By consistently making jokes at the expense of transgender people, Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) are using their bully pulpit to perpetuate transphobia. Consequently, they are contributing to the perpetuation of exclusion, harassment, and violence against transgender people.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the sole or main sources of news for many young people; the shows are watched regularly by 16% of Americans. While Stewart and Colbert may claim to be comedians - and comedians only - their shows constitute a mix of documentary, satire, and journalism in the same vein as the work of H.L. Mencken, Sarah Vowell, and Samuel Clemens. Regardless of their claims, they are influential and their tone has often resonated with the recent cultural shift towards support for equal rights for LGBT people.
It is this history of broad sympathy for LGBT rights that makes the numerous instances of transmisogynistic jokes all the more jarring. These are not satirical jokes or jokes that "laugh with" transgender people; these are crude, cruel jokes that laugh at and dehumanize transgender people. For example, recently on The Colbert Report, Colbert made a deceptive-transsexual joke during The Word:
"Folks, it’s just like when someone lies to you. Technically, they’re telling you the truth as long as you never find out it was a lie."
[Text on screen] "Or Notice Her Adam’s Apple."
Another example has Stewart commenting on the U.S. Attorneys scandal of the mid-Aughts:
“Here’s a general rule of thumb I have: if you don’t know whether you’ve made a particular mistake more or less than 50 times, that’s not really a mistake. At that point, it’s something you do.
For instance, how many times have I accidentally picked up a tranny hooker at a truck-stop? I want to say it’s in the 50s, but it could be higher. I guess what I’m saying is I’m nearsighted?”
During this segment describing protests in China over a new universal I.D. system, Stewart says:
“But Cow and Chipmunk are not alone! They are joined by Transvestite, who worries that her true gender will be revealed by this new system.”
[Camera shows a person implied by Stewart to be a "transvestite"]
[Voiceover with fake translation] “I am afraid that when I lumber out of my apartment in a tight dress with my scrotum taped back and my large hands covering my adams apple, somewhere, some bureaucrat will know I am a dude.”
There are many other examples documented by Your Moment of Transphobia and other similar blogs.
It is sad to see Stewart and Colbert diminish their standing as progressive heroes by continuing to use institutionalized transphobia to garner easy laughs. Instead, they should be using their immense skill to point out the weaknesses in the arguments of those who would deny transgender people their basic human rights. However, we suspect that Stewart and Colbert are simply ignorant of the impact of their hurtful words. We also acknowledge that Stewart and Colbert are often only the presenters of jokes written by their extensive staffs. We expect that once their ignorance is relieved, they and their writers will commit to rejecting transphobia and respecting gender identity.
At heart, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are just too important and too good for transphobia. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert, please stop making transphobic jokes, and please make a commitment to reject transphobia and to respect gender identity!
It is not too late to use the immense power and popularity of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for good! Please stop making transphobic jokes, and please make a commitment to reject transphobia and respect gender identity!