies a natural death from simple repulsion and lack of interest. That way, before another pilot gets greenlighted featuring manly men trying to apply mascara and squeeze into Spanx—all the while making tone-deaf pronouncements about women—the powers-that-be will think: let’s skip it.