It was funny at the time — an awkward, androgynous character with a vague name who left everyone wondering whether the character was male or female, and also feeling a little ill at ease.
But now, 30 years later, as society gains a better awareness of gender identity, actress Julia Sweeney is revisiting “Pat,” the character she created and performed on “Saturday Night Live.” She touches on the situation in her one-woman show, “Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider,” which she will bring to the Neptune Theatre on Feb. 1.
The show is about Sweeney taking 10 years off from Hollywood to raise her daughter; being in a long-term relationship with her husband; and her daughter dating a Trump supporter. (The show will be filmed in April at the Fox Theater in Spokane, where Sweeney was once an “usherette.”)
But it’s the part she played decades ago that many want to talk about now.
The character — a lumpy, bespectacled, curly-haired person in a Western shirt and chinos — never let on what gender Pat was. And that was part of the bit; the reaction others had to the not knowing, and the wondering about Pat. (Example: “Would you say you’re more like your mother or your father?” one co-worker asks Pat in a sketch. Answer: “I’m a perfect combination of both!”)
But some say Pat is a poor and painful representation of a gender-nonconforming person.
“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, who is nonbinary, called Sweeney out recently, saying Pat was “an awful piece of anti-trans propaganda.” Soloway told The New York Times that Pat taught a generation of viewers to see gender-nonconforming people as outsiders, and that the character was “shame embodied and turned into an it — a thing, not a person.”
And on her new series, Showtime’s “Work in Progress,” co-creator and star Abby McEnany confronts Sweeney (who plays a parody of herself) about the bullying McEnany endured, being called “Pat” for being androgynous.
“That sucked, because it was never a compliment,” McEnany told The New York Times. “It was aggressive. It was bigotry.” Even in the bathroom of a lesbian bar, McEnany told the Times, a woman said, “Ugh, who are you? Pat?”
In “Older & Wider,” Sweeney wrestles with those issues, asking herself, according to the Times: “My God, what did I do? Was I the Al Jolson of androgyny?”
And in a KUOW interview, she said she was “obviously still struggling with it. I don’t want to automatically offer an apology without really feeling like I did something wrong. And I’m not sure I did something wrong. But I also acknowledge that there was a byproduct of what I did that made a certain group of people maybe feel bad. I need to understand what the apology really is. Is it that I should have known then not to do a character like that?”
In a recent interview with The Seattle Times, Sweeney said she is older, wiser and knows that the culture has changed. She recalled watching the “It’s Pat!” film with her college-aged daughter, who was mortified.
“But I am also not going to apologize for Pat,” she said. “I thought it was a pretty great character and I’m glad I did it.”
“In my mind, it wasn’t mean because it wasn’t targeting people who were intentionally androgynous or gender-nonconforming,” she said.
For starters, Sweeney doesn’t think Pat was gender-nonconforming. “My joke of Pat was that Pat is a heterosexual male or female,” she said. “We just don’t know what [Pat] is because we can’t tell. And to me, that’s what was funny about Pat. It wasn’t somebody trying to look androgynous. It was somebody accidentally looking androgynous.”
And there’s this: If Pat was androgynous and cool, she said, no one would care. So what critics are really objecting to is that she has made an androgynous character who is unattractive, and people are conflating the two.
“Pat was unattractive, overweight, drooling, had a weird voice and was creepy. That’s a quality anyone can have,” she said. “There’s women and men and all kinds of people who are weird and unattractive.”
For all the back and forth, though, Sweeney is grateful for Pat, for the character brought her into “Work in Progress.” The show was created at The Second City improv theater in Chicago. McEnany and Sweeney were both there working on one-woman shows and got together for a scene in which McEnany confronts Sweeney about Pat. The exchange became part of the pilot, which was filmed, screened at Sundance and bought by Showtime. “Work in Progress,” on which Sweeney’s and McEnany’s characters eventually become friends, was just renewed for a second season.
That show is part of the steady work Sweeney has been booking since she and her husband (a biophysicist) moved back to Los Angeles last fall, when their daughter started college. She also plays Aidy Bryant’s mother on Lindy West’s Hulu series, “Shrill,” and is on the upcoming third season of the Starz series “American Gods.”
“This kind of thing will never happen again to me,” Sweeney said. “I feel a little guilty about it because I feel like I needed to get older for everything to work right by my personality.
“I’m old enough to be someone in their 30s’ mom now,” she said. “And I’m so happy to do that. My dream would be to play John Mulaney’s mother on something. That would be my dream.”
“Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider,” 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1; Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $25; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org