Chelsea Manning, pronouns and the press

It's been a fraught year for relations between trans people and the British press, from Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows, to the reaction to Chelsea Manning's announcement.

It has been a year of fraught relations between trans people and the British press, with Julie Burchill’s shabby, incoherent (and swiftly retracted) broadside in The Observer in January and Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows in the Daily Mail before her death in March. Unkind and unfair coverage – in particular the use of old names, incorrect pronouns and the trashing of people’s identities – has long concerned the community, with individual writers entering the mainstream media and organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans holding dialogues with editors and journalists in efforts to change the culture.

This has made progress, but also provoked virulently transphobic responses from certain conservative, socialist and radical feminist commentators; amongst other things, Pvt Chelsea Manning’s announcement that she wishes to live as a woman after being imprisoned for providing classified information to Wikileaks has provided a high-profile test case for the current nature of newspaper coverage of trans-related stories. For those following the case, Manning’s gender dysphoria was well known, but Manning and her family asked that Manning be referred to by male pronouns before the sentencing, and it was only last week that it became widely reported.

Largely, the broadsheets focused on the difficulties that Manning will face in a men’s jail, generally handling this more sensitively than in the US. Using elements of the familiar first-person transition story whilst questioning its clichés, All About Trans activist Paris Lees documented her youthful experiences of an all-male prison in a sensitive Guardian piece. All About Trans met Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman as part of their media engagement, and Newman quoted Lees in a Telegraph article on the consequences of pressure for male-born gender dysphoric people to meet masculine expectations, and the additional challenges, particularly the heightened risk of physical and sexual assault, that transphobia might bring. (The specific problems of the US prison system for trans prisoners were also highlighted in Jane Fae’s New Statesman blog.)

Many trans people noted which pronouns were used: Trans Media Watch’s guidance advises the use of those which most closely match an individual’s presentation, and avoiding ‘old’ names and photos, but in Manning’s case, both were established in the public domain. Adam Gabbatt in the Guardian began with ‘the US soldier who was sentenced as Bradley Manning’ before using Chelsea, she and her; the Mail’s long, surprisingly delicate response used Manning’s male name just twice – in the headline and the opening sentence – with female pronouns and her chosen name thereafter, emphasising the US Army’s refusal to fund treatment and the statement from Manning’s lawyer answering accusations of narcissism. In this context, the BBC’s use of male pronouns across their website was especially disheartening.

If this seems broadly positive, it should be noted that the British press were covering an American case. US outlets emphasised the cost of Manning’s transition (but not of incarcerating her), and British publications frequently highlight the taxpayer contribution towards gender reassignment for prisoners who are not otherwise newsworthy. The Daily Star's 'Rot in hell you traitor’ and Brendan O’Neill’s tediously inevitable and inevitably tedious Spiked diatribe telling Manning that she cannot determine her own gender identity suggest that had this occurred in Britain, the newspapers may have discredited Manning with the tired transphobic tropes deployed by Burchill and Littlejohn.


Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning revealed that wishes to live as a woman last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.