2 min

Transgender people in advertising

In October, General Mills’ Totino’s brand ran a promotion called Who’s the next Totino’s Pizza Stuffers Mom? It included dramatized video of actors playing mothers auditioning for the role. All the videos were meant to be funny, including one that showed what was obviously a “masculine” man dressed up in comedic women’s makeup, wig and dress. The joke was that this guy wanted to win so badly he was willing to dress in women’s clothing.
Men-dressed-like-women-for-laughs is a tried and true attention-getting device in advertising. In 2010, a Miller Lite commercial featured a guy in a skirt being told to “man up” by choosing the right beer. A 2009 commercial for KGB text service showed a guy forced to dress in women’s clothing after losing a sports bet. A 2008 commercial from Australia featured a fundraising promotion called Cross Dress for Red Cross, which showed average blokes acting silly in dresses. A 2008 Renault commercial from France showed a young man discovering his father in full drag waiting to get into a nightclub. But this one ended a little more constructively, with the son asking his dad to help him get into the club too.
The trouble with all these ads is that they use people who adopt the appearance of a gender other than their own, as a form of entertainment. Of course, this isn’t anything new. Men-dressed-like-women has been played for comedy for centuries. In recent times, we have Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell played by William Hutt, Geoffrey Rush and Brian Bedford. In movies, there’s Some Like It Hot and any number of releases like Sorority Boys. Every male improv actor’s prop box includes a shabby women’s wig for when a quick laugh is required.
Given this long history, I was astonished by what happened in response to the Totino’s video. Someone named Carla Lewis sent a petition to General Mills pointing out that the video made fun of transgender people, spread misinformation and contributed to the abuse transgender people endure on a daily basis. What was astonishing is that General Mills agreed, apologized and cancelled the entire promotion.
This represents a major cultural shift. A multinational corporation has publicly acknowledged that it doesn’t have the right to make fun of transgender people in advertising. One of the last remaining groups who could be publicly ridiculed is finally being shown a little respect.
The question is, what happens now? Are all instances of men dressing as women for laughs out of bounds? What about Halloween? What about drag shows by performers who only do it for entertainment value?
Maybe what’s important in this discussion is context. As a gay man, it doesn’t bother me to see another gay man portray wildly flamboyant, feminine behavior. But when I see a straight man doing it – especially when he’s only doing it to sell a product – I take offence.
Are men dressed as women for entertainment value acceptable if it’s done sensitively? I don’t know. Only transgender people can say how it makes them feel, and whether it contributes to their safety in public or puts them more at risk.
Unfortunately, Carla Lewis’ response to the Totino’s ad was widely seen as political correctness out of control. And yes, Carla’s protest does seem hypersensitive in light of the almost universal use of cross-dressing punch lines. But the surest way to help transgender people become less sensitive about offensive representations is for the media to start balancing those representations with realistic transgender portrayals.
In the meantime, it’s essential for transgender people – and everyone who values human rights – to keep pointing out insensitivity and intolerance, until the rest of us get it.