Futurama, Season Four, Episode Thirteen, “Bend Her”

Written by: Michael Rowe
Directed By: James Purdum
DN’s Ranking: BAD / Nonessential / Essential

Ugh, let’s get through this. Futurama is frequently sexist and there’s no way around or justifying that; if you’re a fan of the show, it’s because you can work through the horrible or abrasive bits to get to the humour and occasional heart. Although I do find it useful as an articulation of a certain nerdy sexism – I realise there are women who worked on this show, but as a whole it has the vibe of the cliche nerdy guy who understands theoretical physics but not why a woman is mad at him because he can’t be bothered thinking about it for more than two seconds. Sometimes when I meet a guy like that I’m all “ah, a Futurama guy”, and my understanding of this show affects how I treat him. The sexist stereotypes feel like the writers falling back on easier ideas rather than really doing the work to figure out the funniest possible idea to play with; it’s not an intentional, malicious misogyny – just a lack of empathy that they don’t even realise is there. It gets significantly worse the few times the show delves into LGBTQ+ people – I’m actually fine with bit player Randy but I see why he makes others queasy – and especially when it comes to trans women. Having Bender switch from dude to lady and indulge – as he plausibly would – in every sexist stereotype imaginable is… not something I would be optimistic about.

It turned out to be worse on this front than I remembered. I’ve defended sexist jokes on this show before because I believe in assuming good faith on the part of other people and because I believe the jokes were about sexist characters rather than supporting sexist attitudes. Here, the absolute best faith interpretation I can make of this episode is that the joke is if Bender were female, his mixture of absolute ruthlessness and obsessive need for attention would express themselves totally differently, and that the ugly transphobic ideas presented come from ignorance rather than malice (and even then I’m not sold on that, given how trans women were represented elsewhere in the show). It’s starting from a bunch of transphobic or sexist assumptions – that men would pretend to be women to reap a benefit like winning an Olympic sport, that men pretending to be women is a gross insult to women in itself, and that women are emotionally unstable – and then never really upending them.

It all ends up reminding me of that Douglas Adams essay on the “black box” joke – while it’s not nearly as smarmy about it, a lot of the humour here depends on aggressively not knowing things about trans people. A trans woman who undergoes hormone therapy and surgery will actually have less testosterone in her body; admittedly, a person who medically transitions literally before the competition as Bender does will obviously still have the majority of their original body structure, but it eases out over three years. Leela and Amy’s attitude is what bothers me the most though. (I realise I’m talking from the perspective of a cis man here, but you know, I’m the one here writing the essay) They’re two cis women essentially criticising a trans women for not performing her gender correctly and frequently expressing disgust with her ‘imitating’ women, and the dialogue isn’t exactly a nuanced discussion of the nature of assigned gender roles (plus, Amy is straight up uncharacteristic – to put it bluntly, being slutty is her whole thing!). It’s even worse knowing that this was written by a man with a team of mostly men; this is what men think women think! Again, the good faith interpretation of this episode mainly comes in interpreting Bender being Bender; his declaration that men want trampy women with loads of makeup and intentionally acting like a ditz is hilarious if you take it as his idiosyncratic and narrow view of things, especially because he completely follows through. It’s the fact that I’m not sure if the writers actually believe it that makes it harder to watch. “Do you promise to get out of my gender and stay out?”, Jesus fucking Christ.

Title Card: Too hot for radio
Cartoon Billboard: “Naughty But Mice”, 1947

I do give credit to the episode for making Coillette’s whirlwind romance with Calculon hilarious. I was cackling all through his wide-eyed yet melodramatic reaction to the soap opera wedding. Shockingly, this is our first appearance of Barbados Slim. Trans women have frequently decried ‘man dressed as women gags’, but I gotta give it up to the writers for having the imagination to have Bender initially dress as a Russian housewife for some reason. I’m on record as enjoying robot versions of regular things, and they really make the robot versions of Olympic sports (especially the dive). I absolutely love the random scene of the crew chucking garbage at Zoidberg to see if he can catch it. We do get the unintentional black comedy of the Professor being more respectful of Coillette’s new pronouns than Leela. The worst part of this episode is knowing there’s an even worse gender-based episode in the CC era.

“I’ve never met a woman as fascinating as I am.”

The title is a reference to the movie Ben-Hur. Femmzoil is a reference to Pennzoil.

Iconic Moments: “I’m so embarrassed. I wish everybody else was dead.” | “Funny story: the script called for me to say ‘yes’, but I gave it a little twist.”
Biggest Laugh: Weirdly, in the middle of all of this is a sexist joke that perfectly illustrates the kind of joke I find funny. Just making fun of women in general is obvious and unfunny; targeting Leela for no real reason is an absurd escalation.

Next Week: “Obsoletely Fabulous”. “Save my friends! And Zoidberg!”