Unfortunately for your sense of nostalgia but fortunately for the progress of humanity, humor does not exist in a vacuum. It ages like the rest of us and sometimes it ages out of being funny.
On a Television Critics Association panel, Jill Soloway brought up a fitting example of this phenomenon in Pat, the androgynous SNL character played by comedian Julie Sweeney during the 1990s.
Pat’s whole shtick was that nobody could tell whether they were a man or a woman. Back in the 90s, this was considered so deeply hilarious that Julie Sweeney went on to star in a movie based on the character, in which it appears that literally the only joke is the mystery behind Pat’s gender.
“We didn’t understand that at the time, but looking back at that, what an awful piece of anti-trans propaganda that was handed out for many, many years,” Soloway said. “So, that’s one that I look back at with a lot of sadness, that that was part of our culture.”
“It was a hateful, hateful, awful thing to do to non-binary people — to create this character that the whole world laughed at openly.”
The 90s wasn’t exactly known for its forward thinking comedy, but Pat is an extreme example of how far we’ve come in our understanding of the transgender experience and gender fluidity. Watching the trailer now for “It’s Pat”, the movie based on the character, is jarring. The humor isn’t smart. It’s cheap and it’s cruel. It’s hard to imagine a world in which the film would not be panned soundly by anyone with a soul — but, in fact, that world did exist and very recently.
of course, there are still comedians who rely on the crass mockery of marginalized groups for laughs but it’s clear that the audience those comedians rely on is growing ever smaller by the day. But today, especially now that we have trans icons and activists in the public eye, society at large seems to be slowly coming to terms with its transphobia and the question of somebody’s genitalia is no longer considered a joke.
Becky Scott is the editor of The Schmooze. Follow her on Twitter, @arr_scott