Transgender women are one of the most stigmatized and least understood populations within the LGBTQ community. As such, depictions of trans women in media are oftentimes incredibly offensive, but audiences absorb transphobic and transmisogynistic content without recognizing its problematic implications. The disproportionate oppression that transgender women face is linked to their portrayal in popular media in that media often uses slurs to describe transgender women, relies on tired tropes that reinforce negative stereotypes and utilize trans women as fodder for jokes rather than humanizing them as legitimate characters. For these reasons, it is crucial to analyze the ways in which transgender women are depicted in popular media. One such media source is “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” an episode of the TV show “Bob’s Burgers”; in this episode, Bob, the protagonist, takes a side job as a taxi driver and encounters three transgender women. The women, who are also sex workers, become regular customers of Bob’s and are featured somewhat prominently throughout the episode. The portrayal of sex workers and transgender women in the episode is better than most in that the cisgender characters are generally accepting of and friendly towards the women. Further, there are no overtly transphobic slurs and only one misgendering joke that invalidates the women’s gender identity. Upon further exploration of the episode, however, I discovered that there are several subtly transphobic or judgmental moments that I didn’t even notice at first, although I was watching specifically to analyze the episode’s treatment of trans women. The fact that I first perceived “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” as a generally positive representation speaks to the current state of depictions of transgender women in media; my excitement proves that my default expectation is that any TV portrayal of trans women will be terribly transphobic. “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” provides an example of the ways in which transgender and queer visibility in popular media are crucial to mainstream understandings of queerness, and also allows us to envision future possibilities for media and real-life representation of trans and queer people.
Transgender women face enormous danger and discrimination; the following data illustrate the oppression that trans women must endure on a daily basis. It is imperative to note that of any statistics that refer to discrimination against all transgender people, the overwhelming majority of those people will be trans women, and particularly trans women of color: “In examining reports of hate crimes against transgender people, researchers found that 98% of all “transgender” violence was perpetrated specifically against people in the male to-female spectrum” (Stevens 2012). Christina Stevens also cites an American survey of transgender adults, that found that half of respondents had experienced abuse or violence while one quarter of respondents had survived “hate-motivated physical/sexual assault or attempted assault” (Stevens 2012). According to the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are unemployed at double the rate of the general population, while 97% of respondents had experienced mistreatment or harassment while employed. Further, the study found that 15 percent of trans-identified people, again twice the rate of the general population, live below the poverty line (“Preliminary Findings”). These factors likely contribute to the suicidality rates of transgender people—49 percent attempt suicide (Stevens 2012).
Perhaps the scariest threat to transgender women’s lives is the extremely high risk of homicide. GLAAD’s analysis of homo/transphobic hate violence in 2012 found that “53% of anti-LGBTQ homicides were transgender women” (Giovanniello 2013).
The intersection of LGBTQ and racial identities plays an important role in who exactly is targeted in hate crimes and murders—trans people of color are even more at risk than white transgender people. The GLAAD survey also found that 73% of murders of LGBTQ people were perpetrated against people of color (Giovanniello 2013). In analyzing the dangers that transgender women face, one must understand that trans women of color are triply oppressed because of their identities as women, transgender, and people of color. This population is most susceptible to homicide: “Of the 38 murders of transgender people reported internationally in 2003, 70% were women of colour” (Stevens 2012). Stevens also quotes someone who reports that while 1 in 12 transgender women will be killed, that figure rises to 1 in 8 when considering transgender women of color (2012). The aforementioned statistics demonstrate horrifying threats to the safety of transgender women; this is precisely why it is crucial to explore trans women’s depictions in popular culture and popular discourse.
Naturally, society’s oppression of transgender women affects the ways in which this population is depicted in media, and vice versa. According to a recent Pew study, only 8% of Americans know someone who identifies as transgender. This same source notes that as such, it is “imperative that [the media] get [transgender issues] right” (“GLAAD’s Transgender Media”). Unfortunately, statistics show that the media has not been getting it right—an analysis of over one hundred television episodes featuring transgender characters found “anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue [present] in at least 61%” of episodes (“Victims or Villains”).
