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Transgender and the Media - Spring '98

Alice Purnell

 

Issue 2
May 1998

 
During February and early March there has been a rash of programmes on television and radio with characters and people who are transgendered in some way.

Originally the TS person appeared in the Media as in "Silence of the Lambs" as a vengeful sad or mad character. She was to be feared and pitied, like the Oedipus-complexed son, Norman Bates, in "Psycho" and so many films which have copied that pseudo-Freudian format. It has the shock of his being different and threatening in his psychotic and psychopathic behaviour and violence reinforced by the gender challenge. Of course "she" has to die at the end, the scorned or abused "woman" who is seen as actually a madman in a dress being deserving of as little understanding and as much horror as the cliché of the Extraterrestrial invader, who has to be killed for challenging Western Society and the American Way of Life.

Then there was the drag queen, the chap in a frock. He was an effeminate homosexual, who parodied women, but hated them, except of course his Mum. There were only these two stereotypes set before the public gaze in film and television representations of gender crossover. The so called news-papers went to town with stories of vicars in knickers, doing horrid things to choirboys, kinky sex, pantie-thieves and sex-changers.

In the Eighties, television discovered the investigative documentary, and agony-aunt and chat-shows, and behind all the Freudian pseudo-psychology, real people began to emerge with their own story and point of view. Writers began to see other ways of painting a character that were less one dimensional and more humanistic. They began to see and show complex people in particular situations. Work by the Beaumont Trust and other organizations the Gendys Conferences and later Press for Change began to disseminate information, talking to writers, providing clear facts which challenged the myths. It seems the media are at last beginning to grow up. Things have changed: She is seen as a shy person, with feelings. She wants a friend. She's in Coronation Street! They say there's one in every street now. Hayley Patterson is played by a woman. She isn't on the programme to put the transsexual case. She is a character. Her gender is not in question. It is the challenges her situation places on the emotions of these very ordinary people which is interesting. She says "It's not the sort of thing you can tell someone. . ."

The papers of course get the debate going, with letters from Press for Change saying she should be played by a TS actress. I do not agree on one level. Certainly I would expect an Asian to be played by an Asian, but is it necessary for a lesbian or a trans-woman to be played by one? We need the public to see that sexual preferences and gender identity affects ordinary people. Perhaps, at this stage of public understanding, public prejudices should not, or can not yet, be fine-tuned to the to the physical so called "defects" of such a woman if she were not entirely convincing.

On the level that some women with a transsexual history are quite ordinary women, who do not wear that trans-history as a badge, this will I believe help the trans-community to be accepted within society as society evolves. Society needs to adapt to the idea of gender as the driver in cases of gender dysphoria, rather than sex. Women and men who have confronted this challenge to their identity do deserve enough respect to be seen as they identify themselves. I realise that gender is an "in your face" issue and a similar didactic exists in say a writer who is black objecting to being called a black writer, or a poet to being called a poetess for example. A writer is a writer. If her writing is simply about being black, or on women's issues then it is reasonable for the adjective, black or woman to prefix her profession. Similarly a woman may choose to state she is a transsexual woman, or place it in her history as, for instance, an unmarried mum might.

My point is that women with a transsexual history do not all look and sound like Bernard Breslaw in a frock. That is a matter of taste I realise, but there are aesthetic considerations which do get in the way for all of us. However, if someone lives as a woman and does have that unfortunate configuration, and simply does not pass, I would defend their right to be respected. Such people are perhaps not the best role-models to present to the public, as the glamour girls are also perhaps not entirely appropriate. Women who have resolved their gender identity problems, like all women, come in all shapes and sizes, ages and types. That is why feminism is important to all women, we all need to get away from stereotyping. Let us not forget that men are also in a stereotyped straightjacket.

Maureen Lipman told an old, but thought provoking joke the other day. "Why is it better to be black than gay? A black person doesn't have to tell his mother."

So what of the trans-person? Will she or he ever become more than a stereotype?

Sadly some in the TG Community will never it seems be able to be other than "a Transsexual" if they do not conform to public perceptions of what a woman "should" look or sound like. Some effort and luck is required. A TG activist needs to bear this in mind. It is hard to know how to prevent discrimination on aesthetic grounds, which may have little to do with authenticity of the identity of a person as a female or male. Respect is vital, but effective role-models may help the cause, whilst it is harder to convince the public if the model before them makes them squirm or laugh. As I have said women come in all shapes and sizes, but they do need to speak with a woman's voice, as from the "soul of a woman". Here I refer to how they speak rather than necessarily the sound of their words.

In the programme "Prostitutes" Esther Rantzen talked with Tracy, a tall woman with big bones and a male voice, who had worked her passage (no pun intended) towards sex-change as she called it, as a prostitute. She did this after three marriages and trying all sorts of things, including crime, to live a typical hyper-masculine, but under-achieving life. Large leftovers from her "male" attitudes and life came through her words and feelings, together with sadness and defiance.

I was amazed when she said that her electrolysis cost her ten times as much as her surgery, and by the fact she seemed to have made no effort at voice training. She seems to be the sort of woman who is vilified as invading women's space by Janice Raymond in "The Transsexual Empire". Unless she does something about her voice and some of her apparent mind-set she will probably never "pass". Her priorities seem strange to me, unless she is not bothered by that fact.

