Please Stop: The Trans Joke at the Spike Video Game Awards

A stylized logo that says VGX.

[TW: Discussion of transphobic joke, real-life experiences of transphobia.]

Like many graduate students, I was still finishing up last week’s work at 6 PM on a Saturday. I put on Spike TV’s annual Video Game Awards (re-branded this year as VGX) to have some background noise while I put the finishing touches on a paper.

I expected the usual: some Michael Bay-esque graphics packages, some puerile pandering to their core demographic of adolescent boys, some Mountain Dew, some Doritos, some trailers. I can stomach that, even laugh at it. Less than five minutes into the program, however, co-host Joel McHale jokingly put the rumors to rest that Wario had “undergone sex reassignment surgery.”

If you’re reading this, you might know that a joke like that is politically ill-advised. It violates the comedic wisdom that one should punch up rather than punch down. It not only repeats the exoticizing focus on transgender people’s genitals, it also casts transgender identity itself as something scandalous and laughable.

What you might not know is what it feels like to hear a joke like this, what it’s like to be triggered. To that end, let me tell you a story about a period of my life that I don’t often discuss. Seven years ago (prior to my transition), I was still in a place where I could only present female occasionally. I hadn’t yet had the earth-shattering realization that I needed to transition but I still needed space to explore crucial aspects of my identity. I was fortunate enough to be dating someone who supported me in that endeavor.

We were in New York one night while I was presenting female. The night was warm, the sky was clear; we decided to be tacky tourists and go to the top of the Empire State Building. In line, some boys approached us and tried to talk to us. At the time—without the benefits and, indeed, the privileges of experience and hormones that I have now—my appearance did not hold up under close scrutiny and they “read” me, they recognized that I was not cisgender.

They laughed and laughed and laughed. They howled. They followed us all the way through the line and into the elevator where the laughter continued in our faces. My very existence was hilarious to them. The fact that there was a human underneath the sloppy eye makeup and the tattered dress either did not occur to them or, worse, it didn’t matter to them. I realized for the first time that night that, were I to transition, I would be a living, walking joke. It’s experiences like this that keep people from transitioning for years.

I am lucky to have had just one experience this emotionally brutal and I’m immensely privileged to have been safeguarded from the acts of physical violence that predominantly effect transgender women of color. Over the course of my transition, the smirks of passersby have faded, misgenderings have all but stopped, and that howling laughter has faded into that long-ago New York night.

When I hear a trans joke in a venue as public as a nationally broadcast television show, I’m instantly back in that elevator. I’m no longer the confident woman that I’ve become over the last couple of years; I’m a scared little girl cowering in the corner, reeling from the ridicule, wondering if they’ll follow me all the way home.

Spike, do you realize what you do to people outside your target demographic when they try to engage with your work? If you realized, would you still do it? Do I want to know the answer to that question?

I could write you an angry polemic about video game culture right now. I could undertake educational efforts to help video game commentators understand transgender identity. I’ve done that. I keep doing it and nothing happens. Nothing changes. There’s always another gaffe, another joke, another game.

So tonight, Geoff Keighley, producers, journalists, if this note manages to make it to your desk, all I’m asking is that you stop. Please stop. Please stop.

Update: Immediately after this article went live, Joel McHale introduced a reader comment by saying, “He, she or he-she says…”

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and video games. She writes regularly for the feminist gaming blog The Border House. Her work has also appeared on Jacobin, Salon, Paste, Kotaku, Kinsey Confidential, and in Adult Magazine. Samantha also speaks on feminism, queerness, and games at conferences and conventions across North America. By day, Samantha is a fourth-year George W. Woodruff Fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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10 Responses to Please Stop: The Trans Joke at the Spike Video Game Awards

  1. Chinkyd says:

    I commend you on being able to pay attention to VGX long enough to hear any attempted jokes.

  2. Thank you. It’s hard not to internalize the cultural idea that I, as trans person, am a joke, a freak, un-natural, etc… and every time it gets brought up again is another fight to keep it from seeping in deeper.

  3. Caitlin Adams says:

    A beautifully written piece. I’m 29 and just about to present as my identified sex full time. This is despite the fact I’ve wanted to transition since my early twenties, despite benefiting from a supportive family, financial privilege, a progressive social circle and a medical system that will pay for pretty much everything.

    The reason? Persistent fear of constant ridicule.fear of what happened to you in New York occurring regularly for the rest of my life.

    Having grown up without any visible positive transgender role models my exposure to transgender people consisted of negative cultural stereotypes perpetuated by jokes such as the one you mentioned and the ridicule given to those on Jerry Springer.