The one instance of overtly transphobic dialogue in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” is a misgendering remark made by a minor character. At Bob’s daughter’s Tina’s birthday party, Tina exclaims: “I just kissed my first boy!”, to which a cisgender man who’s been flirting with one of the women replies: “Me too!” (“Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”).
This damaging joke could have been turned into a teachable moment, perhaps by having the woman who was misgendered, her friends or a cisgender character explaining why invalidating a transgender woman’s identity is offensive. Unfortunately, the comment was glossed over benignly, with the target of the transphobia merely saying “Oh, shut up!” in a jokey way. Because of this incident, “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” would likely fall into the GLAAD study’s category of “anti-transgender” media.
Another more subtly transphobic element of the episode is the attention drawn to the women’s masculine features—not only does each woman have at least one physical sign that differentiates them from cisgender women, but these symbols are highlighted in sensationalizing close-up shots. When Bob first meets the three women, each one is closely zoomed in upon, not on their entire faces but their Adam’s apple, mustache and beard and arm hair, respectively. None of the women’s eyes are shown in these shots, dehumanizing them further.
The focus on trans women’s masculine features that prove their difference from cis women, whether conscious or not, discredits trans women’s identities. In discussing violence against gay men, Kate Bornstein asserts that the fear of gay and effeminate men often has more to do with their subversion of expected gender norms then anything else: “It has a lot to do with seeing that man violate the rules of gender in this culture. The first commandment for men is ‘Thou shalt not be a woman’” (Bornstein 104). While transgender women are not men, they are often understood by society as “actually” being men. Gerald Mallon writes of an “existing cultural hierarchy which classifies and subjugates trans people as being less real and less natural than nontrans people” (84). The illustration of the transgender characters in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” clearly demarcates these women from “natural” women.
Transgender women are often discriminated against by being told that they are not “real” women, and are oftentimes accused of attempting to deceive the world, and particularly cisgender men, by “pretending” to be women. Whether conscious or not, the decision made by the Bob’s Burgers animators to portray transgender women as more “man-like” than their cisgender counterparts is detrimental.
One of the largest failings of “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” is that throughout the entire episode, the women are incorrectly referred to as transvestites, a pejorative term for cross-dressers, rather than as transgender women. In the episode, one of the women makes a comment insinuating that she would like to undergo sexual reassignment surgery: “When it’s time for you to blossom into a woman, you can’t let anything stop you…not a town full of doctors who refuse to remove your penis” (“Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”). Generally, cross-dressers identify as men and do not wish to medically transition, so this comment seems to imply that the women Bob meets do, in fact, identify as women and are not “transvestites”. Since the term “transvestite” is not used correctly in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”, and would likely be identified as an outdated and somewhat offensive term by members of the transgender and queer communities, it appears that the writers of Bob’s Burgers did not actually consult any transgender people while writing the episode. Further, this error shows just how much more work needs to be done in the advancement of transgender issues—I cannot fathom a similar slip-up of gay and lesbian terminology going unnoticed or making it onto the screen! The Bob’s Burgers production team was clearly wrong in their use of the term “transvestite”. (While condemning the writers for their mistake, however, it is important to simultaneously note that the characters in Bob’s Burgers are not transphobic; rather, it’s due to an unfortunate botch of the show’s writers that the characters in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” subsequently use the term “transvestite” matter-of-factly rather than pejoratively.) I am disappointed by this mistake because “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” provided an opportunity to offer transgender women the visibility in popular media that is so crucial to the advancement of understanding of trans issues; instead, that opportunity was wasted because of the conflation of two discrete identities.
Other reinforcements of stereotypes and tropes against transgender women in Bob’s Burgers include their careers as sex workers, their associations with poverty and their drug use. According to GLAAD’s study: “The most common profession transgender characters were depicted as having was that of sex workers, which a fifth of all characters were depicted as” (“Victims or Villains”). The one slight consolation is that in Bob’s Burgers, the women’s work is not turned into a joke or looked down upon—when cisgender characters refer to the women as “transvestite prostitutes” and “transvestite hookers”, they do so without judgment. However, Bob does express some bewilderment when he comes home after his first night on the job, telling his family: “I picked up a group of transvestite hookers who showed me a side of this town I never knew existed” (Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”). While the women’s sex work isn’t considered problematic by the Belcher family, Gerard Mallon would argue that its inclusion in the episode certainly is: “The power of stereotypical images of trans people as prostitutes…cannot be erased. The resulting erasure of the identities of trans people of color and the silencing of their voices often precludes the consideration and inclusion of their concerns” (Mallon 93). Another important aspect to consider is Bob’s response to the location where the women work. By creating a boundary between the area where Bob raises his family and works at a respectable job and the seedy part of town where the trans women work, “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” perpetuates the notion that transgender women are poor. Not only are the trans women in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” linked to poverty and sex work, but they also use crack and drink heavily.
