My Transsexual Summer: The trouble with television

The medium’s ability to improve its own minority representation is strictly limited.

The medium’s ability to improve its own minority representation is strictly limited.

Many of my friends are talking about My Transsexual Summer, which recently began on Channel Four, featuring seven people from across the gender diversity spectrum. Some are cisgender (crudely, not trans), often with little knowledge of trans living beyond what I've told them, who say the show offers accessible, sympathetic insights into the social challenges of transition. Conversely, my trans friends, some of whom had high hopes for the series, have tended to vent frustration that (besides other things) it fails to air the experiences of those who do not simply wish to move from one side of male/female to the other but find space within the gender binary.

I won't review it from a trans perspective: Sarah Lake, Dru Marland and several others have done so, better than I could. The consensus seems to be that My Transsexual Summer has faults -- its title erases the subtleties of the participants' gender identities, and its voiceover and editing do not entirely avoid sensationalism -- but that in showing trans people together, rather than disparate, isolated individuals as in previous documentaries, it demonstrates a vibrant culture on television for the first time.

This is an incremental step forward for trans media portrayal, but still raises questions about how far TV is capable of providing satisfactory minority representation. Maxwell Zachs, of, My Transsexual Summer, has expressed some dissatisfaction with the show, whilst my own engagement with the industry has been less than encouraging.

If you didn't know (and I've had calls from media companies who'd somehow missed it), I'm transsexual, and often write about it, trying to use my experiences to open dialogue about wider trans concerns. (Apologies to my FtM friends: I've tended to focus on trans women as I don't feel as qualified on trans men.) I do this because, for years, I felt that while trans people were regularly discussed in mainstream media, used as objects of ridicule in lazy comedy shows, or attacked by certain feminists or conservatives, we were seldom allowed to frame our own stories and present counter-arguments on an even footing.

In particular, when I began apprehending myself through newspapers, films and TV, I resented the stereotypes of trans women as psychotic (Psycho, Dog Day Afternoon or Dressed to Kill) that persisted into the Nineties (in Silence of the Lambs, for one). These still hadn't quite disappeared nearly twenty years later, when I decided (independently of other groups and individuals pursuing similar aims) to work within the mainstream media towards more positive representation.

After I'd written about six instalments of my Transgender Journey series for the Guardian, which aimed to reduce the decades-long gap between transgender theory and the broadsheet press, I got an email from someone at a company who'd produced films, and programmes for the BBC and Channel 4. This person had read my blogs and proposed meeting about a possible TV drama about people in transition.

Perfect: I'd attempted something like this before writing the Guardian column, as I thought that a colourful, humorous narrative with engaging characters could potentially challenge preconceptions about trans people for a far wider audience. I felt that although I'd created a plausible world with interesting characters, I was average at dialogue and weak on plot. (The inevitable consequence of watching too many obscure French films where no-one speaks and nothing happens.) Now, I might be part of a well-balanced writing team with two promising young playwrights, and we could aim at a cultural landmark equivalent to Queer As Folk or The L Word.

Friends in/around the industry warned that lead-in times are always long; sure enough, we struggled to arrange the meeting. Finally, after fifteen months, resolution: the project had been shelved as "Sky have a drama coming up about a pre-op transsexual hitwoman". As far as the producer was concerned, this programme -- which had annoyed trans bloggers even before it was cast -- meant no market space for anything trans-related, no matter how different, for the foreseeable future. Perhaps, I thought, I'm best out of this.

Writers being disillusioned with the infrastructures of screen media is nothing new: think of Bertolt Brecht or Clifford Odets' disastrous inability to deliver what Hollywood producers required (the latter providing inspiration for the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink), or Jean-Paul Sartre's unwillingness to compromise for director John Huston on Freud (1962). But the television industry's incapacity to foster formally or politically radical content is even more pronounced than its cinematic counterpart, for numerous reasons.

With so many channels broadcasting around the clock, the listings are full of unscripted programmes -- sport, reality TV, panel shows -- which are relatively cheap or have fixed budgets. This has the effect of making television appear a world where writers are neither needed nor wanted, but it happens because the financial and visual demands of written serials are so high. (Charlie Brooker explains the costs brilliantly here.) As audiences will apparently change channel unless the pace is utterly relentless, a programme like Tony Hancock's Radio Ham, set in one room, is no longer tenable, so screenwriters must create fast, action-packed and above all short scenes across a number of locations, keeping firmly within budget.

This is not bad in itself: these constraints offer interesting challenges to writers, and when met successfully, produce fantastic shows. (The first episode of Shameless is a case in point.) The key limitations are not those of form, but content: what really puts off writers with specialist knowledge are producers' prejudices about what viewers will accept or understand which, coupled with their methods of audience testing, remain the greatest barriers to any big improvements in coverage of minority subjects.

