Around this time last year, the image of Joanne the Scammer was everywhere. She had appeared on celebrities’ Instagrams, in popular magazines, online videos, and earned a blue check mark for her iconic Twitter rants about the merits of a good scam.
Joanne the Scammer is a character created by Florida comedian Branden Miller. Bearded, wigged, and rocking a ratty fur coat, Miller’s depiction of Joanne is a ridiculous take on a classic trope—the “man in a dress.”
The image is undoubtedly funny. But there’s been a curious lack of introspection around where exactly the humour comes from. Why do we find the image of a man in a dress talking about lying and cheating and hooking so damn funny?
Trans women have some theories. One of the most decisive takes on Joanne came from Twitter personality and Afro-Indigenous nonbinary trans woman Dallas. She took aim at public comments by Miller which exposed the intention of Joanne as a caricature of transgender sex workers, calling it “beyond insulting.”
let's talk about how terrible the joanne prada persona is, all of his comments aside.
— yemoja nipples (@mixedhunty) March 27, 2016
Like many viewers of Joanne, I had initially assumed that the character was a drag persona of Miller’s; the truth is that she was meant to be a mocking depiction of transgender women. Unknowingly, my sisters and I were laughing along with something rooted in negative stereotypes about us, and by the time we were aware of it, it was too late—Joanne was everywhere.
In many ways, the clear transphobia inherent in the character of Joanne the Scammer and her creator illustrates the double standards in media surrounding trans women and trans issues more broadly. Joanne shot to social media celebrity through accolading interviews in Paper Mag, Pop Sugar, NY Mag, Latina, and The Fader.
In recent weeks and months, all five magazines have gained clicks from progressive viewers for writing about transgender people in pop culture. The same people with “Protect Trans Kids” emblazoned on their articles and accounts joined in on laughing at Joanne’s pastiche of trans un-passibility. It’s jarring to see celebration for such a transparent collection of all the worst stereotypes of an undeniably marginalized population. It’s the kind of depiction that we might think would earn some kind of condemnation from the readers of those same magazines. Of course, we would be wrong to hold our breath.
The same people who are most affected by the harmful elements of Joanne the Scammer were huge early fans of Miller’s schtick. That iconic video where a messy-haired Joanne announces she’s “a messy bitch who lives for drama” was first shared by transgender model Hari Nef on her Tumblr account.
I remember seeing it back in its first few days, and watching the video slowly gain ground. It snowballed to the point that Joanne the Scammer made an appearance on Blac Chyna’s Instagram at the beginning of her relationship with Rob Kardashian. The timing was right for that schtick to develop its own legs. Over time, it started to become clear that this was not a drag persona, a form of self-expression, or for our eyes only. The joke had gotten away from us. It wasn’t funny anymore. There were no ties binding it to our community, no sign that it was coming from a place of self-recognition. People were no longer laughing with us, they were laughing at us.
The “man in a dress” image exemplified by acts like Joanne the Scammer brings up uncomfortable associations. On one level, there’s a sense of deceit and lying, tied up with the word “scam.” It suggests intentional misrepresentation, disguising, “dressing up” as a woman while maintaining all the power of a man, tricking someone into their trap.
The implied double meaning of scam evokes a common offensive term for trans women. Calling someone a “trap” implies that they trick men into sleeping with them. The idea is that, by convincing a man to sleep with them, trans women are “trapping” them, tricking them into being gay or finding them sexy. Moreover, the “scam” of Joanne speaks to the politics of passing—rather than a trap for straight men to fall into, the visibly butch Branden has to finesse them a little. Trans women, represented as men in dresses, are not just traps, but full-blown scammers.
There’s a dark irony to the highly visible character of a bearded man in a ratty fur coat gaining widespread acceptance and celebration, while trans women are subject to constant surveillance and scrutiny for their appearances. Miller repeatedly emphasizes the meaninglessness of his character, insisting that (drag persona notwithstanding), there’s no part of Joanne that he considers an extension of his identity.
The image of a man in a dress is entertaining enough to keep cisgender audiences laughing for months, even as legislative attacks on trans people’s identities continue to mount up. A man can get verified and sponsored for putting on a dress and joking about scamming women around him. Meanwhile, many jurisdictions have made it dangerous for trans women to use public bathrooms. Maybe we’d laugh harder at Joanne the Scammer if the dichotomy wasn’t so apparent, if the image of trans women that it perpetuates wasn’t constantly being weaponized against us by legislative bodies, hostile governments, and predatory police.
