By Aaron Rose
Last week, The New Yorker ran a cover portraying Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as a beauty pageant queen walking the runway, wearing a tight leotard and heels, mascara streaming down his flushed cheeks, a hand raised to the tiara perched on his exaggeratedly long hair. The image’s intent is presumably humorous, meant primarily to show Trump caught in the country’s gaze, exposed and disgraced, his absurdity revealed for all to see. It is presented as a moment of truth. The audience is invited to see the real Trump, and to enjoy his humiliation and downfall.
This is not the first time we’ve seen critiques of Trump like this. This summer, statues of a naked Trump with shrunken genitalia appeared in major U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco. And memes featuring a sour-faced Trump wearing layers of makeup abound at this point.
What these images have in common is their use of Trump’s body as a site of truth telling, of unmasking—and therefore ridicule. But they also share the same approach for doing so: they attempt to take power back from Trump by feminizing him, using traditional markers of femininity (makeup, long hair, curves, emotions other than stoicism and anger) to signal his phoniness and impotence. They invite us to laugh at an emasculated Trump, to say, “how grotesque,” “how embarrassing,” “how pathetic.” It’s a familiar trope, emasculating one’s enemy. But jokes like these are not just sloppy—they’re dangerous.
Whenever we make femininity the butt of a joke, we are reinforcing the idea that femininity is silly, frivolous, and weak. And whenever we turn someone’s body into a punch-line, we are saying, yes, there is a right (and wrong) way to have a body. Whenever we make a joke that hinges on the idea that stripping someone naked reveals their true, deceptive inadequacies, we are fueling violence against non-normative bodies. These types of jokes insinuate that there is a proper way to be embodied, and people who are feminine, fat, disabled, intersex, and/or trans are doing it wrong. And that that failure is cause for rejection and harm.
These kinds of jokes have a long history, as does the violence they perpetuate and excuse. So far in 2016, 23 trans people have been murdered in the U.S., most of them trans women of color. Many of the people who committed these murders did so in response to a perceived act of deception when they realized a woman was trans. The man who beat Harlem-based trans woman Islan Nettles to death in 2013 reported being overcome with a “blind fury” when he realized that Nettles was trans while flirting with her. “I don’t care what they do,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be fooled.”
This violence is a product of not just misogyny and transphobia, but specifically transmisogyny. Writer Julia Serrano explains, “When the majority of jokes made at the expense of trans people center on ‘men wearing dresses’ or ‘men who want their penises cut off’...that is transmisogyny.” (Whipping Girl, 2007). When we make jokes about taking off someone’s clothing to reveal a lie that is a punishable offense, when we use femininity to shame and denigrate men, we create a hostile environment for transfeminine people and provide fodder for violence against them.
These jokes matter. A lot. They rely on the assumption that there is one right way to be a man or a woman, one right way to have a body. They imply that how you look is directly correlated to your character and worth. They suggest, as Trump would have us believe, that nothing is off limits.
Many creators of the images that depict a feminized, emasculated Trump have defended their work by explaining that the implied misogyny is self-aware, even ironic: they don’t hate femininity, but Trump does. They say it’s a funny and effective critique because he would be so embarrassed to see himself like this, portrayed the way he talks about his opponents—as a “fat pig,” a “slob,” a “faker,” “disgusting,” and “weak.”
Yes, it does sometimes seem like most of what Trump yells could be answered with the schoolyard retort, “I know you are, but what am I?!” But we’re better than that—or at least we can be. Trump may indeed find these images hurtful and emasculating, but that doesn’t make them OK. You’re still laughing at a man in a dress and inviting others to do the same.
The trope of mocking men in dresses is one that is inextricably linked to much of the violence against transfeminine people experience, wrongly perceived by others to be “deceiving” people with their femininity. We cannot circulate jokes that, regardless of intent, fuel and justify violence enacted against transfeminine people. Words and images have power. The damage is real.
The way to critique someone for screaming fatphobic, misogynist, ableist insults is not by screaming them back. We have to reject the premise of his claims, and say that gender, size, race, and ability are irrelevant when assessing someone’s character.
This is not about semantic, holier-than-thou political correctness. This is about life and death.
Humor can liberate us. It can empower and soothe in the face of callous harm. And I do believe that now more than ever, we need to laugh, to tell the truth, to find levity amidst the horror of politics (and beyond). But we can do it in a way that honors our humanity and does not jeopardize anyone else’s.
Aaron Rose (he/him/his) is an education strategist, curriculum developer, and activist who believes in the power of education to fuel social change. A lifelong New Yorker, Aaron is an avid history buff, a Harry Potter fan, and a reluctant recent coffee convert. Find Aaron online @aaronxrose and aaronxrose.com.