When I first heard that Channel 4 were producing a new trans documentary, documenting the lives of seven trans people living together, I literally held my head in my hand and laughed. “How many cliches will we be able to get into one documentary” I wondered, before ranting for a while about it on Twitter.
So, I’ll be honest, when I sat down to watch My Transsexual Summer it wasn’t with the most optimistic of mindsets
My Transsexual Summer uses that cheap and cheerful way of producing a show: you stick a group of subjects together, give them a diary room, set some tasks and then film their actions over the next few days. (How anybody can cope with a camera in their face for this length of time is beyond me).
The first mindfuck is within the first minute of viewing: this is actually quite a happy show! Bouncy music and big grins greet the viewer instantly. Max is absolutely the right person to open the show with. Bright, happy and full of joy, he instantly dispels the cis notions of what a trans person is.
However, this optimistic beginning is immediately followed by shots of Drew, a trans woman, putting on makeup in a mirror. The notion of us deceitful trans people wearing a mask is further reinforced by a montage of fake eyelashes, fake boobs and fake dicks.
Alternating rapidly between setting out a new stage in trans documentaries and falling back onto tired old cliches is the hallmark of this show. What could have been utterly revolutionary, especially with the apparent involvement of Trans Media Watch, is instead left as a horribly hybrid of a documentary, simultaneously sympathetic and mocking of its subjects.
Take, for example, the honest discussions on the fear of being read that were later undermined by deliberately putting everyone in a situation where they would get read.
Or now about how the wonderfully insightful (if incredibly brief) discussion on how cis people focus on genital surgery is later fucked up by the utterly graphic depiction of Karen’s genital surgery. Why the hell did we need to see this? What actually purpose did it serve? (And “give her the vagina she’s always wanted” makes it sound like she got to choose one out of a catalogue)
The programme makers were either seeking to appease their sensational and sensitive sides simultaneously, or were simply ignorant of the subject they were working with.
For all the criticism above, it was wonderful to see a mix of guys and girls on the same show. Trans documentaries normally focus on women, and rarely cover guys. So to see a mix of both on the same show was a real step forward.
Non-binary roles were touched on for approximately a millisecond, with Donna mentioning that she saw herself as neither male nor female and Drew talking about not particularly wanting genital surgery. Less directly, it was fantastic to see Max as a camp femme guy, which is something sure to mess with cis notions of trans guys. More of this kind of talk would have been brilliant to see.
While it was good to see a transitioned guy who was non-masculine it would have been incredible to see a non-feminine woman. I don’t think there has a been a trans documentary yet that featured a butch trans woman. I’m not not holding my breath.
There were also some hints of wonderful queerness and non-mainstream lives lurking around the edges of the show. Max’s MEN badge, Fox’s XX MAN t-shirt, the attitude to tattoos and piercings. These were such ripe areas for exploring. I can only hope that future episodes touch more on these issues.
TRANNY. This word has really split the trans community following the broadcast of the show. The magic tranny seven totally embraced the word, holding it close and finding power from it. However, this has really pissed off a lot of people. I’m not going to go into this, as to be honest this word has never featured positively or negatively in my life, but if you want to find out more, just type in “#transsummer” and “tranny” into twitter search.
The narration of the show really jumped between transgender and transsexual, which was odd to hear. I think I would have been much happier just to hear “trans”.
Based on this one episode, the show is struggling to find its feat. It really doesn’t know whether speak for us, or to sensationalise us. So many positive steps and moments were outweighed by cliches and insensitivity.
But the one positive that shone out, and what really made this show watchable, was how important friendship and community is for trans people. I know it is easy to mock the trans community as being nothing more than a group of self-interested autistic individuals, but this show really demonstrated the friendship that is needed to get through some of these issues.
I’ll be watching further episodes with interest, to see where things go.
The participants of My Transsexual Summer are all on twitter:
You can watch the first episode of My Transsexual Summer at 4OD for a month after broadcast.