Michael Che’s Weekend Update joke at Caitlyn Jenner’s expense deadnamed and misgendered the transgender celebrity; other than a social media backlash, he’s experienced no consequences — and is unlikely to.
Five years after the so-called “transgender tipping point,” we’ve still got a long way to go. That was proven in most dramatic fashion this past weekend by Saturday Night Live’s current Weekend Update anchor, Michael Che, in a joke that started out targeting Kanye West, soon redirected its aim toward Caitlyn Jenner, and ultimately held up all trans people for mockery.
Che’s joke was originally aimed at Kanye West, who admittedly has gotten more weird and problematic as his career has gone on. West, who recently released a gospel album called Jesus Is King, has apparently decided to rewrite some of his old songs with swear-free lyrics. Che’s joke in response to this was to say that West is “turning into an old white lady.”
“I mean, he used to be one of the coolest black dudes on Earth,” Che continued. “Now he’s showing up to events in sweatpants and orthopedic sneakers, listening to Kenny G and trying to get black people to like Trump. It’s like, how long before this guy changes his name to Kathy?”
Even if that was the extent of the joke, it’d still be a little iffy; there’s definitely a hint at transgender invalidation buried in here. However, it’s such a minor aspect of the joke that it’s certainly nothing to get angry about. At least until Che said his next sentence.
“Now, you might think that I’m crazy, but about five years ago, there was a fella named Bruce Jenner, and he moved to Calabasas…” Che continued, as a picture of Jenner early in her transition, before she came out, appeared over Che’s shoulder in the classic news-anchor format. The joke didn’t go over too well, getting a few laughs and a few uncomfortable groans, but Che and co-anchor Colin Jost just laughed it off and went on with the sketch.
Backlash on social media was swift, with many calling Che’s remarks “transphobic” and some calling for him to be fired. On Che’s instagram, he responded to one such accusation with the question, “How would you know what I’m afraid of…?”
This sort of response is transparently made in bad faith, but it also illustrates why you’ll rarely see the commonly-used terms “homophobia” and “transphobia” here in GayRVA — for the most part, I think it’s both more accurate and more instructive to refer to “anti-LGBTQ actions.” Che may or may not be “afraid” of trans people, but his joke at Caitlyn Jenner’s expense shows that he has enough of a negative attitude towards us to make jokes at our expense.
Unfortunately, this is still largely the way of things, especially in the world of comedy. Since his return to the world of stand-up comedy, Dave Chappelle has made anti-trans humor a key part of his act, and while the LGBTQ community has largely stopped paying him any mind as a result, he nonetheless received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor earlier this week at a gala event featuring many top comedians and nary a mention of his jokes at the expense of trans people.
For that reason, you can expect Che to experience no consequences for his actions beyond the backlash that’s already taken place on social media. SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels said back when Caitlyn Jenner was still in the process of coming out that the show would not shy away from jokes at her expense. Clearly, that’s a policy that hasn’t changed, regardless of how we feel about it.
By next Saturday night, the Twittersphere is sure to have moved on to another 24-hour outrage, and Che’s sure to be back anchoring Weekend Update like nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, in the majority of American states, including Virginia, trans people don’t even have basic rights to things like housing and employment.
Rest assured, these two facts are not unrelated.
Top Image: screencap, via Saturday Night Live/YouTube