Why the NWLC’s video featuring Sarah Silverman “getting a penis” to avoid the gender pay gap fails

This week, the National Women’s Law Center, an organization that does good work, released a video starring Sarah Silverman, a comedian we often love, to highlight the injustice of the gender pay gap, a worthy cause indeed.

Unfortunately, it seems that at some point in the creation of the video, everyone involved forgot that trans people exist. As far as I can tell, that’s the most generous way to explain why the resulting video is such an embarrassingly offensive mess.

The schtick is that “vagina owner” Sarah Silverman is planning to “get a penis” in order to cheat the wage gap and earn as much as a man. In a world in which gender existed on a strict binary and all men had penises and all women had vaginas, this premise would work the way it’s clearly intended to: as both an absurdist joke and a serious point about the unfairness of gender pay disparity.

However, that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world in which gender is not determined by genitalia, in which trans and gender non-conforming people not only exist but face staggering threats to that existence.

We live in a world in which gender transition-related surgeries are not some ridiculous joke but something that people actually do–sometimes to quite literally save their lives. However, many trans people haven’t undergone any form of genital reconstruction surgery–sometimes because they don’t want it but often because it’s super expensive and excluded from insurance coverage (although thankfully that’s beginning to change). The idea that Silverman can “get a penis” and “become a dude” is both inaccurate and insulting to the majority of trans men who do not have a penis and the majority of trans women who still do–and who must constantly live in a culture that’s inappropriately curious about what’s between their legs. As transgender lawyer Rachel See asks ThinkProgress, “Is a transgender person who has not yet had genital surgery any less of a man or a woman? That’s what the NWLC is implying in their ad.”

We also live in a world in which transitioning–socially or surgically–is hardly an economic boon but does reveal some interesting things about the pay gap. While trans men don’t transition in order to gain the perks of male privilege–an accusation often leveled by TERFs that the video irresponsibly reinforces–they do often discover they’re treated very differently when the world sees them as men–including a slight boost to their earnings. One study found that when trans men socially transitioned–again, whether or not they “got a penis”–their pay increased by 7.5 percent. Meanwhile, trans women, hit with the double whammy of the gender pay gap and transmisogyny, see a 32 percent decrease in pay. And of course, any transition-related perks are usually contingent on passing as cis. As Christopher J. Fike tweeted, “When I became a man, my salary didn’t go up- it disappeared along with the job I loved.”

Indeed, trans people of all genders face unfathomable levels of discrimination in the workplace. One survey found that 90 percent of trans and gender non-conforming people experienced workplace harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination and most had tried to hide their gender identity to avoid it. Over a quarter said they’d lost a job because of their identity. Trans people are four times more likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to be unemployed. Janet Mock dryly noted on Twitter, “Sex reassignment doesn’t help one advance in workplace. Ask one of the most underemployed populations: trans people.” As Parker Molloy writes at Hello Giggles, “Believe me when I say that being a woman with a penis does not make life easier.”

These are the kind of terrible realities that NWLC acknowledged in a blog post yesterday responding to the criticism of the video. Noting that “it was not our intent to make light of the serious issues transgender people face,” they vowed to put some of the money raised by the project toward raising awareness about trans discrimination. That’s great–and also the least they can do considering the video itself erases trans identies altogether. What is missing from the post, however–in addition to an actual apology–is any recognition whatsoever that the gender essentialism embedded in it means the video fails. It notes that “Silverman’s brand of absurd humor” is highlighting “the ridiculous notion” that “anyone would choose sex reassignment surgery to receive equal pay.” But it’s not that I ever thought NWLC actually believes trans men transition to avoid the wage gap (although, again, there are people out there who probably do.)

The problem is that without a ciscentric conception of gender, both the punchline and the point simply don’t work. There is no “vagina tax”–there’s a tax on all women, cis and trans. And NWLC has offered a video that asks us to support their work combatting that very big problem by laughing along at the “absurd” notion of a woman with a penis. Which feels an awful lot like transmisogyny to me. As Molloy says, “You can do better, NWLC.”

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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