In Defense of Louis C.K.’s Artistic Portrayal of ‘Transphobia’

What information, if anything, does a trans woman owe a straight man? A Horace and Pete scene about that subject was dubbed “problematic” due solely to the identity of its writer.

Louis C.K.

During the first six episodes of Horace and Pete, the comedian Louis C.K., the drama’s creator, writer, and director, presents an array of characters who all see the world differently. They inhabit an old Brooklyn bar, a place out of time, where plot lines unfold through dialogue. Uncle Pete, an elderly misanthrope, romanticizes tradition—the bar has been run by his family for seven generations. His middle-aged niece is repelled by the same history, knowing that many of her forefathers beat their wives. Yet her contemporary, Cousin Pete, suffers from a mental illness that renders the outside world a terrifying place. For him, the bar is the safest place of all.

Meanwhile, bar patrons include a white woman who explains what it’s like to live with Tourette syndrome, a black man who laughingly relays his attitude toward a bar-mate’s racism, bickering men from all sides of the ideological spectrum, a gay hipster looking for a drink, a once-glamorous alcoholic staving off loneliness, and many people and themes besides that no single writer could render from personal experience.

In this, C.K. proceeds as all fiction writers do, writing for characters who are mostly unlike himself. He keeps this up in episode seven (spoiler alert), when his character, Horace, sleeps with a woman customer. The next morning, she jokes—or is she serious?—that she used to be a man. And this prompts a heated debate: If a trans woman wants to have sex with a straight man, is she obligated to reveal that she was born male?

There are a few more spoilers in this clip of the exchange:

Both characters are portrayed humanely, in the fashion of nearly all of the diverse individuals who appeared in previous episodes. But after the scene about trans issues was released, Vikram Murthi declared at The A.V. Club that it was “problematic”:

Let’s get this out of the way: It’s problematic for a cisgender writer/director to examine transphobia, especially without explicit participation of any trans performers or writers, even with the best of intentions; no matter which way you slice it, it’s an attempt to tackle a pervasive, deeply-ingrained issue from an outsider’s perspective. As much as I love C.K.’s comedy and writing, he’s occasionally guilty of over-reaching outside of his own perspective, not just with regards to gender, but also with race and queer issues. This over-reaching isn’t inherently troubling, and it’s almost always rooted in a working-through of his own cultural biases, but it can produce mixed, often cringeworthy results, this being no exception. Ultimately, there is little to be gained artistically from hearing C.K.’s opinions on trans issues simply because he doesn’t have the necessary lived experience to best explore them.

That’s a wrongheaded paragraph. It deserves to be rebutted, for the sake of good art, for the sake of wayward critics, and for the sake of trans people. Let’s take them in reverse order.

For the Sake of Trans People

The size of the transgender population is unknown, but one rough estimate puts it at roughly 0.3 percent of Americans. Many are closeted. The community as a whole shares something with gays and lesbians in the era before Will & Grace—it’s still something of a victory when pop culture shows treat trans people as fully human individuals with equal dignity, rather than freaks or caricatures. It is wildly counterproductive to append the stigma “problematic” to all treatments of transphobia by cisgendered writers, which is to say, perhaps 99.7 percent of writers. The likely effect is to dissuade the very writers most invested in the dignified treatment of that community from rendering such characters in television shows and movies.

And substantively, Murthi’s standard seems to imply that trans people share so little in common with their neighbors that cis writers shouldn’t attempt to portray trans issues even as they explore conflict with characters of different ages, races, classes, religions, sexual preferences, mental abilities, professions, personality types, and education levels.  

That is unintentionally dehumanizing.

For the Sake of  Wayward Critics

The label “problematic” is a crutch used by critics who ought to name an ostensible problem as specifically as possible rather than vaguely declaring that one exists.

It assumes objective, widely shared standards that are typically fabricated or illusory.

