Friday, 2 December 2011

de tropes

The final episode of My Transsexual Summer was broadcast this week. How did I feel about it? It was certainly flawed. The annoying voiceovers continued, along with the focus on surgery; we are told that Karen, who was shown undergoing surgery in the first episode, is "now... the woman she always knew she was"; Lewis is seen counting the money from a benefit gig, because "the NHS refused to pay for (his) surgery, so now he's got to raise £5000 to go private". This conveniently erases the advice given Lewis that the decision by his local PCT could (indeed should) have been challenged and overturned. Advice that was given in front of the camera but edited out. Because it makes better television to have a heartwarming scene of plucky young things putting on a gig to raise funds. All very Cliff Richard, indeed.

 And then there's the gender normative aspirations. A closing scene has the seven subjects posing for the camera with something to symbolise their hopes for the future. Karen, who has been working as a lorry driver and evidently finding it a challenging environment, poses as a secretary, holding a mildly submissive pose with a notebook and pencil. Donna holds an inflatable male doll, to symbolise her hopes for a relationship. Drew wears a beautician's tunic. I wince. As I do when Fox has a night out with the lads, in Brighton, and is seen shouting "Orright darlin'?" at women on the street.

Still, should we expect them to be other than this, 'better' than this? Three observations:

  1. I watched this on 4OD (the 'on demand' internet stream), and had to sit through some adverts at intervals through the show. I saw Jean Claude Van Damme standing on a mountain, talking about beer and, apparently, his penis. Then the Boots Christmas ad, where the intrepid womenfolk dash around, Charlie's Angels stylee, to create Christmas for their sleeping families. I mean. Are we a vanilla nation, or what?
  2. We can't all be gender warriors, and not all of us want to be, I guess. Certainly, in the early stages of transition, any instance of you fitting in and being seen to fit in with your target gender role can be hugely affirming. Even if it isn't a positive experience in the wider sense. Thus the trans women in the programme are happy to be trivialised and condescended to in the pub by the blokes playing pool. Because they're being treated like women. Some cisgender women like that sort of thing too, I understand.
  3. Should we expect a better understanding of gender politics from those who cross from one side to the other, or indeed live outside the binary, than those who stay put? My instinct is to say yes. I have heard some trans women angrily say "I don't understand men, because I have always been female". This seems mildly disingenuous. It is possible to be female and live as a man. Just as it is possible to be male and live as a woman. It's the difference between core indentity and performance. And performance may only be performance, but it still takes you to places where you might expect to have an insight into how your fellow performers, er, perform.
Looking on the bright side, some insights manage to sneak past the vanilla curtain. Max queries the "assumption that when you can pass enough, you're no longer trans". And Sarah's insight, so early on in her own journey, that "the key to successful transition comes from within, is to be happy".

 Reading tweets about the programmes on #transsummer, the response to them from outside the trans community seems overwhelmingly positive. So hurrah. For many people, trans folk are something almost mythical, not knowingly encountered in everyday life, and so liable to be casually 'othered' by unthinkingly going along with the lazy stereotypes that abound, such as the Little Britain 'trannies'. In this series, we have seen the seven participants being human; and encountering bewilderment, hostility and casual discrimination; like the woman who decides not to let her vacant room to Sarah because she doesn't want bricks thrown at the house; or the potential employers who turn Drew down because they are afraid of what their customers may think. I think that this sort of treatment, encountered on a daily basis by so many trans people, may have come as a surprise to some viewers.

And then there's the sense of empowerment that comes from a sense of community, of belonging somewhere. Drew was quite moving when she described her fearful and lonely life, when she thought "all I'd ever have is being stared at badly", and comes to the realisation that "these are my streets as well as anyone else's".

For my part, having watched this, I was inspired to get involved with the newly-forming support group TransBristol. Just sayin'. If you identify as trans*, and are in the Bristol area, do join in!


  1. Well, the media did what the media does, and to some extend will always play to the gallery at the expense of the more objective view. Like you, I appreciated the benefit the series gave simply to awareness of transgender identity. I liked the honest and simple essentials offered by those early in transition who felt no need to pretend anything but just wanted to feel they belong as themselves. Gender is hugely complex, especially since none of us has slipped past the binary education, so we're all shaped and formed by it. Our sense of discovery, even our ability to discover, is seriously compromised. I hope your Bristol group goes well: having others simply to see and talk to helps tremendously, as does the realisation that being trans is a varied experience and that you have to find your own way. Somewhere safe to feel accepted means a lot.

    PS: is that a Ladybird book illustration you edited so well? Was it really the girl pushing the switch while the boy watched? Quite enlightend if so!

  2. I don't watch reality shows because they are peopled, for the most part, by narcissistic freaks. Not so My Transexual Summer. I understand that elements of the programme are problematic, but in terms of general consciousness raising, I think it's been extremely positive.

  3. Arr Dru. I didn't see it, indeed I watch very little telly, 'reality' or otherwise. But as I've said before, all power to you.
    Best wishes.

  4. MTS is still available - for the next few days anyway to watch online at