steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

My Transsexual Summary

In the comments to my last post, a couple of people asked for my thoughts on My Transsexual Summer, Channel 4's new reality-show-cum-documentary about a group of seven people in the early stages of transition. I don't really have any very original thoughts, however - or at least, I've found my reactions (positive and negative) already expressed in discussions I've seen online. So, nothing here is going to be especially unique.

The seven people range in age from early twenties to early fifties - three men, four women. All are in the relatively early stages of transition, though there's a wide variation in terms of their confidence and "passability". Most are living full time in the gender with which they identify, but one is more or less confined to the house through fear, and one has still to come out to her family. Another undergoes a vaginoplasty during the course of the series. All these become "plot points". The series is centred on a number of weekend retreats held over the course of the summer, where the seven meet in a large house (courtesy of the production company), share experiences and socialise. In between, the programme follows various members of the group as they go about their lives. We see the vaginoplasty, of course; we see Drew (a 22-year old from Wakefield) as she tries to get a job; we see Sarah (in her thirties) coming out to her mum, etc etc. Some of the scenes feel more "set up" than others, but I'm no expert on the techniques of film makers.

The title is really awful. "My Trannsexual Summer" feeds into the idea that being trans is "just a phase". What next? "My Gay Summer"? "My Mixed Race Summer"?

At least one of the participants did not identify on the gender binary, but you would barely know this from the edit. I have heard on the grapevine that there was a lot of stuff that got edited out because it didn't fit the classic transsexual narrative, and that scenes were arranged so as to be maximally heartrending. I suspect that's just a feature of human interest documentaries generally, though.

Equally, all the participants were in the middle of transition. There was no example of somebody living an ordinary life, decades later. Obviously that wouldn't have made brilliant television, at least in this genre, but it was hard to avoid the impression that trans lives are always lives in various states of crisis.

Like every programme about trans issues since the dawn of time, this one is obsessed with shots of people putting on make-up, getting dressed, and generally "assuming a role" - as if this were an activity peculiar to trans people. Of course, passing is a real issue for many trans people, and appearance is fundamental to that - but the programme really did over-egg that particular pudding, considering that one of the accusations leveled most frequently against trans people is the idea that they're pretending, deceptive, etc.

While the narration did not misgender the participants in terms of pronouns, it was very free with irritating phrases such as "X is on his/her way to becoming a real man/woman".

All this makes me wonder about how the programme is being received by viewers who haven't given much thought to trans issues. For example, in one sequence the group visit the local pub. There, Donna (who is the most passable, confident and extrovert of the party) protects the rest by being very outgoing, charming and chatting with the regulars. A good time is had by all, and afterwards we get a snippet to camera from one of the regulars who has surprised himself by finding the trans people to be fun and interesting. He adds that he likes them because they don't pretend to be anything they're not. That's where the documentary lets it rest - which is fair enough in a way, but I do wish the problematic implication that trans people are okay so long as they don't go trying to deceive poor cis people into thinking they're real men or women had been drawn out somehow.

In another sequence one of the participants, Drew, was turned down for a job as an assistant in a bridal shop, after one of owners (who were initially enthusiastic) spotted her Adam's apple. It's not that we have a problem with trans people, they explained, but our customers might, and we're a small business in a small town. (If that scenario sounds familiar, it is.) After all, as one of the owners explained to camera afterwards, no little girl grows up dreaming of a transgender wedding. [Unless, of course, the little girl is trans herself, or has a trans parent, sibling, etc.] The shopkeeper's words were the last on the matter - and I do wish they'd found a way to ask whether it would have seemed quite so reasonable had Drew been turned away on the grounds of, for example, their customers' attitudes to race.

But perhaps I'm underestimating the viewing public?

One really good thing is that the programme acknowledges the existence of trans men. Three out of the seven are male - which already puts it far ahead of most trans programmes.

It's made clear that, while getting surgery is important for several of the group, it isn't the be all and end all for everyone.

Most important by far, it shows the participants as likeable, ordinary people, trying to get through life just like everyone else. The important thing here is that the series has time: it runs over several weeks, which gives us the room to get to know them and their lives a bit. The "freak factor", which has been the bane of trans documentaries in the past (to say nothing of 10-minute appearances on daytime TV), is greatly diminished. The programme has reportedly been getting large audiences, and while I'm sure that some of the attention is negative,* I'm guessing that most is not. One comparison has been with the recent series Seven Dwarves, though I can't comment on that, as I'm afraid I boycotted it on the grounds of bad spelling.

* There have been some nasty remarks on Twitter and the like, I understand, including incitement to hatred ("They need a pounding!") - which (Interesting Fact) is not a crime when the incitement relates to trans people, though it would be if it were on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation or race.
Tags: gender
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