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.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.