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More questions than answers

This prurient and trivial documentary was yet another missed opportunity

<strong>The Pregnant Man

Thomas Beatie, as all the world now surely knows, is a transgender man from Oregon who had the breasts he was born with surgically removed, but elected to keep his female reproductive organs. When his wife, Nancy, found that she could not have another child - she has two daughters from a previous relationship - he decided to leave off taking the testosterone for a while and get pregnant himself, using donor sperm. In June, he gave birth to a daughter, Susan.

Needless to say, when the news of his pregnancy broke, the media went wild and a now infamous photograph of Thomas, his swollen belly covered in soft, dark hair, quickly travelled across the world (the picture was taken by Nancy, to accompany an article Thomas wrote for the Advocate, in which he explored the legal questions surrounding his new status). The Beaties, who run a business printing T-shirts, reacted to this voracious and often unkindly press interest by appearing on Oprah, and by signing an exclusive deal with People magazine and the makers of this documentary. People would publish the first pictures of Susan, and a television crew would film the goings-on in the labour room, as a bearded man struggled and strained to bring a new life into the world.

Advance publicity for The Pregnant Man (11 December, 9pm) suggested that it would be far superior to the physiological freak shows one finds on some other channels. The word went out that the Cutting Edge film would not judge, nor would it point and stare. Rather, it would use Thomas Beatie's story as a way of looking at gender, at our preconceptions about the roles of the sexes.

To which I say: what utter baloney. I watched The Pregnant Man with a feeling of nausea, not from the Beaties' unusual arrangement - they appear to be decent, straightforward people, and more capable of bringing up a child than some conventional couples I can think of - but because of the film's tone.

It wasn't only because Thomas was so often filmed half-clad, flexing his muscles, the better that we might stare at his bizarre form (however liberal you are, there is no getting away from the fact that a pregnant man looks pretty odd). Nor was it because the director was so fixated with playing the hateful anti-Beatie video messages posted by anonymous bigots on the net.

No, what I really despised was the feeling that this - the birth of a child - was a just a caper. Laugh at the clod-hopping German TV reporter as he tries and fails to get access to the Beaties' neighbours! Smile as Craig Kelly, our chirpy northern narrator, builds the excitement! Why were Thomas and Nancy repeatedly interviewed in bed? Why were no expert witnesses - doctors, psychologists, social historians - ever called upon to put their story in context? And why, oh why, was the film's background music so jaunty? It sounded like leftovers from How Clean Is Your House?.

This unsettling combination of prurience and reductive triviality is an increasingly common feature of Channel 4 documentaries, and it drives me nuts. Apart from anything, it is just so frustrating to see genuinely interesting material - a real scoop - in the hands of people who apparently lost their sense of inquiry at the same time as they mislaid their sense of decency.

The Pregnant Man threw up plenty of questions, big and small, but it answered virtually none. "I kind of have a penis," said Thomas, grinning at an interrogator we could not see. Really? Do they just grow, like cress? We never found out. When Nancy was shown breastfeeding Susan, a disembodied voice asked what she'd done to stimulate her milk. She mumbled something confusing about "birth control" and "herbs", and the voice, presumably satisfied with this answer, did not pursue it.

I hear, via Barbara Walters, that Thomas is expecting another baby. I wonder: is there any hope that he might be induced to have this one in private? Pluck in the face of prejudice is always admirable. But it is also the case that some stories are best told by means of a life well led, and a job well done, rather than instantly, via television cameras and supermarket magazines. The time for telling is when Susan and her little brother or sister are grown, and safely despatched to college.

Pick of the week

River Cottage Christmas Special
17 December, 8pm, Channel 4
Hugh's festive table, starring flaming jam roly poly.

The Perfect House: the Life and Work of Palladio
17 December, 9pm, BBC4
Renaissance homes to die for.

Peter Kay's Britain's Got an Extra Pop Factor
19 December, 9pm, Channel 4
Kay's spoof talent-show winner, Geraldine McQueen, returns.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech