Plus ça Change

Flicking through channels on the TV last night, looking for something to watch (anything as long as it’s not endless re-runs), we came across a show on TLC called Body Bizarre that featured a transgender couple. I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much: the show’s sensationalist title as good as tells you this is going to be a modern-day freak show.

Sadly I was proved right. The narration did use pronouns correctly and showed the two young people just living normal lives, but that was as good as it got. The show fell back on old stereotypes, using terms such as “born a boy”. Most cis (non-trans) people won’t pick up on this as problematic, but it is an inaccurate and misleading description because it implies that the person’s gender identity has changed: that they have chosen to be a different gender. I am female. I was born female, but the gender I was assigned at birth was male. I was not “born a boy”, I just looked like one.

The other serious problem with the reporting in this show was the focus on genital surgery. Somebody watching this who didn’t know any better would think this is the biggest part of transitioning and would not be aware that a large number of trans people opt not to have these procedures. In fact the process of transition was barely mentioned: you would think that it was like flipping a switch. Male one day and female the next. There was no suggestion of the difficulties faced by somebody who is transitioning, or of how long the process can take.

The picture of transgender life painted by this “documentary” was so incomplete and slanted that I feel it only qualifies as factual on a technicality: the few facts presented seemed to be accurate. It provided little information about gender dysphoria or its treatment: considering that the channel is called TLC — The Learning Channel — it was mostly free of any educational value. The superficial treatment of a condition that is associated with shockingly high levels of depression and suicide did nothing to further anybody’s understanding and does not benefit trans people.

There are documentaries that provide in-depth coverage of this subject, that portray their trans subjects accurately and with respect. That will educate their audience and give them some insight into our lives. That will foster the understanding that leads to acceptance. I know: I have seen some of them. This was not one.