It’s old news that there is a noticeable proximity—if not an outright connection—between the prevalence of trans fetishism and the negative treatment of trans women. This tension is expressed in a variety of ways. Some of them are good, others not so good.
In the summer of 2015, before Joanne the Scammer gained mainstream attention, I remember reading about the murder of a transgender Filipina woman named Jennifer Laude by an American marine named Joseph Pemberton. The crux of his legal defence was a claim that, because Laude had a penis, she was enough of a “man” to pose a significant threat to Pemberton, forcing him to resort to physical violence against her to protect himself after their sexual encounter. In that same article, Meredith Talusan explains how this resembles the infamous “gay panic” defence.
The gay panic defence essentially argues that for straight men the supposed shock of discovering that their partner is transgender sends them into a panicked rage over their own masculinity. In that mental state, they can claim “temporary insanity” and receive a lighter sentence for murdering trans women. In a recent blog post, transgender philosopher Rachel Williams describes how the fantasy, “taboo” element inherent in trans fetishism inadvertently drills the idea of trans women as different, inhuman, and male into men’s heads. Their sexual fascination with trans women quickly morphs into hostility and insecurity around their masculinity, with violent consequences for the girls involved.
Transgender actress Jen Richards speaks to this in her argument against casting men in trans women’s roles. “Straight men are attracted to trans women. They always have been, always will be,” she tweeted. “BUT they are afraid that being with trans women makes them gay/less masculine. They seek us out, enjoy us, then punish us for their anxiety…. They have sex with us, worry that makes them gay, then reassert their masculinity through violence aimed at us.”
On the other hand, trans fetishism pays the bills. Transgender pornography is incredibly popular and enables prominent transgender porn actresses to start new businesses, get gender-affirming surgeries, and buy their own homes off of their work in pornography. TS Madison is a prime example of this kind of success. On the side of full-service sex work, I know girls who can make rent from a single client precisely by playing into fetishized depictions of trans women. For every man who uses tropes like Joanne the Scammer to play on vulgar stereotypes of street-walking sex working trans women, there is an actual transgender sex worker who is making bank off of the rising tide of fetishism that’s helped to make trans women such highly sought sexual partners.
Sexualization and exotification are harmful, but they can still pay, insofar as they reward those who are willing to comply with the assumptions and expectations made about their bodies. Yet there is no world where trans women are not viewed as objects of fascination and distrust. Historical examples of this include the work of photographer Nan Goldin, who depicted transgender women and drag queens intimately in her work, and later spoke out against how the images she created became the basis of lucrative “heroin chic” fashion trends, even as the women in the photographs were left in situations of horrible risk and poverty.
Critics of Goldin argue that despite her queerness and her closeness to her subjects, her photographs necessarily turn them into objects to be viewed by an audience. Liz Kotz writes: “Presented under the guise of an ‘intimate’ relationship between artist and subject, these images re-legitimize the codes and conventions of social documentary, presumably by ridding them of their problematic enmeshment in histories of social surveillance and coercion.”
When it comes to images of transgender women, whether we want to be or not, we are all voyeurs.
Trans women, like all victims of misogyny, are constantly subjected to surveillance. Our bodies are objects of scrutiny, both internally and externally. The trans women that get celebrated are those who “pass”; passing is a mechanism for avoiding transphobic hostility and discrimination. Maybe cisgender audiences don’t see the contradiction of laughing at a man in a dress calling himself a “scammer,” while applauding a transgender model for ad revenues.
But we do.
Joanne the Scammer was funny when she was something that we could laugh along with, something that we could share as a joke, something that helped trans people look at ourselves less seriously. But when she gained greater popularity, wider reach, bigger voice, we stopped laughing. The man in a dress who talks about robbing men and lying to wealthy white women is the same person that transphobic legislators imagine when they pass draconian bathroom bills claiming that trans women pose a threat to their children.
There is a difference between being seen, and being depicted. For a community that is the subject of constant scrutiny—both in wider society, and by the eyes of the state and its police force—there is no depiction of trans people that a cis person can create that does not play into this voyeurism or the threats it poses to their lives and livelihoods. These images have stakes.