    I think, given the small number of those born with gender dysphoria (in absolute terms), it’s a lot harder for us to challenge instances of transphobia as opposed to instances of homophobia. Nevertheless it’s still worth fighting for, and earnest articles like this certainly help. A hard copy letter to the producers would probably have even more impact.

    Articulate, well educated people such as yourself can play a real leadership role in this regard.

    The trouble with gender dysphoria is that the problem, in part, is being perceived as your chromosomal sex and that those that are accepted as their identified sex and, understandably want to move on with life, are less inclined to remain as activists as often, in doing so, they are again judged as someone of their chromosomal sex

  4. as the mother of a beautiful 10 year old transgender girl, these ‘jokes’ are all too reprehensible. it hurts me to think that in this day and age such regurgitation of trans-hate are tolerated in any venue! much less one as public as a media event like the one you describe.
    my daughter is not a freak, not fodder for jokes by simple minded jerks and their attempts at humour.
    furthermore, tolerance of this behaviour only perpetuates the oppression and dehumanising of transgender people.
    lucky for us, we don’t watch regular t.v.
    and my very strong and wise daughter knows when someone is confusing hate and ignorance with humour.
    the personal events you describe about a time when you were ‘read’ as not cis-gender, so traumatic~…how i hope for a day when ‘passing’ is not a thing…when one’s self-definition suffice and is respected, not ridiculed!

  5. tc says:

    :( That’s terrible. I hate when people are dismissive and awful like Joel McHale. I wonder what aspect of himself he hates that he’s covering up by being mean to other people. It has been my observation that when people are harsh and intolerant of others, usually there is something they hate about themselves. :/ Too bad that doesn’t make his behavior any less hurtful. Thank you for talking about this issue and sharing your story. You are brave. *hug*

  6. Intendant S says:

    I did not watch the awards show, but after reading this I felt sick. As a transwoman myself, I found these remarks offensive and in extremely poor taste. I’ve only very recently gone public with this, only partially by choice, for reasons cited above. It’s hard enough to try to “fit in” with society’s idea of gender without having jokes and remarks like the ones Joel made. And as a gamer as well, seeing it happen in an industry that I love even makes me more depressed.

  7. Steph Woor says:

    VGX is dangerous. On the one hand, we all naturally dismiss it as the industry’s accidental Christmas advert cavalcade, laugh at (not with) its embarrassing audience pandering and unite behind how it doesn’t represent that audience. On the other hand, publishers and developers are going out of the way to grant it legitimacy – giving it exclusives, rendering little award acceptance skits, just acknowledging its existence in a way entirely unlike they other gazillion gaming awards shows.

    I doubt there’s a developer or publisher out there who was happy with these jokes, or the quality of the hosting on this year or any other year. But you know what? Forget trying to get a message to the flavour of the week with the hosting gig, and its part-Dew, part-Doritos creator. It’s the developers who need to just stop. Why are they coming back again and again to this trainwreck? Why aren’t they demanding a better quality show, if they need it so badly?

  8. Laura says:

    Hi, slightly confused by the footnote about Joel McHale’s other comment. Was this him introducing and reading a reader comment on-air? Or was this written somewhere?

  9. BF says:

    VGX has never been about the content. It’s mechanism for Spike to increase viewership and for game developers to market their games. Developers know that VGX is a disorganized game of favoritism with zero credibility. If devs say no to Spike’s bullshit then Spike will just give the award to someone else without a second thought. This is not an exaggeration; devs have zero power over VGX. They will drop you instantly if they don’t like you.

    So, you are faced with an offer of a VGX. How many people are going to not play your game because you accepted a VGX? How many people are going to check out your game because you did win a VGX? The net gain there is very large. Are you willing to undermine the livelihood of your employees (friends), your relationship with your publisher, your relationship with a popular videogame journal (likely the rating of your future games), and your credibility with game retailers? So you expect game developers, in a highly demanding and competitive industry during a difficult economic period, to lay everything on the line in the hopes of increasing the quality of Spike’s programming lineup? For god’s sake, it’s Spike.

    If you’ve dealt with any of the major videogame journals you’ll know that integrity and quality are not goals. No amount of developer pressure can solve this; devs are slaves to public opinion and in that sense the journalists have more control than devs do. Yes, devs give exclusives and previews and such, but developers need that more than the journalists do.

    I agree that the comment is foul, immature, and inexcusable. In no way was this intended to marginalize your feelings which are very valid. I think it is incredibly unfair to blame game developers for the quality of Spike’s journalism.

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