As the blogger Karen Mead put it in “Why I Hate the Word ‘Problematic’”:

...intelligent people can disagree over whether or not a given piece of media is promoting harmful ideas or not. I believe that you can think something is racist while I do not or I can find something sexist that you do not, because we all have different ways of processing the oodles of contextual information that inform these concerns. I think we can, and should, discuss these things. The word problematic kills discussion by conflating a bunch of very diverse issues together, and subtextually, communicates a “them or us” mentality; either you get why the thing in question is problematic, or you’re a bad person who’s against the cause of achieving a greater social justice. Subtext is always subjective, so you may not agree with me there, and that’s fine; what’s not really debatable is that problematic is generally less useful than the words it tends to replace.

It is no coincidence that in the A.V. Club article, as in so much criticism that uses the word “problematic,” Murthi describes the same episode as “cringeworthy,” another label that often assumes shared standards that don’t exist, assigns stigma, and doesn’t identify what exactly was wrong, just that something was. It is particularly inapt as a criticism of C.K.’s drama, which is often meant to induce cringing.

Finally, “problematic,” as it is now used on the Internet, “seems to treat that which is possessing of problems as verboten,” Patrick Gerard comments at The Awl. “Problems are desirable … are they not? They provide us with things to unpack. They provide grist for art. A problematic play, in its conventional use, is one that I would choose to stage because it raises questions and arouses discomfort.”

For the Sake of Good Art

Horace and Pete could have rendered trans issues in a manner that seemed true-to-life or contrived; humane or mean-spirited; simpleminded or nuanced; dramatically satisfying or unsatisfying; thought-provoking or boredom-inducing; but whatever metric is being judged, that judgment should be rendered based on the art itself, not its creator’s identity. Just as Middlemarch is a masterpiece of novel writing, no matter whether a man or a woman put pen to paper in writing it, episode seven of Horace and Pete would be equally good or bad if Louis C.K. came out as trans today.

Insofar as fiction is judged based on the identity of its creator, it will be misjudged. Good art is true to life, while identity politics is inseparable from the reductive falsehood of stereotyping. Here it assumes an illusory trans perspective. In fact, insofar as the Horace and Pete scene in question is neither hateful nor bigoted, there is every reason to think that lots of trans people would like its treatment of transphobia, if that’s the right word for what Horace is feeling; lots of other trans people would dislike it; and still others would have mixed feelings or be ambivalent. Put more simply, trans people are diverse individuals with as many intra-group disagreements about art as any other human beings.

That said, everyone wants to be treated with dignity, and that often flows from greater empathy. And Murthi underestimates the degree to which C.K. has stoked it.

He writes near the end of his review:

On some level, it’s just arrogant for someone like C.K. to think he can tackle these issues in depth or with any kind of clarity, evidenced especially by his unfamiliarity with the accepted cultural language (he frequently employs “transgender” when he really means “trans”). On the other hand, what better way for C.K. to explore transphobia than by basically admitting his own limitations in the discourse, and how he really doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Again, there’s little to be gained from C.K. tackling this culturally relevant issue, like the veteran comic that he is, but it’s also strange to discuss artistic texts in terms of “gain” at all.

Actually, there is much to be gained. Said a commenter in a Reddit thread on Horace and Pete, “After watching that clip I am exhausted. The mental gymnastics were insane. I felt myself in Louis’s shoes, simultaneously tying and untying the knot that he put himself in while having an internal dialogue about a topic I was not prepared to think that deeply about.” As best I can surmise, the episode caused a lot of viewers to think more deeply about a complicated subject and to see the world from a perspective––a trans woman––that they had not encountered before.

That’s the sort of empathy-building result that honest fiction can achieve, even while tackling “a pervasive, deeply-ingrained issue from an outsider’s perspective.” It matters not if the creator is “best-positioned” to explore a subject, a standard unmet by every writer who portrays diverse characters and themes. At the very least, the effect of C.K.’s approach is far more salutary than dubbing art  “problematic,” a label that assumes away diverse perspectives and short-circuits pondering.