“Work It” and the “Mancession”

"work it"

“Work It,” an ABC sitcom about two unemployed buddies (a car salesman and a mechanic), who dress in drag in order to land jobs as pharmaceutical sales reps, premiered on Tuesday night. According the the official ABC blurb, the main characters are victims of “the man-cession:”

Lee Standish is a quick-witted and likable family man. His best friend, Angel Ortiz, is a hotheaded ladies’ man with no filter. The two of them worked at Pontiac — Lee as a top salesman and Angel as head mechanic — until the company went out of business. Out of work for a year, their job prospects don’t look too bright. They’ve learned the hard way that the current recession is more of a “man-cession” and their skills aren’t in high demand. Then the almost-broke Lee finds out that Coreco Pharmaceuticals is looking to hire sales reps — female sales reps. He takes a chance and goes into the interview dressed in heels, a skirt and make-up. The transformed Lee gets hired–as a woman.

“Work It” is a network TV comedy, so it would be unreasonable to expect the plot to be plausible, let alone realistic. However, the term “man-cession” has been bandied about in earnest, and “Work It” has the potential to keep it in circulation. So I’d like to set the record straight about the current relationship between gender and unemployment.

“Man-cession” refers to the first few years of the recession, in which men lost 2.5 times as many jobs as women. But in February of 2010, the trend reversed, yielding what’s been called the “he-covery“: Men have since picked up 2 million jobs, while women have lost another 164,000.

Today, the jobless rate for adult men is 8.3 percent, vs. 7.8 percent for adult women. In keeping with the he-covery, unemployment fell for adult men in November by .05 percent. The jobless rate for adult women, teenagers (23.7 percent), Blacks (15.5 percent), and Hispanics (11.4 percent) stayed the same.

As you can see, unemployment remains high across the board. However, with less than one percentage point separating men and women in the unemployment stats, claims of a “man-cession” are more fantasy than fact. If you want an awkward buzzword to sum up our complex economic reality, you’d be better off with “youth-cession” or “race-cession.” Times are tough for everyone, but youth and people of color are really bearing the brunt.

Where “Work It” goes from merely inaccurate to downright offensive is with the notion that Lee and Angel are so marginalized and put upon by our female-dominated society that they are forced to adopt an unconvincing drag act to get a job. The local pharmaceutical company is hiring, but not men. Why? According to one of the reps, it’s because, “The doctors don’t want to nail them.” In the world of “Work It,” medicine is the last preserve of male employability–in fact, all doctors are presumably men or lesbians. By that logic, Lee and Angel should have donned white coats instead of wigs.

The notion that artless and transparent drag is a golden ticket to upward mobility flies in the face of the very high unemployment rates in the transgender community. A recent survey of 6,450 transgender people by the National Center for Transgender Equity found that respondents had double the unemployment rate of the population at large. An astonishing 90 percent of respondents reported either experiencing harassment or discrimination at work or taking careful steps to avoid it, such as hiding their gender identity. Twenty-six percent reported that they had lost jobs because of their gender presentation.

Advocates for transgender rights have called on ABC to pull “Work It” for disseminating negative stereotypes about transgender individuals. Defenders of the show disingenuously counter that “Work It” couldn’t possibly be trafficking in negative stereotypes about transgender people because Lee and Angel aren’t really transgender, they’re red-blooded cisgendered males who are forced to pretend to be women to get ahead in our man-hating, female-dominated society.

The premise of “Work It” is that “men impersonating women” have it easier in today’s job market. The reality for transgender people in the workplace is exactly the opposite.

Read more from Lindsay Beyerstein on the race and gender impact of job creation strategies in the current issue of Ms – available on newsstands, or direct to your door if you join the Ms. community.

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