Recently, I commented on a series of ads featuring trans women characters from the Swedish corporation IKEA. There I commented that two of the three ads they created fell simplistically into the realm of trans-misogynistic tropes and weren’t really all that clever on the whole. The humor of the Thai language ad, for which IKEA has since publicly apologized, in particular boils down to a man discovering that the woman he is with is trans and him literally running the other way in response.
However, I stated there that I could probably go along with some of the intended humor in those ads, if they didn’t just so neatly boil down to classic anti-trans woman tropes. In that vein, I was somewhat intrigued when I saw the following skit from last week’s Saturday Night Live, featuring Justin Timberlake.
Briefly recounting for anyone who might not be able to view the video, it’s basically a film preview style parody of dime-a-dozen romantic comedies in which Timberlake’s character falls in love with a non-op or pre-op trans woman (Melanie, in the stereotyped role of “an adorable brunette”). Throughout most of the 1:45 minute preview, Timberlake’s character dramatizes an internal struggle with the idea of dating a woman with a penis, while his friend at work (in the role of “a confused black friend”) comments repeated variations on, “Wait, what, she’s got a d***?” to constant laugh track response. The character intimating the Melanie’s father, in a stylized version of Eugene Levy, states, “Well sweetheart, if he can’t accept all of you, he doesn’t deserve any of you.”
Halfway through the preview, Timberlake’s character shows up outside the woman’s apartment screaming, “Melanie, I don’t care! Come on! let me in.” The title of the film, “She’s got a D!%k,” is announced right at the end, followed by the “confused black friend” character finally commenting, “can I see it?”
Okay, first of all, the repeated laugh track harping in response to bleeped out variations of “she has a dick” from the Confused Black Friend (CBF) character is aggravating from the start and doesn’t let up even at the very end. And I emphasize, it’s the laugh track in particular that makes this so annoying. I mean, yes, women with penises exist, some people will chuckle, but for how long could that alone really be funny?
And for some reason they couldn’t come up with anything more clever than “She’s got a d!%k” for the title. I mean, I’m sure if I spent half an hour on it I could come up with something with a more clever play on words than just putting ‘dick’ in huge, *-ed out letters on the screen. (“A Hard Road to the Heart”? Maybe just “Every Rose”? I spent like two minutes to come up with those two).
But okay, it’s my job to critique, and I have to acknowledge that ultimately the humor doesn’t just completely center on the fact that there is a woman with a penis on the screen. That’s *most* of the humor, for sure, but there’s other dynamics involved (mainly making fun of romance comedy tropes and characters themselves, regardless of who has what genitalia).
Like I mentioned, putting “She’s got a D!%k” as the title in huge letters takes away from that a lot cause it centers things on her body in kind of a cheap way again, but overall I think this sketch could be viewed as a step towards laughing about gender in a context that does involve a trans woman character, but tries to make the joke a little bit more sophisticated than just chuckling over her body.
And of course, it’s key that the sketch ultimately contains a theme of acceptance, as Timberlake’s character gets past his hesitations and learns to embrace Melanie in her entirety (also I have to admit, they pulled off the playful, flirty scenes and the make-out scenes pretty well, that part felt kinda believable for a moment).
However in the end, the moment that shifted me towards going along with the sketch more so than against it, the moment that I really laughed out loud, was right at the end when the CBF character said, changed his demeanor a bit and uttered, “Can I see it?”
I like that line cause I think it arguably exposes those previous obsessions, “SHE’S GOTTA WHAT?” as having possibly been fetishistic in the first place. Now I want to emphasize that I am not saying that fetishizing trans women is a good thing (obviously, that’s awful). What I am trying to say is that given how common those kind of responses are in real life, I think SNL is offering a bit of social commentary with that line, in which a possible ulterior motive is suggested. In fact, I think there’s an element of subtle truth in that line.
[Edit: However, let me emphasize that what the CBF character is doing here, asking permission to see his friend's girlfriend's genitalia is in fact totally misogynistic and creepy. However, it just felt to me in the end that the joke was on his character rather than on the trans woman character. Others might disagree though, of course.]
So, overall, I think if I had to rate this sketch, I would put it at something like the C+/B- border. The laugh track (which really narrowly focuses the humor on her body) and the title tend to drag it down to the C+ arena, while the final line of the preview offers a moment of redemption in my view.
So I’m not saying it was actually good. It wasn’t. Just saying, I guess it could have been significantly worse?