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Summary: What is it, exactly, about gender ambiguity that is presumed to be so funny? Referencing the now classic Saturday Night Live sketch comedy "It's Pat," I pose this question to students when teaching about the deeply embedded ways that gender structures our society. Not to be conflated with genital ambiguity (which focuses on sex characteristics), gender ambiguity refers to a type of gender presentation in which a person's gender (e.g., man or woman) is unclear. In this clip (season 17, episode 3), coworkers throw the androgynous fictional character Pat O'Neil Riley (played by Julia Sweeney) a surprise birthday party. As with all segments in the series, people's interactions with Pat center around trying to decipher Pat's gender; overwhelmingly, Pat's indeterminate gender is framed to be a source of deep confusion for others, to the point where the social interaction is compromised, thus resulting in a presumably comedic scenario. Throughout the skit, co-workers search for clues that might give insight into Pat's gender, as they are unsure how to behave around Pat without this knowledge. For example, a male co-worker doesn't know whether putting his arm around Pat's shoulders is an appropriate form of consoling. Similarly, in this clip (as well as others in the series), Pat's acquaintances ask questions that might reveal the gender of Pat's romantic affection, assuming that the romantic partner would be of the "opposite" gender (this assumption illustrates the concept of heteronormativity). The fact that something so simple as not knowing one's gender can compromise entire social interactions, and that we have culturally defined this as "funny," illustrates how profoundly this social construction organizes society. Specifically, viewers can see the demand that language imposes on knowing one's gender, as co-workers don't know whether to use terms like mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or fellow, and they struggle to substitute gender neutral terms like child, sibling, and person. While the skit's theme song aims to "humorously" represent the limitations of language, it resorts to the offensive notion that individuals with an ambiguous gender are an "it" or a "that." In addition to illustrating the limits of language, this clip is useful for introducing students to the utility and importance of gender neutral pronouns in our lexicon, such as ze, hir, and xem.
Submitted By: Valerie Chepp