Ask Me Anything: ‘Is Transface Offensive?’

Maura Tierney, left, and Dave Foley, right, Newsradio.

It’s Trans Awareness Week, and I’m cruising various trans friends’ related AMA threads. A friend-of-a-friend asks—

Do Monty Python and The Kids in the Hall, etc, offend anyone in the trans community because the men in those groups portray women?

‘Offend anyone in the trans community?’

Oh, yes, most definitely. But not because men are portraying women. (Women may be offended by men mockingly portraying women, but that’s a different question.)

The problems for trans women happen when men are either understood to be portraying trans women, or men portraying women or men dressed as women are understood to represent trans women.

Note that the original intention of the portrayal is irrelevant to the harm caused; what figures is how the portrayal is received. This means that the offensiveness of a piece can change with time and cultural framework.

This is called ‘transface’, analogous to blackface. Remember how funny those old blackface skits were? No? How do you think mocking portrayals of trans women by men will be viewed in future?

This image is offensive — exactly as much and for the same reasons as the preceding image. Did you not find the preceding image offensive? That’s interesting.

And again, whether or not something is transface depends on how the drag is understood, which means the whole thing rides on quite a lot of nuance, in a way that blackface doesn’t.

Pythoneers clouting passers-by with handbags and shrieking? Misogynist, maybe, but probably not transface. Dude in a dress pretending to be confused about his gender? Blatant transface. Maura on Transparent? Uh…not sure? But my discomfort is substantial.

If the day comes that trans women are no longer commonly viewed as men pretending to be women, then these drag portrayals will no longer affect trans women differently to other women — we’ll all just be offended as women…

By the way, the reason this issue is muddy right now is that, here in many parts of the west, we are culturally right at the acceptability inflection-point for transface. Once it is more generally understood that mocking trans women is not acceptable, then what is and is not ‘OK’ in drag portrayals will be a lot clearer.

Thank you for asking. ❤


[OMG debate: 
1. I’ve been asked about the term transface. I explain it further here.
2. I’ve been taken to task for comparing transface to blackface, and for using an image of blackface. I respond here.]

This is part of my Ask Me Anything series. Ask me anything in the comments…

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