There was a familiar trans formula that television talk shows relied on in the late 90s and early 2000s. Ricki Lake used it, Maury Povich used it – but Jerry Springer perfected it. Binge-watching ‘ironically’ after school, I watched it play out over and over again. A guest came on with a secret to tell: they were trans, and their partner didn’t know. They would make their confession, their partner would freak out, the audience erupted into cheers, and the fight would begin. The whole show hinged on two sentences, flung backwards and forwards without ever moving on: “but I’m a woman”, “no, you’re a man” (or vice versa). The deciding factor was always the trans guests’ genitals, and the decision lay in the hands of the cis people around them. Nobody learnt anything, or changed their minds. The point was entertainment, not education.
The Jerry Springer show is still running, but it reached the peak of its cultural relevance 20 years ago. So why is it that Channel 4’s Genderquake debate, broadcast on Tuesday, followed the same script so closely?
“Genderquake was not a well-meaning attempt at something new that went off the rails: this is how the formula works, and it all went according to plan.”
Obviously the visuals were different – a critical point for British culture, where we so often confuse respectability and politeness with basic decency and respect. But look below the packaging, at the meat of the programme itself, and Genderquake was nothing more than the same tropes we’ve seen modelled for decades. They were ticked off almost in order: genitals, conflict, ’you’re really a man’, heckling from the audience. Presenter Cathy Newman began with: “Can you be a woman if you have a penis? Can men have periods?” Despite promising to ask the most difficult questions around gender, every topic raised has already been done to death on similar programmes, on talk show radio, and in online and offline op-eds. Rather than answering with an examination of data, the questions – about feminism, about the rise in referrals of gender questioning youth – were just prompts for argument. Caitlyn Jenner and Germaine Greer, the programme’s headliners, stuck mostly to personal anecdotes, and Newman failed to properly utilise the knowledge of her British trans guests. When activist and model Munroe Bergdorf began to talk, she was met with rising abuse from the audience: “you’re a man” and “penis” (shouted repeatedly). Unable to speak freely, her words were drowned out by an audience that wanted a fight. Newman’s insistence that what was happening was a “civilised discussion” was laughable. It was car crash television – the script that it stuck to guaranteed that it would be so.
And Channel 4 knew this before filming began. The reason I can say this with confidence is because I was one of the people referred to by Newman’s pre-emptive: “some people didn’t want to take part tonight because they believe debating this questions their very right to exist.” I was one of the dozens approached from March onwards by Channel 4. An email from the production company explained that it would be: ”nuanced intelligent discussion around gender, identity and society. We aim to shed light on such complex issues and ask important questions in a safe environment.” Like many of the others contacted – doctors, advocates, activists, writers – I was initially interested: as an educator and researcher, informed debate is one of the most important tools in my arsenal. It quickly became apparent that actual discussion – an examination of what we know, and what we’re learning – was not on the cards. I declined, feeding back my misgivings. The majority of my colleagues, friends, and contacts declined, letting the production team know their reservations, their fears that such a format would lead not to enlightenment, but to the same old fight we’ve seen hundreds of times before. That feedback was ignored. Genderquake was not a well-meaning attempt at something new that went off the rails: this is how the formula works, and it all went according to plan.
The question I’m left with: how much longer can this script play out? Is this still enjoyable for anyone apart from the fanatics who want to spew hate at trans women? I work in the arts, and the past few years have seen an incredible opening up of gender themes, of more imaginative ways of thinking about trans experiences. In publishing, music, visual arts and live performance, I’m witnessing a shift in my cis colleagues – that they’re beginning to see trans people as equal collaborators, rather than as subjects to be exploited. It’s exciting on a creative level, and savvy on a business one: younger people are more and more likely to be and to accept gender difference, trans people, ways of existing outside of the gender binary. You’ve got to future proof your industries – and you’ve got to have something new to say. Channel 4 used to be proud of being on the cutting edge – so why are they content to stay in the past, propping up old prejudices and dressing it up as controversy?
As a trans person, I have a choice as to whether I’ll appear on a show like Genderquake, whether I’ll watch it. But I don’t have a choice about living in a culture shaped by such a regressive, dehumanising script. Channel 4’s behaviour on this occasion has been embarrassing and damaging. They – and all broadcasters – have a choice: keep scraping the bottom of the barrel with a decades’ old formula, or be part of a changing society and explore something genuinely new.