I hear friends say "We don't need this sort of trannie on the box, she lets the side down and only reinforces the public's view of trannies as men in dresses who are prostitutes". Yet there she was the next day in a programme looking at the sex industry. She said what the other women said, experienced the same sort of low self-esteem many seemed to share, she felt used, she was a victim, she detested the way the some punters reacted to these women, punters who felt they could buy anything. She seemed lonely and unloved, unloved by herself as well as the world around her. Interestingly Tracy said that men are not so keen on her services now that she is postoperative. Apparently the turn-on for these punters is to be penetrated by a "chick with a dick". I am also amazed by how much disposable income these men have, finding several hundred pounds for a couple of hours of tacky sex. It is easy to see that prostitution pays rather more than nursing or counselling! I doubt if there is much job satisfaction though.

In "Taggart" there was a woman who had suffered bullying and abuse as a child at her boys boarding school; who returned, now a woman, played by a woman, to kill her abusers. She, Jan, asks "Why did nobody care? Whoever I was, I was a person. I had feelings. How could you let them do it and still do nothing?" This was a story of vengeance and damage at the hands of abusers. I overheard a conversation in the Co-op, the gist of which was "They got what they deserved". Because the writing, the production and acting was so sensitively done, sympathy was for the abused woman, who had suffered not only as a "hidden girl" at a tough all-boys school, but also dreadful bullying and abuse.

Then there was "Fitz" an American version of "Cracker" using the same story-lines translated into American. That in itself is interesting. I really missed Robbie Coltrane. Fitz is thinner, also a compulsive gambler and heavy drinker. He smokes less than Cracker and is in no way such a brilliant actor or character, less human somehow. In this episode a baby is stolen from the maternity hospital. The sibling of one of the nurses turns out to be an hermaphrodite who was forced to live as a boy by her parents. She had been refused gender reassignment surgery by the local GIC. Fitz says to this nurse "Your brother is really your sister. To try to confirm her womanhood she stole the baby".

At the end, by a sea cliff, he confronts her with the judgement of Solomon, telling her to hand him the baby that it might live. She gave up the baby as any good mother might. Of course she then went over the cliff to her death. You can't steal a child and get away with it on American TV. Sadly the programme did not carry her forward towards treatment and self realization. Even in this American version of the story she was a character who deserved and got some understanding. It is a shame there was not a happy ending for her. She had become an archetypical tragedy figure.

The superb programme for disabled people "From the Edge" looked sympathetically at two people who had resolved their gender dysphoria: a man with MS and a visually impaired woman who was registered blind. One of the hardest things they which they both expressed was that for them it was difficult to gauge the reactions of others if you can't see their faces. It was also hard to know how to walk and body language, if you couldn't see other women. What was clear to me was the courage of both participants in the programme, and that gender dysphoria can in itself be a real disability. I know some of my disabled friends are aware some people only see their disability, just as black people were seen as only black. These community awareness programmes help reinforce a view of the person, and allows pride to grow.

The formats of the dreadful "Kilroy" and the less grotty "The Time and the Place" had the usual "heated debates", to quote Mrs. Merton, which are actually often only slanging matches. These shows have no brief for or against trans-people, they are selling the programme. In the States there are several shows which exhibit people in overtly emotional exhibitionistic conflicts and situations. We import several for British Television. They have as little substance as a McDonalds plastic cup.

Rikki Lake covered "Too Fat to be a Drag Queen" from which we can deduce it is p.c. State-side to be a drag queen, but not to be too fat. It is clear in American "culture" that fatness and smoking have become targets! You can tell I smoke and am overweight can't you! But it is significant that to these dreadful American audiences the Bible-belt-bigots get the most stick. I am always amazed particularly at so-called Christians who have forgotten to love and respect others.

The most horrifying so far, is the Jerry Springer Show. Our Ruby Wax met Jerry Springer in a show where a 'transexual' told her boyfriend that she was, or had been, a man. It was like Attila the Hun meeting Godzilla in the ampitheatre of exploitation, where people were getting their few seconds of glory in exchange for their dignity. Has television created a world of voyeurs, where people are so bad at communicating, that they can only do so in front of seventy-million howling idiots? You see it fails in terms of good taste and of respect.

My brother had his birthday last week and he remarked how "IT" (Gender dysphoria) seemed to be on the box every night and even fish are changing over because of water pollution. He won't touch the stuff (water) and says he just hopes they won't make it compulsory. Thinking about it, I would find it difficult to think of him as a woman. He has the wrong programme on in his head.

So what is the point of this article apart from my own critical view of programming (on television and in the "collective mind" of society)? I realise collective and mind are usually mutually in conflict. I guess what I am saying is that it seems there are perceptible changes in the way people "with dodgy gender" are being portrayed. Joe Public even knows some of the vocabulary of the gender spectrum. Sadly it has created new stereotypes for the viewing, listening and reading public. Perhaps the greatest battle to be fought is to invite society to see individuals, who are valued, rather than always use the generalising disrespectful stereotypical images they have traditionally seen portrayed by the media and they have collectively held for all minorities.

Only when each person is respected in our society can we respect the society in which we live.

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