Rosie Wang, LSRJ Summer Legal Intern
*trigger warning for transphobia.
In mid-December of last year I was at the tail end of finals. I hadn’t left the two block radius around library for weeks. I kept coming up with terrible law jokes like: “What did the turtle say after he had to pay damages to a thin skull plaintiff? …Tort-is-hell.” Obviously, I was facing major burnout.
It was under those conditions that I decided to give up on studying in favor of escaping into a more cheerful version of mid-20’s New York life than I was currently leading – namely, by watching Netflix marathons of How I Met Your Mother. My classmates referenced it constantly and favorably as a cultural touchstone for our generation. I figured that since one of the main characters attended Columbia Law, it would almost be like studying vicariously. Well, Marshall had way too much free time to be remotely realistic as a law student and the show turned out to be virulently transphobic. It was a multi-season phenomenon (spoiler alerts ahead!):
[Barney pays an escort $500 to attend a social function with Ted.]
Barney: Ted you’re my cabrone, you think I’m going to stick you with some toothless tranny from Port Authority?
[Ted’s wonders why his friends dislike his date. He alternately imagines that she had a man falsely imprisoned for statutory rape, enjoys killing puppies, and the following:]
Ted: I’ll be back in one second.
Kathy: I bet he’s going to the urinal. Yeah, I remember when I had a penis.
Ted: If there’s some potential “Ohhh….” [dealbreaker] moment, I want know about it right away. I mean, what’s the alternative?
[Cut to fantasy sequence Robin and Ted at the altar]
Priest: I now pronounce you man and wife.
Ted: I love you.
Robin: I used to be a dude.
[Ted, in a rough part of town, is approached by a blonde woman shortly after being approached by a cross dressed, possibly transgender sex worker.]
Ted: Look, mister you are very convincing, and I’m very flattered. Confused, even, but I’m not looking –
Zoe: Definitely not a drag queen. But you have me rethinking this eyeshadow.
[Later in the episode after Ted compliments her looks.]
Zoe: That’s sweet. It would be sweeter if you hadn’t said I was a tranny before, but it’s still sweet.
[Ted wonders why his date is secretive. A fantasy sequence ensues where Ted is in the bathroom of the restaurant and Janet comes in.]
Ted: This is the men’s room.
[Janet strides to the urinal and hikes up her dress.]
Janet: I know. I’m a dude.
Ted: [gasp of horror]
Ted, the main character, the everyman we are supposed to champion and identify with, apparently lives in constant fear of transgender people and his friends are not much better. HIMYM consistently takes cheap, easy shots at trans people, a kneejerk reaction to the portrayal of transgender sexuality and bodies as something unfamiliar to be feared. The writers clearly assume that the audience will guffaw along with this, because they assume that everyone agrees that a person undergoing a gender transition is the least desirable partner possible, someone’s worst nightmare. And on top of being portrayed as inherently unattractive, transgender people are also portayed as inherently immoral. Ted imagines trans women as predators who trap poor deceived straight men into marriage by pretending they are cis-women (because how else would they find a romantic partner)! People in the transgender community even belong in the same train of thought as sadists who target baby animals. The slur “tranny” is bandied about as if it were hilarious in and of itself. Zoe, who later becomes Ted’s serious girlfriend, uses it in an especially clueless way by equating cross dressers, drag queens, and “trannies” into one non-conforming group of People She is Insulted To Be Associated With.
The message that biology trumps any internal sense of self or personal choice is reinforced through Ted’s imaginings. The hypothetical “reveals” are always crass and focused on intimate anatomy and bodily functions. People are identified as transgender, not because of different gender expression, but because they visually or verbally announce the presence of a penis or erstwhile penis. All this is completely disassociated from any reference to internal sense of self or humanity.
If it seems ridiculous that this actually happens on a show watched by over 9 million people, what is even more startling to is that HIMYM has won six Emmy’s and was nominated for a GLAAD award. The GLAAD nomination probably is a result of HIMYM starring an openly gay actor and writing a gay brother for him (who is a total amalgamation of non-threatening gay stereotypes). However, Neil Patrick Harris’ sexual orientation in no way begins to excuse the frequent potshots at people with gender identities that do not match the biological sex they were born with. Indeed, GLAAD awards are given to recognize “outstanding images of the LGBT community,” but what part of being outstanding is the tired trope of “gay panic” supposed to fit into?
Season 8 of HIMYM starts in two months. Its highly anticipated as the season in which the audience might find out the answer to the titular question, but I’d rather know when these characters will meet some empathy.