Saturday, November 12, 2011

Channel 4, Python and "the violence inherent in the system..."

Not for the first time, the Pythons have it said.

Experiencing the behaviour of the transgender community can be like living on the set of 'Life of Brian'. Specifically being part of the sub plot which has fun with squabbling Judean nationalist groups and their endless competition to be the voice of the people in the fight against the Roman occupiers.

Who can forget "Are you the Judean People's Front?" ... "Fuck off!"

But these last few days, I've been thinking of another piece of a film they made before 'Life of Brian'. I'm personally probably even fonder of 'Holy Grail'. It's sillier.

The section that's come to mind is this one...

This week, much heat, though rather less light, has been ejected on the subject of the strengths and weaknesses of 'My Transsexual Summer', Channel 4's new four parter about the lives of seven trans people. It follows the stories of this group as they come together in a sort of retreat house to share and mutually support one another, whilst going through a few weeks of their respective transitions.

The show is far from perfect. It lapses quickly and too easily into some of the standard media tropes of transgender portrayal - the shots of the make up (though these do come to have a certain meaning in the film), the awkward and inconsistent voiceover which talks of the someone "becoming a woman", or a man. There's the inevitable money shot - or in this case money sequence - as one participant goes off to have her genital surgery and the cameras follow her in to the theatre (though they do also capture the surgeon saying some very sensible things about that surgery - a first I think). And perhaps most controversially of all, it dwells on moments when the participants celebrate being "trannies", thus bringing into the picture, and potentially reinforcing in the public consciousness, a word which many trans people loathe and which has routinely become a term of hate and abuse.

But, and it's a big but, for all this, the first episode of the series had a freshness and an authenticity I had not seen before. Here were seven people all seeking the things that everyone seeks. Happiness and the right to be themselves. That they were dealing with circumstances which made them unusual in one way was not the central point, and I hope it won't become it.

I recognised them - though they aren't living their experience of being trans like I like live mine.  But much more important than any connection I forged with the participants, over 2 million others saw the programme. And hopefully many hundreds of thousands of these viewers will have - perhaps - recognised them too. Will have found themselves realising that they understood more than they had expected - not because they suddenly became expert in the terminology or concepts of the trans community, but because these seven (for all their foibles and regrettable affection for a word which causes others a lot of trouble) were portrayed by turn as articulate, vulnerable, strong, witty, charming, thoughtful, serious.

In short, human.

And dare I say, take a deep breath...'normal'?

If the film makers can do this, if they can create a series which builds a greater understanding amongst others that trans people are fundamentally recognisable  - that we want what others want - then they will have contributed to something very important. Respect is built on recognition. One day trans people will become judged by the world as people with a legitimate right to take our full place in society, through a common human bond we have with others. No longer pigeonholed into some baffling space expressed in the dense vocabulary of a condition forever incomprehensible to others and which only serves to make us seem distant and difficult. I believe that our chance is to find common ground with others around us not by forcing them to try and understand something they never can, but by turning to the essential things that make us, as human beings, all the same. Connected.

I hope and believe that for all the cliches that won't die in this series, the people who have made it are trying to do something positive for this community. Are trying to create connection. They have taken criticism for not understanding the nature of the trans experience, as most film makers who approach this field do, for looking chiefly at the needs of the audience in approaching the series more than the needs of the trans community in looking out from it. I'm not sure that's fair, but if any of it is true it is because perhaps that they know that a series which speaks only to other transgender people is pointless. Pointless for them as a production company - barely anyone will watch. Pointless for us as a community - barely anyone will watch.

So I too squirm at the awkward script, but I will try and forgive it its shortcomings in the hope that I am right about the motives of those who wrote it. Whilst treating the subjects of a documentary series like this with respect and decency, it remains vital to reach out. To find an approach, a feel, a language, which a general audience can come to grips with. If this means that a production company tackling this topic needs to walk a nightmare tight rope in trying to both honour its subject and speak to it's inexperienced audience then it's to the credit of Twenty Twenty Productions and Channel 4 that they are at least trying. They didn't have to. Far easier to commission and make some humiliating transphobic sitcom than this.

That they are making mistakes is barely surprising. That the trans community is, in part, reacting like the peasant in this early scene of 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'  - bringing its assumption-based suspicions to bear and finding offense with supersonic ease - is equally predictable. This is an abused community. It is conditioned to hear certain words and ideas which have lead to ridicule and hate in the past, and to start hurting almost before they are out of the mouths of those who speak them. This can happen whatever the intention, motives (or absence of them) or simple misunderstandings of the speaker of these words. There's a Pavlovian narrative in some of this - seeing some of the errors of My Transsexual Summer and launching into them, (and even participants who a few feel are sleeping with the enemy), with an avalanche of criticism grounded in historical assumptions about the motives of those involved. I understand that. I've been dreadfully hurt in the past too. And the media's record in this area has been appalling.

But, for all of my difficulties with My Transsexual Summer, I am hoping the intentions of those who have made this series, are different, and better.

And that the fruit it will finally bear will be tangible, and positive.

And that the trans community will start to notice the difference.


  1. Do you have an interest to declare? For example, do you involve yourself with Trans Media Watch, Twenty Twenty Television or Channel 4 itself?

    There have been suggestions that much of the discussion about non-binary issues among The Seven were discarded. If so, their true aspirations are being misrepresented.

    Do you have any thoughts to share with regard to the promotion of this series, which included the "bad tranny" moment and a series of newspaper advertisements bearing the likeness of Drew and the line "ex men"?

    I share the view that these seven shine through, but in spite of, not because of those who have brought the broadcast to our screens.

  2. Could not agree more. Not perfect but very good.

    And yes, some in the trans community are WAY too quick to start jumping up and down and taking offence where none is intended.

    I have heard rather too much of the "The show is bad because it does not represent ME and my experiences" argument.

    But these seven people are not actors. They are not playing "characters". Nor are they there to "represent" the trans community. They are there to represent themselves, and the views expressed are their views, their take on their condition and lives. The words they use are THEIR words, that THEY are happy with.

    I shall simply rejoice in the fact that I enjoyed the show and liked the folks in it. I think it will be a hugely positive step forward for the representation and understanding of trans people in society.


  3. Absolutely, Chrissie. The answer to "it doesn't represent me" is "put yourself forward then".

    The concerns that Liz alludes to, raised by one of the participants - basically, for a media that is just starting to get its collective head around the fact that trans people exist and lead normal lives and don't fall into stereotypes, I think we're asking a bit much at this stage for them to understand that gender might not actually be binary at all.

    And bear in mind that Channel 4, like all commercial broadcasters, needs to make programmes that engage with its audience - it has to sell advertising time. So not only do the broadcasters and producers have to understand these concepts, they need to be able to communicate their understanding to the (largely uncomprehending) public at large.

    The programme is not perfect - in fact it's some considerable way from it - I wish that Twenty/Twenty had taken more notice of what TMW were saying - but it's positive and engaging and (from what I've seen) has the potential to move the representation of trans people and issues a little further forward. And it's surely better than repeated jokes marginalising trans people, or shock/horror exposes, or uncountered "you're so brave" stories?