Circumventing these gatekeepers is far harder than in writing (where bloggers have successfully challenged editors' beliefs about what people will or won't read). For My Transsexual Summer, a number of trans people, including CN Lester, and Paris Lees of pressure group Trans Media Watch, consulted with Channel Four: the broadcaster's willingness to listen is encouraging, although all the above blogs explicate the number of compromises necessary to get this show -- imperfect but still significantly better than what came before -- to air. At this point, given its financial and political structures, the limited level of improvement in trans representation on TV shown by My Transsexual Summer is probably the best we can expect.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Getty
Show Hide image

No, Jeremy Corbyn is not antisemitic – but the left should be wary of who he calls friends

The Labour MP's tendency to seek out unsavoury comrades is a symptom of an intellectual and political malady: the long-term ideological corruption of that part of the left in which he was formed.

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers,” said the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. “He’s one who asks the right questions.”

The British novelist Howard Jacobson is not a scientist, but he has asked the right question about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the improbable-but-likely next leader of the Labour party. Here it is:  “Why can’t we oppose the inequities of a society weighted in favour of wealth, and all the trash that wealth accumulates, without at the same time having to snuggle up to Putin, pal out with Hamas, and make apologies for extremists?”

One answer to the Jacobson Question has been offered by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a defender of Corbyn. His “tendency for unchecked inclusiveness”, as she delicately puts it, is due to his “naivety”. But that explanation will not do. We won’t find the answer in one man’s naivety, especially not a 67-year-old with a lifetime of political experience behind him.

We must go deeper, reading Corbyn’s undoubted tendency to snuggle, to pal out and to apologise as a symptom of an intellectual and political malady: the long-term ideological corruption of that part of the left in which he was formed.

This corrupting ideology can be called “campism”. It has caused parts of the left to abandon  universal progressive values rooted in the Enlightenment and sign up instead as foot soldiers in what they see as the great contest between – these terms change over time, as we will see – “Progressive” versus “Reactionary” nations, “Imperialism” versus “Anti-Imperialism”,  “Oppressed” versus “Oppressor” peoples, “The Empire” versus “The Resistance”, or simply “Power” versus “The Other”.

Again and again, the curse of campism has dragged the political left down from the position of intellectual leader and agenda-setter to that of political irrelevance, or worse, an apologist for tyranny. 

Only when we register the grip of this ideology will we understand why some leftwingers march around London waving placards declaring “We are all Hezbollah now!”. Only the power of the ideology accounts for the YouGov poll that showed 51 per cent of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters believe America is the “greatest single threat to world peace”, and one in four think a “secretive elite” controls the globe.

The intellectual history of campism has three chapters.  

In the short 20th century, it took the form of Stalinism, a social system that was at once anti-capitalist and totalitarian, and that spread a set of corrupting mental habits that utterly disorientated the left.

Clinging to the dogma that it must have been some kind of socialism that had replaced capitalism, many imagined themselves to be involved in a “great contest” between the capitalist camp and the (imperfect) socialist camp. And that ruined them. They became critical supporters of totalitarianism – notwithstanding their knowledge of the show trials, mass killings, gulags, political famines, and military aggressions; notwithstanding the fact that they themselves were not totalitarians.

The result was the slow erasure of those habits of mind, sensibilities and values of an older leftwing culture rooted in the Enlightenment. In its place the Stalinist-campist left posited lesser-evilism, political cynicism, power-worship, authoritarianism, and sophisticated apologias for tyranny.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the New Left created liberatory social movements that changed the face of the western world for the better. But the New Left was also a cheerleader or apologist for one third world authoritarian “progressive” regime after another, including Maoist China, a monstrous regime responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of “its own” people. Believing the world was divided into an imperialist “centre” exploiting a “periphery”, the New Left thought its duty was to support the latter against the former.

And when the baby boomers grew older and made their way into the universities and publishing houses, they formed the global creative class that has been reshaping every aspect of our intellectual culture ever since. Again, much of that reshaping has been a boon. Schooling us all in the anti-imperialism of idiots, and the romantic cult of the transformative power of revolutionary violence, has not.

After 1989, much of the left didn’t miss a beat. It quickly developed a theory that the world was now made up of a “Resistance” to “Empire”. Here was yet another reductive dualism. But this time there was barely any positive content at all, so campism took the shape of spectacularly inchoate and implacable negativism.

The result has been immense political disorientation, political cross-dressing, and moral debasement across swathes of the left. How else to explain the leftwing social theorist Judith Butler’s astonishing claim that, “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important”?

When we understand how campism creates that kind of ideology-saturated and captive mind, we can better understand Corbyn’s choice of comrades and answer the Jacobson Question. 

The ideology demands two commitments. First, “Down With Us!” – the commitment to oppose the West as malign. Second, “Victory to the Resistance!” – the commitment to side with, or to apologise for, or to refuse to criticise, any “resistance” to the West.

The commitment to oppose every projection of force by the West as malign underpins Corbyn’s commitments to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato, his attitude to the IRA, and to Putin, and his false equating of the actions of Isis and the coalition in Iraq.

Corbyn will withdraw the UK from Nato because it is the military organisation of the West and therefore “imperialist”. He turns the world inside out and “blames the USA and Nato rather than Putin’s imperialistic Russia for the crisis in Ukraine,” notes Labour MP Mike Gapes.

