One of the things about being part of a maginalized population that is the most fun--if for fun, you read "uncomfortable, occasionally stomach-churningly so"--is that many pleasures cannot simply remain unmixed: messages, tropes, and cultural references that can be overlooked, disregarded or just plain unseen by the dominant group hit home with you in unmistakable and unignorable ways.

Even worse is when you make the, ahem, transition from dominant to marginalized groups. Things that once gave you easy enjoyment now leave a bad taste in your mouth, and when you complain, people tell you you've become humorless or a radical. And that's just when you talk about popular entertainment.

Which leads me to Adult Swim. I've long been a fan of animation, a frequenter of Spike and Mike's animation festivals, and an avid watcher of many of the Cartoon Network's adult-oriented series. At its best, the very artificiality of animation allows it to say things--via fantasy, self-referentiality, or just plain outrageousness, that live-action simply can't accomplish. (At its worst, of course, animation can be a lazy, unimaginative commercial for the dominant culture: or to be briefer, at its best you get the first nine seasons of The Simpsons, at its worst you get every season since.)

Out of all the animated shows I've watched, my favorite is undoubtedly The Venture Brothers, in no small part to the sheer intelligence of how the show is put together: the pop-culture references hum, the voice acting is impeccable (led of course by ubiquitous voice actor Patrick Warburton), and the characters and concepts truly unique and fascinating. Part jet-age nostalgia trip, part nostalgia trip for jet-age nostalgia, and part theater of the absurd, The Venture Brothers, as the creators have often said, ultimately is a meditation on failure: of never living up to what you want to be, of reaching and never grasping.

This ought to be a pure unmixed pleasure for me: postmodernism done right. And it would be...except for the trans stuff.

But hell, it's always except for the trans stuff, right?

There are two characters in the show that break gender norms. One is suspected of being transsexual; the other is transsexual, although not...unproblematically.

The first goes by many names but is most often known as Dr. Girlfriend, frequent partner-in-crime to the show's bizarrely incompetent arch-villain, the Monarch. Most often dressed in a pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat a la Jackie Kennedy (whom she resembles), Dr. Girlfriend is the most attractive of the female characters on the show--often inspiring rivalries between the heroes and villains for her affections--and may well be the only truly capable character in the series.

She also has a voice like Alex Rocco at the bottom of a well, and because of this rumors of her being a transsexual have long been a part of both fan's reaction to the show and the actual plotlines of episodes.

The actual transsexual on the show is Colonel Hunter Gathers, more-than-loosely based on Hunter S. Thompson, if Hunter Thompson had worked for the government killing people. And had been a transsexual. While it is implied that Gathers must have been good at her job, as a transsexual...she's a mess, with a permanent five-o'clock shadow and no attempt to alter her voice. She works as a stripper--though that may just be a cover.

It is interesting to note--in followup to aqueertheory's recent post on Julia Serano--that both characters simultaneously manage to combine the "deceiver" and "incompetent" portrayals of trans women. Dr. Girlfriend is sexy and admired, by all appearances a successful woman who gives no hint of being trans--except her voice; Hunter is very clearly trans, but her stripper act has nothing to do with being trans, implying she is somehow "fooling" her clients.

For a real live trans person, even one inclined to like the show, both characters are sometimes difficult to take. For every moment you cheer on Dr. Girlfriend (she tells a teenage girl who confronts her in the ladies' room, "Don't worry, I belong here--I just have a deep voice"), you wince at the cheap jokes made at her expense. And Hunter can be positively cringe-inducing, managing to capture just about every negative stereotype about trans people (men in dresses, unable to look like women, obsessed with having breasts) in one horrific package.

And yet at the end of the third season, she's one of an elite group of all female assassins. And yet Dr. Girlfriend is the show's one shining beacon of actual talent. And yet...

And yet I just can't laugh easily at all this stuff. But I know that other people, probably the vast majority of the show's audience, can do just that.

But not me. Not anymore. Because I've changed places. And now the joke's also on me.

transfeminist joins us from The Second Awakening

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