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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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times