In Netflix’s new show SuperNature, Ricky Gervais uses his time to poke fun at transgender women and the increasing number of people who affirm them. And why wouldn’t he? The news is putting a massive spotlight on transgender people. Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, won the NCAA national championship for the 500 freestyle in swimming. Caitlyn Jenner ran for governor of California, after making an equally large splash when she came out as transgender in 2015. State legislatures across the country are enacting new laws that pertain to transgender individuals, from bans in Utah and Iowa on transgender individuals participating in sports based on their gender identity to bounty hunter-style laws in Texas and Oklahoma on parents of transgender children. Comedy is a commentary on the world, and attempts to reflect real-world issues. However, Gervais uses his commentary to join the pile-on on transgender people instead of poking fun at the ridiculous systems that attack them.
To start his bit, Gervais talks about “old women” v. “new women”. Old women, he says, have wombs, whereas new women have cocks and beards. This joke makes sex and gender sound like a hairstyle or a kind of pants that one generation found really cool and the next generation doesn’t. This sounds an awful lot like the problematic replacement theory perpetuated by Tucker Carlson. 1 But how grounded is this in reality? What number of women have wombs (cisgender) and what number don’t (transgender, intersex, or nonbinary)? While measures of the transgender population are not uniformly collected by the government, studies suggest that the number of transgender adults is under 1% of the United States
population. 2 That certainly doesn’t sound like replacement levels for cisgender women.
So why this line between old and new? Part of it could be increased visibility. Whereas queer women have always existed, their open participation in public life has previously been highly restricted. Prejudiced laws prohibited cross-dressing, pants, and homosexual activity, and police wielded minor loitering and noise ordinances to harass and scare those who didn’t conform to society’s standards of gender. Culturally, measures were taken to limit the amount of transgender content in film and television, with stations and regulators pushing a cisgender agenda. Much like when you notice your model of car everywhere after you buy it, it can seem like everyone is transgender when you’re used to not seeing any representation.
Not all visibility has been good. Transgender individuals have appeared in the news recently for being singled out by state legislatures for damaging laws. Conservative states are pushing to ban transgender individuals from bathrooms, sports, and public life, even though there have been zero problems with transgender individuals in these spaces. The Utah legislature overrode a veto on a ban on participation of transgender student athletes in sports, even though it affects four of the 75,000 athletes, only one of which is a transgender girl. 3 There are very few of the promised sexual assaults conservatives said would result from transgender women using public bathrooms, and not enough talk about the high rates of sexual assault against transgender women. These pushes therefore do nothing to protect anyone, and only exist to push an agenda and help conservatives maintain power.
If transgender women are such a small minority and more often the victims than the perpetrators of problems, what good does it do anyone to produce this idea that transgender women are coming for cisgender women? One explanation is that it pulls the spotlight off of real problems. In a tried and tested strategy of conservative groups, they are sounding the alarm about an enemy that doesn’t exist in order to create promises to “protect” you from them. We saw this strategy from Donald Trump when he built a campaign on building a border fence to “save” us from Latin Americans. Republicans used this strategy with Muslims, painting them broadly as terrorists and cumulating in Trump announcing a ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries. In this instance, Republicans are crafting a narrative that transgender women are really men who just weren’t good enough for masculinity and decided to give up. They can then enact laws to save us from this fake menace, and attack transgender women while appearing to care about cisgender women.
Fortunately, we as citizens and voters are smarter than conservative politicians think we are. We are able to be concerned about both high rates of violence against transgender women, the difficulties they face in participating in society, and living their lives without fear, at the same time as we are concerned about the still prevalent wage gap between women and men, discrimination and underrepresentation of women in business, politics, and leadership, and the high rates of violence against cisgender women. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; this doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. Instead of trying to rip down “others”, why not rip down those who are trying to divide us?
The best comedy makes fun of those who have power to bring them down a notch, not those who are hurting. Given the amount of attacks and hate the transgender community gets, maybe Gervais should try some different material.
1 Confessore N, Decker B, Silver J, & Tate J. Inside the Apocalyptic Worldview of ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’. New York
Times. May 1, 2022: A19. Accessed June 12, 2022.
2 Meerwijk EL, Sevelius JM. Transgender Population Size in the United States: a Meta-Regression of Population-
Based Probability Samples. Am J Public Health. 2017;107(2):e1-e8.
3 Cox SJ. Veto Letter of House Bill 11, 2022.