Zoolander 2: Cumberbatch's role reduces trans people to what's in their pants

Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of a gender-fluid model has angered some viewers
Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of a gender-fluid model has angered some viewers Credit: YouTube

The world of modelling isn’t known for its political correctness, but the trailer for Zoolander 2 looks like it might have taken things a step too far. In the year’s least-awaited sequel,  Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch ditches the deerstalker and homoerotic tension to play a genderfluid character known as ‘All' - the “biggest supermodel in the whole world”.

Cue lots of sniggering about whether or not All has “a hot dog or a bun” beneath their on-trend outfit.

Gender fluidity – also known as being non-binary or genderqueer – has been a hot topic in the media of late, with writers Jack Monroe and Laurie Penny both coming out over the past few months. But this isn’t anything new, certainly not in the world of fashion - before she transitioned in 2014, Andrea Prejic was one of the world’s first openly androgynous models, modelling both male and female clothes.

More recently, actor and model Ruby Rose announced that she too identifies as neither male or female. Even Miley Cyrus, problematic in so many other ways, has stated that her gender identity might not be so straightforward.

However, from the trailer, the Zoolander joke seems to be on genderfluid people – All is just another vapid celebrity trying to be edgy; probably too stupid to know what gender even is, let alone how to subvert it. It’s attention-grabbing, the subtext whispers. It’s just another stupid hipster trend.

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair

After we reached the 'transgender tipping point', after Caitlyn Jenner’s 'Woman of the Year' award and after the Independent on Sunday’s Rainbow List included intersex people in its annual list of influential LGBTI personalities - how can people still think this is funny?

It’s only funny if you’re not the one being laughed at. A petition to boycott the film is currently circulating on social media, saying that “Cumberbatch’s character is clearly portrayed as an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals. This is the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority.”

It’s unsurprising that, even if Zoolander did, by some staggering miracle, intend the main characters’ transphobia to be the punchline, they still cast Cumberbatch.

Despite the success of trans actresses like Rebecca Root and Laverne Cox, high profile trans roles still go to cisgender actors (people who have only ever experienced their mental and physical sexes as aligned at birth - their outwardly apparent sex matches the gender they know themselves to be). Actors – Jared Leto won an Oscar for his role in Dallas Buyers Club and Eddie Redmayne has won plaudits for his role as a trans woman in this year’s The Danish Girl.

Trans and non-binary people have a hard enough time seeing roles that don’t portray them offensively, never mind getting to play them.

Laverne Cox

Remember Little Britain and the ‘But I’m a LAYDEE’ sketch?

It was OK, we were reminded, because it was written by a gay man. Besides, it was funny because they were so clearly men! Because they insisted they were women but obviously weren’t! It couldn’t have been transphobia, it was satire. It’s hard to believe now that Matt Lucas and David Walliams didn’t have a moment’s pause where they wondered if this was maybe just a little bit insensitive.

But when hit comedies such as The League of Gentlemen had already poked fun at trans people, it must have seemed like fair game. Every parody, every tasteless joke, makes it easier for the next one, and makes life harder for the people who have to live with this abuse daily.

"What will happen when the hot dog or bun jokes start circulating now? How many trans or gender non-conforming people will have that shouted at them in the streets?"

The  Zoolander 2 trailer also raises one question that trans and non-binary people dread, the intrusive demand about what your genitals look like. “It's exhausting, as a trans person,” writer and activist CN Lester says “to find your personhood and your safety constantly reduced to 'what do you have in your pants?”

The first Zoolander (which came out in 2001)  is still quoted ad nauseum – what will happen when the hot dog or bun jokes start circulating now? How many trans or gender non-comforming people will have that shouted at them in the streets?

The original film was funny because, like all the best camp classics, it subverted expectations. But there’s nothing groundbreaking about falling into offensively clichés. Is it funny? Over 9,000 signatories of the petition to  boycott it certainly don’t think so.