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17 November 2016

When it comes to transgender children, Channel 4’s new documentary doesn’t reassure

Kids on the Edge made me wonder why the adults agreed to let their children be filmed. Plus: the adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW.

By Rachel Cooke

Ash is an eight-year-old who was born as a boy but who now identifies as a girl, and who was also the star – this is probably the right word – of the first film in the Channel 4 documentary series Kids on the Edge (Wednesdays, 10pm). A clever girl and an extrovert, she is not, from what I could see, the kind of child who much likes to hear the word “no”. Told she wouldn’t be allowed to join a certain class in school – the one with her friends was too full – she swiftly threw a tantrum. “It’s because she’s not getting her own way,” her mother said, closing her bedroom door and retreating downstairs.

Would the experts let her get her own way, too? At the Tavistock Clinic in north London, provider of the only formal service for the treatment of child gender dysphoria in Britain, Ash was told that what she did with her body was her choice. But then, I think she knew this already. At a meeting with two clinicians to discuss the issue of “blockers” – drugs that delay the onset of puberty, allowing a child more time to consider his or her identity before breasts grow and voices drop – her mother raised her daughter’s strong desire to have a baby, the implication being that not even hormone injections can make every dream come true and the future might be more complicated than Ash perhaps imagined. Ash begged to differ. She had googled. What about Sweden, she asked pertly, where womb transplants are now available?

The debate around children who feel there to be a mismatch between their identity and the body in which they were born is increasingly fraught, and I don’t propose to wade into it here. All I will say is that Peter Beard’s film provided no balm at all for those who, in contrast to some trans activists, worry that children are increasingly being encouraged to take decisions about their gender at too young an age.

I don’t, of course, know what was left on the cutting-room floor. Nor am I any kind of expert. Yet what I mostly saw on screen was a lot of adults asking two children – the film’s other subject was Matt, 11, who was born as a girl but identifies as a boy – somewhat leading questions, and those children in turn responding much as you might have predicted they would.

Ash was stubborn and occasionally fiery, and seemed to enjoy sparring with her psychologists. Matt, who suffers from an autistic spectrum disorder and sometimes carried a soft toy around with him, was silent and nodding. I felt for both of them: they were anxious and in pain. However, I wondered if there was more in play than their gender alone, particularly in the case of Matt. I was also powerfully reminded of the agonising meetings that I had as a child with a social worker: conversations in which, suffering greatly but wanting also to please both her and my warring parents, I found myself bewilderingly unable ever wholly to articulate the truth.

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Most of all, I wondered why any of the adults involved had agreed it might be a good idea for these children to be filmed. It wasn’t so much the way it invaded their ­privacy that bothered me, as the performative element it brought with it; an obfuscatory layer that, in the circumstances, surely everyone could have done without.

What to make of the BBC’s adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel NW (14 November)? It’s an uneven book, wonderful in parts and a bit unsatisfying in others, and Rachel Bennette’s screen version was more or less the same. This story of a friendship between two women, Leah (Phoebe Fox) and Keisha (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who grew up on the same London housing estate and now find themselves somewhat at sea in aspirational adulthood, was at times rich and involving, and at others baffling and thin.

I still can’t get my head around the psychology that has Keisha, a successful but still desperately striving barrister and mother-of-two, indulging in risky threesomes, arranged online as a temporary remedy for her class loneliness. Still, Amuka-Bird and Fox were both marvellous and, like Smith’s novel, there were moments when it juggled questions of race, class and gender with a deftness that was almost nonchalant. 

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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world