'Work It!': Hollywood's Cross-Dressing Double Standard Strikes Again

ABC's latest sitcom draws on masculine anxiety new and old.

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ABC

The 2011-2012 network TV lineup has been filled with comedies that grapple with the changing role of men in today's economy. There are the shows where men question their own masculinity, like Last Man Standing, How to Be a Gentleman, and Man Up (which was canceled mid-season). And on the flipside, there are female-centric comedies that question—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—if women need men at all: Whitney, Two Broke Girls, New Girl.

The latest and perhaps most depressing of these "end of men" shows premieres tonight. In ABC sitcom's Work It!, two unemployed men, Lee and Angel, disguise themselves as women to get jobs. The trailer says it all:

Work It! also fits into a Hollywood tradition that stretches farther back than this TV season: men cross-dressing as women in comedies. We've seen this most recently in the November movie Jack and Jill, where Adam Sandler plays both a brother and his own obnoxious, annoying sister. But the trope of cross-dressing men goes as far back as Shakespeare's day, when men regularly played women onstage, and made its way onscreen in the early 20th century. As Scott Meslow wrote in a post about Jack and Jill:

The comic lineage of cross-casting in cinema extends all the way back to 1914, when Charlie Chaplin played a woman in the slapstick short A Busy Day. Cross-dressing came just three years later, in a series of shorts starring the legendary Fatty Arbuckle. Arbuckle classics like The Butcher Boy or Coney Island follow the same rough arc: Some contrived event—say, a crush in an all-girls' school—forces Arbuckle to disguise himself as a woman. If that sounds familiar, you're probably thinking of  Tootsie, or Bosom Buddies, or  Mrs. Doubtfire, or one of the countless other variations on this scenario throughout film and television history.

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Meslow points out that in recent years, a cross-dressing double-standard has developed. Men dress as women for broad, often crass comedies, whereas women dress as men for darker, more nuanced dramas:

But over the past few decades, something interesting has happened across the opposite gender lines: Opportunities for women to play men have grown increasingly varied and complex. Dating back to 1982's The Year of Living Dangerously, which earned Linda Hunt a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the male Billy Kwan, women have regularly played men in dramas, with several examples (including Cate Blanchett's uncanny impression of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There) meriting critical claim and award-show recognition (2006's She's the Man—a teen comedy loosely based on Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"—is one of the few exceptions).

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As female-to-male roles have embraced nuance and complexity, male-to-female roles have failed to evolve beyond the template set by Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Recent years have seen both male-to-female cross-dressing plots, including Martin Lawrence's  Big Momma's House trilogy, and male-to-female cross-casting, including Tyler Perry's six  Madea  films to date. But the cumulative effect of these movies is the same: When a man plays a woman, the implicit joke is his own emasculation. Even Billy Wilder's  Some Like It Hot—arguably the funniest of the male-to-female cross-dressing comedies—mines most of its laughs from the emasculation of its protagonists. That less-laudable tradition is alive and well in  Jack and Jill ; Jill is so offensively, cartoonishly masculinized throughout the film that it's impossible to sympathize with her—let alone understand her as anything more than Sandler's ugly, sexist impression of a modern Jewish woman. 

This tradition lives on with Man Up!, which also gets laughs from emasculating its main characters. Notice the scene in the trailer where Lee throws away his "manly" sandwich and lunches on a piece of lettuce instead so he can fit in with his female co-workers. Transgender advocacy groups are already protesting the show for perpetuating negative stereotypes about cross-dressing. But it's likely audiences will reject the show for a much simpler reason: the jokes are getting old. Jack and Jill was panned by critics—it got a mere 3 percent "fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes!—and largely ignored by audiences. Man Up! can probably expect a similar fate.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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