Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony was, not surprisingly, filled with jabs at racism in the movie industry. During one memorable video sketch, in which black actors were inserted into scenes from nominated films with all-white casts, comedian Tracy Morgan acted as a stand-in for Eddie Redmayne’s character in The Danish Girl. Morgan’s scene opens with him stumbling down a hallway in heels and an ill-fitting slip, as he says in proud voice-over, “Look at me, a black thespian starring in his first dramatic role.” He then stuffs a danish in his mouth while declaring, “I’m a Danish girl! This danish is good, girl!” The audience laughs. But what exactly are we laughing at?
Sure, Morgan’s exuberant danish eating may be legitimately funny, but everything leading up to that moment asks us to giggle at the sight of Morgan in a dress. While the other segments of the bit as a whole — Whoopi Goldberg as a frustrated janitor in Joy, Leslie Jones as a disgruntled actress in The Revenant, and Chris Rock as a literally unseeable black astronaut in The Martian — focus on Hollywood’s lack of roles for black actors, the Danish Girl spoof is, in large part, a childish “look at that dude dressed like a woman” moment. It’s an implicit wink to cis folks that the premise of The Danish Girl is potentially something to make fun of.
I’m all for taking jabs at oppression through humor, and The Danish Girl is problematic for some in its own right due to its casting of the cisgender Redmayne as trans woman Lili Elbe. But mocking racism is no excuse for playing up transphobia, and the spoof is in poor taste in an industry that has rewarded cis men like Redmayne, Jared Leto, and Jeffrey Tambor for portraying trans women onscreen while too often ignoring the work of actual trans actors and actresses. The whole thing feels especially hurtful given Morgan’s past comments about LGBT people. In 2011, for example, he joked about beating his child if he came out as gay; Morgan has since apologized.
Ultimately, though, I’m not mad at Morgan or the writers of the skit (well, maybe a little). I’m mad that when going after one form of exclusion, we’re so often inclined to engage in another.
Twisting this knife even further is the fact that there actually was an amazing movie starring trans women of color that came out in 2015. It’s called Tangerine, it is exquisite, and many feel it was totally snubbed at the Oscars this year. One of its stars, Mya Taylor, made history this year when she became the first trans woman to win a Film Independent Spirit Award.
So what if — just tossing a radical idea out there — Taylor, or any black trans actress, had been the one recast as the problematic Danish girl triumphantly shoving a pastry into her face? Rather than chuckling at a cisgender man in a dress, we could have all been laughing with a black trans woman taking a bite out of racism, transphobia, and a flaky danish all at the same time.