I believe Corbyn would lead Britain into a warmer relationship with Putin’s Russia, and even thinks it was a bad thing that Poland was ever “allowed” to join Nato.

Astonishingly, given recent history, he also argues that Poland should have, “gone down the road Ukraine went down in 1990”. Corbyn opposes all military support to Ukraine and seems quite uninterested in the Ukrainian bid for freedom from Russian control. What matters much more to him is adherence to the campist ideology: “The self-satisfied pomposity of western leaders in lecturing the world about morality and international law has to be challenged,” he rails.

Campism also explains Corbyn’s comparison of the actions of Isis today and the actions of the coalition forces during the Iraq war. And those comments have a precedent of sorts. Corbyn was national chair of Stop the War during the Iraq war when the leadership circulated a statement that supported the “right” of the “resistance” to use “whatever means they find necessary”. At that point, the so-called resistance was targeting democrats, including the free trade union leader Hadi Saleh.

The second commitment of the campist left has been to side with, or apologise for, or refuse to sharply criticise, the so-called resistance camp. Without understanding this, Corbyn’s apologies for the Muslim cleric Raed Salah remain a mystery, his attitude to the IRA or the antisemitic Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah will seem harmless, even ahead-of-his-time diplomacy, and the idea that he indulges antisemitism will appear to be a “slur” by a “lobby”.

Corbyn has defended the antisemitic Raed Salah in these terms: “He represents his people extremely well and his is a voice that must be heard . . . I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace because you deserve it.”

In fact, Salah was found guilty of spreading the blood libel – the classic antisemitic slander that Jews use the blood of gentile children to make their bread – reportedly during a speech on February 2007 in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi Joz.

Corbyn said he has no memory of meeting Dyab Abou Jahjah. Within minutes, Twitter was running photographs of Corbyn sitting next to Abou Jahjah – the Lebanese extremist who said, “I consider every death of an American, British or Dutch soldier as a victory” – at a public meeting.

Jahjah then boasted on Twitter of his “collaboration with Jeremy Corbyn” and insisted that Corbyn was “absolutely a political friend”. Again, it seems that Jahjah, being part of the “resistance camp”, according to the ideology, was simply beyond criticism.

It did not seem to matter that Jahjah reportedly referred to gay people as “Aids spreading fagots”, and was arrested in Antwerp for organising a riot. Or that he claimed to have published anti-Jewish cartoons showing Hitler and 15-year-old Anne Frank naked in bed with the caption: “Put that in your diary Anne”.

As the Community Security Trust commented: “I am sure that Corbyn would be the first to condemn Holocaust denial. The problem is not that Corbyn is an antisemite or a Holocaust denier – he is neither. The problem is that he seems to gravitate towards people who are, if they come with an anti-Israel sticker on them.”

Hezbollah comes with the mother of all anti-Israel stickers. That is why – although Corbyn knows that it is a radical Shia militant group that has subverted Lebanese democracy, actively supported Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria, and seeks the destruction of Israel – he nonetheless (and campism is a politics of “nonetheless”) tells the left that Hezbollah are our “friends”.

Hamas too. Corbyn also calls the Palestinian Islamist group his “friends” and argues that the organisation should not be called “terrorist”. Yet Corbyn knows that Amnesty International believes Hamas to be guilty of war crimes, torture, abductions, and summarily killing civilians. He knows that when five Jews praying in a synagogue were murdered, along with the heroic Druze policeman who came to their aid, in 2014, Hamas welcomed the attack, calling it a “quality development”. They even called it a “terror attack” – embracing the label Corbyn says they do not deserve.

The problem is not that Corbyn agrees with what all these people say. It is that he agrees with who they are: the Resistance to Empire. The apologies and the contortions and the evasions all begin there.

And then there are the Jews.

The concern here is not that Corbyn indulges in antisemitism. He does not. The concern is that he is has associated with others who have. The concern is that, when he is faced with what is called the “new antisemitism”, he is lost. At best, he is an innocent abroad who – oddly, in the age of “Google it!” – can’t seem to work out who is who, or what is what.

Writing for openDemocracy about Corbyn, Keith Kahn-Harris expresses scepticism about Corbyn’s explanation of his choice of comrades. “Although he has defended his contacts with Islamists, the IRA and others as a contribution to peace-making,” Kahn-Harris notes. “Corbyn does not have the deep relationships across the spectrum [or] the even-handedness that this would entail.”

What strikes Kahn-Harris most about Corbyn’s record is something else entirely: that he “is constantly predisposed to be at least convivial towards a broad swathe of those who see themselves as opposed to ‘the west’.”

He goes on: “Much of what appears to be [Corbyn’s] openness does indeed reflect engrained political pathologies.”

And that has been the claim of this essay, too: we have to look to those engrained political pathologies – I have used the short-hand label “campism” to describe them – to answer to the Jacobson Question.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom, a free quarterly journal, app and website.