In the latest episode of the still-running cartoon South Park, the show picked up Fox News talking points about trans athletes and ran as far as they could with them, which apparently isn’t very far at all.
The seventh episode of the definitely-not-asked-for 23rd season of the show, titled “Board Girls,” featured a “trans woman” (in quotes, because it’s revealed that he’s a man pretending to be a trans woman) who looks and sounds like the late professional wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage.
The “trans woman” in question, Heather Swanson, says that she started identifying as a woman “two weeks ago” and subsequently enters a local Strongwoman tournament. When asked why she looks and sounds the way she does, Heather says, “I’m not here to talk about my transition, I’m here to kick some f**king ass.” After she dominates the competition, it’s revealed that she’s really a man: the ex-boyfriend of another weightlifter, who pretended to be a woman in order to make his ex-girlfriend look bad.
OK, there’s just so much wrong here. First of all, most trans athletes have to adhere to very strict hormone testing before they are allowed to compete in accordance with their gender. For example, a trans woman who wants to compete in the Olympics must demonstrate a testosterone level below 10 nmol/L for at least a year before their first competition. Secondly, this just a repetition of the world’s oldest trans trope: the idea that trans women are just men in disguise up to no good. So even if it wasn’t actively harmful, it would still be the laziest possible depiction of transgender people.
But it is actively harmful. Reinforcing the idea, even unintentionally, that trans women are fraudulent decievers leads to violence — like when men flirt or sleep with trans women, “find out that they’re really men,” and assault or murder them for “tricking” them. This is exactly what happened to Jennifer Laude, a trans woman who was killed by a U.S. Marine in the Philippines in 2015.
Her killer, Joseph Pemberton, argued in court that drowning Laude in a toilet bowl was justified because of her so-called deception. That argument, sometimes referred to as the “trans panic defense,” is still legal in 42 states.
It might seem like “just a joke” from a show known to push boundaries, but it’s hardly funny when Black trans women and other trans women of color are killed every year because this exact line of thinking allowed their murderers to view them as less than human. Nearly two dozen transgender people have been killed so far this year, and the majority of perpetrators were their sexual or romantic partners.
Honestly, I have to ask: Do Trey Parker and Matt Stone — the men behind South Park — really think that trans women athletes are actually men looking to get revenge on their exes? Do they really think that trans women are men who want to have an easier life? Do they really think that women have easier lives than men?
What is South Park’s motivation in creating such a storyline? From a viewer’s perspective, it seems the point is to belittle transgender people, to argue that we shouldn’t be able to compete in sports in accordance with the way we present ourselves to the world, and to treat our identities as punchlines. It seems like the show thinks that a trans woman, no matter what she looks like, has a certain level of privilege over cisgender people. It’s reminiscent of a recent Family Guy episode in which a bartender sees a trans woman on looking at porn her phone, begins to chastise her, and then realizes she is trans. “Do whatever you want all of the time,” he says apologetically.
Have these people ever read a news story about trans people? We’re not especially known for getting what we want or being able to do whatever we want.
If they had, they’d know that trans athletes are anything but happily welcome to compete as their real gender. Trans students are forced to either compete against the wrong gender or skip sports entirely, and states like South Dakota have fought tirelessly to introduce legislation that forces them to misgender themselves just to compete. Even cis women, like Olympic runner Caster Semenya, have fallen victim to strict gender enforcement in sports meant to target trans athletes.
Defenders of shows like South Park like to claim it’s an “equal opportunity offender,” that the show makes fun of everyone. I love comedy and I love edgy comedy, but this isn’t that. South Park is targeting an oppressed group which is already in the crosshairs of the federal government on a daily basis, a group it has already mocked and ridiculed for literally decades. Trans women have had our turn already.
These jokes don’t break new ground, they aren’t satire, and they aren’t making some greater point in the name of social commentary. They’re a waste of air time.