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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.