Further, the women have names such as ChaCha, Glitter and Marshmallow, which keep the women from being taken seriously. These names are likely intended to be humorous because they are trashy—I cannot imagine a cisgender character on TV being named Marshmallow or ChaCha! As proven above, “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” relies on the intersection of several tired tropes to reinforce the stereotypes of transgender women as sleazy crackheads and gaudy, poor prostitutes.
While most viewers of “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” will likely interpret the women’s sex work and lifestyles as negative, Jack Halberstam imagines a world in which one day, there might be space for alternative models of living that do not fit society’s current hegemonic standards. In his recent book, The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam discusses and condemns the prevalent standards of today’s society. In an interview with Sinclair Sexsmith, Halberstam asserts: “We’re living with one model of success and failure and one model alone. And that model is, that to make money and to advance professionally is what it means to be successful, and everything else is failure. That’s given us a zero-sum model against which we can judge our achievements in life, and that’s very unfortunate, because it squashes out all kinds of people doing alternative things for alternative reasons” (Sexsmith). Halberstam hopes that in the future, societal ideas about which lifestyles are considered acceptable will expand to include other models of living that are currently judged and condemned. He also argues that LGBTQ folks are ahead of the curve in this sense: “Queer people have actually been doing this for a long time precisely because we quickly fall out of the prevailing model of success and failure by not managing to meet the standards of gender and sexuality set for us” (Sexsmith). The transgender women in Bob’s Burgers definitely do not meet the prevailing model of success of which Halberstam speaks. Were Halberstam to watch “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”, he would likely wish that the portrayals of sex work and transgender women were even more normalized and less joked about. Halberstam makes it clear that “We need to measure ourselves against different standards” (Sexsmith).
Halberstam envisions a new way of doing things: a future of queer visibility that I too would like to see, given the current standards of normativity that dictate how queer people, including transgender women, are understood. Perhaps Halberstam’s dream is already being effected to a certain extent as transgender visibility is increasing in mainstream media, recent examples including Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox’s spot on The Katie Couric Show and Janet Mock’s interviews with Piers Morgan. Crucially, as these women are sensationalized, they are finally achieving the platform to speak out about the issues that are truly important to them and to discredit cisgender folks’ misunderstandings. Even Buzzfeed.com has recently published a quiz titled “How Transphobic Are You?”, encouraging participants not to use slurs or ask transgender people about their genitals. As the world evolves, so too will popular media, as the two are inextricably linked. Mainstream media is slowly beginning to take more notice of the injustices facing queer people, including calling out transphobia; I am excited to see where this leads in the future.
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw. S.l.: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Giovanniello, Sarah. “NCAVP Report: 2012 Hate Violence Disproportionately Target Transgender Women of Color.” GLAAD. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.glaad.org/blog/ncavp-report-2012-hate-violence-disproportionately-target-transgender-women-color>.
“GLAAD’s Transgender Media and Education Program.” GLAAD. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.glaad.org/transgender>.
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Mallon, Gerald P. Social Work Practice with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. New York: Haworth, 2008. Print.
“Preliminary Findings: National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality. N.p., Nov. 2009. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <http://transequality.org/Resources/Trans_Discrim_Survey.pdf>.
Schroeder, Jon. “”Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”” Bob’s Burgers. Fox. 6 Mar. 2011. Television.
Stevens, Christina. “Murder Statistics of Transgender People.” Patheos. N.p., 29 May 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd/2012/05/murder-statistics-of-transgender-people/>.
“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television.” GLAAD. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.glaad.org/publications/victims-or-villains-examining-ten-years-transgender-images-television>.