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Strictly Come Scrounging, anyone?

The X Factor vision of society blames the poor for their predicament.

Even in hard times, nobody likes a scrounger. As the country trembles under the Tories' fiscal hammer, noone seems to want to contest the popular political narrative that welfare recipients have had it far too good, and must be punished. George Osborne has declared that his downsizing of the benefit system, which could force hundreds of thousands into abject poverty, will 'incentivise' jobseekers towards employment - because apparently all it takes to solve the problem of millions out of work is a little get-up-and-go. This is social security as reimagined by Simon Cowell - only life's winners are rewarded, and losers go home empty-handed.

The cynical amongst us might contend that 'making work pay' is rather a tasteless euphemism for 'cutting welfare so savagely that even the minimum wage looks like unattainable luxury' - but we live in a rat race, and the sick, the needy and the unemployed have proven themselves insufficiently murine. They are losers, they lack the X factor, and since there's no glamour in compassion, we've just voted them all off the welfare programme.

Labour MPs, who began the bloodless process of privatising the welfare system in 2007, seem to have accepted that the PR battle over 'benefit scrounging scum' is unwinnable. This is because Britain has slowly but surely become a country that does not tolerate failure. The emotional logic of our society is now one of ceaseless neoliberal striving, a tyranny of aspiration.

Failure is a dirty word in modern Britain. Our sudden distaste for bankers' bonuses is not grounded on antipathy for extreme wealth but on simple annoyance that financiers are being rewarded for getting it wrong. The desperate tyranny of aspiration is also the reason that so many of us spend our Saturday nights glued to the X Factor, or the Apprentice, or Dragon's Den: these reality talent shows are compelling collective expressions of the fantasy that anyone can make it if we try hard enough. Life is a competition, and if we fail to please the bosses, their dull orange faces plasticized at great expense into permanent expressions of self-regard, we only have ourselves to blame.

The X-factor vision of society, placing all the blame for failure on the individual, is a seductive narrative. Most of us would far rather believe that the poor are lazy and stupid than countenance the notion that the rich and powerful are steering us gleefully over an economic precipice. It's far easier to blame the poor for not working than it is to blame the system for not working.

Reality television bleeds into political realism at every fissure, and with Alan Sugar now sitting in the Lords, perhaps it would be more honest if the benefits system were simply rearranged according to the formal rules of a TV talent contest. We could call it Strictly Come Scrounging.

Instead of the current welfare tests, which already force disabled people to touch their toes and walk until they fall over to justify their claims, why not go the whole hog and turn the process into a glitzy musical freakshow? We could choreograph the unemployed into a magical land of jobs with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts. If they're any good, claimants could be required to give open-air performances so that better-off members of the Big Society can finance their penury directly, without tiresome state intervention. We could give it a fancy name, like 'begging'.'

As the foundations of social democracy are dismantled before our eyes, ordinary people dream of the transcendence of celebrity. Researchers found that fame is the number one ambition of today's eleven-year-olds, and no wonder - the lottery of stardom must now look slightly more winnable than the scramble for a decent standard of living if you happen, like many TV talent show contestants, to have been born poor.

Perhaps a different approach is in order. If our political settlement is starting to resemble reality television, then maybe the best response is to make the television look more like the kind of political realism we'd like to see. Why not unionise the X Factor?

Picture the scene: next week, during the finalists' group number, the contestants suddenly stop singing all at once. They turn to the judges and declare that they are now the United Saturday Night Musicians League, and they believe in collective bargaining. A large percentage of the programme's profits are to be immediately redistributed amongst all entrants for their time and labour, or there will be no show. The contestants then proceed to sing the Internationale in memory of their fallen comrades, Diva Fever. Imagine the look on Simon Cowell's pitiless potato face.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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So many teenage girls don’t want to identify as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad