There's A Big Problem With Zoolander 2

Photo: Christophe Ena/Associated Press.
Update: 11:35 a.m.: Representatives for Paramount Pictures and Ben Stiller have been contacted for comment, but have not replied at this time.

This story was originally published on November 21.

The newest trailer for Zoolander 2 riffs on Stiller’s character, Derek Zoolander, and his buddy Hansel (Owen Wilson) in their fall from grace as the It Boys of the early aughts and their inevitable replacement by a set of newer, fresher faces. One of those faces is creating real-life controversy: an eyebrow-less Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender-flexible androgynous model named All that Stiller and Wilson seem to find immensely confusing.
“Are you a male model or a female model?” Stiller asks. Wilson follows with, “Do you have a hot dog or a bun?” Are we taking crazy pills? Anyone past the age of seven should know that there are absolutely no circumstances where it is appropriate to publicly ask someone about their genitalia.

Trans and LGBTQ communities are not pleased. Los Angeles Magazine called the trailer “sexist and transphobic,” and called it out for using women and trans individuals as punchlines. One LGBTQ activist has even created an online petition calling for a boycott of the movie for “its offensive representation of non-binary individuals!”

The petition, created by activist Sarah Rose, described Cumberbatch’s character 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 also warns that “by hiring a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way, the film endorses harmful and dangerous perceptions of the queer community at large.” As of now, the petition has 6,902 signatures, only 98 short of its goal of 7,000. The studio and Stiller have made no official response.

Transgender models are a very real presence in the fashion industry. Perhaps the most famous trans model is Andreja Pejic, who started her career as a male model of such androgynous beauty that she was often asked to model women’s fashion. In the summer of 2014, she officially transitioned and has been expressing her female identity and working as a women’s model since then. The petition points out the availability of transgender models as a respectful alternative to Cumberbatch’s gender-identity blackface.

The irony and offensiveness of the joke is compounded by the fact that the trailer, which came out on Wednesday, was released in the middle of Transgender Awareness Week. GLAAD describes the week, which runs from November 14 to 20, as an opportunity to “help raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues these communities face.”

The erasure and mockery of trans people is no joke. The Associated Press reports that 2015 is a record year for the killings and assaults of transgender women. So far this year, 22 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed, as compared to 12 last year and 13 the year before. It's in contrast to the public perception of 2015 as a landmark year for transgender rights: the public transitioning of Caitlyn Jenner and the rise of trans stars like Laverne Cox have made things out to seem better than they really are. The unglamorous reality remains: It is very dangerous to be a trans or gender non-conforming individual in America. Only 10 states, including the District of Columbia, have gender identity included in their hate crime statutes and risks remain in those states.

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