My Transsexual Summer recently aired around these parts, a year after it was aired by the UK’s Channel Four. It’s a four part documentary series in which seven people come together for weekend retreats over the course of a summer in order to support each other through their transitions.
It’s kind of fabulous and life-affirming, and it’s lovely to see Donna, Drew, Lewis, Fox, Karen, Sarah and Max come together from different histories and places and emotions to be safe and cared for with each other. Moreover, it centres their perspectives as individuals and as trans people, which is a nice change after endless, bumbling, hostile television programs about trans people.
There’s something that bothered me while watching, however. Actually, a couple of somethings, the first of which partly leads into the second. First off, My Transsexual Summer does that thing awfully common to narratives about trans people designed for the general public. You know that thing: the excessive and voyeuristic focus on surgeries (yes, there are some operating room scenes), on pre-transition photographs, and on the lady participants getting dressed up and putting on make up. It’s something I tend to think of as process fascination, that is, cis people being caught up in how trans people present in such terms as figure their presentations as illusory. (Here’s a blog entry I wrote on process fascination in 2009.) This cis person personally doesn’t really need to know the ins and outs of the bodies of random strangers, and I’m far from convinced the rest of us need to, either.
Which leads to my second and larger point. My Transsexual Summer‘s (entirely par for the course) focus on surgeries, getting dressed, and so forth means that those are the narratives followed throughout the documentary. Most of what we learn about Karen has to do with her genital surgery. There’s a little about her desire to reunite with her daughter, too. She’s moved into objectification and tragedy, and I am left wondering about the other things that make up her life. This is not to say that her surgery and her relationship with her daughter are unimportant. Rather, I can’t help but think that the producers pursued the narratives that they know fit best with the public’s preconceived ideas of trans people rather than representing Karen’s life in all its fullness – or to the fullness she wants known to the public, at any rate.
But the issue most apparent to me was that of who got most screentime. The lovely Drew, for instance, got a fair bit in the course of her job search, having finally gained the confidence in herself to go live the life she wants. It became rapidly apparent that Max and Fox in particular had little screentime in comparison. It’s not Drew’s fault, of course, that the producers latched on to a twenty-two year old blonde woman over these two blokes, that’s how media attention to trans people goes, after all.
It’s not just that Fox and Max are blokes, however. It’s that they were the only two people in the house who didn’t share the spiritual/religious/ethnic/cultural backgrounds of the others. Or who I read as such from their representations, at any rate, which is not the same thing by any stretch. And, having a post-viewing Google, whose blog did I stumble across but that of one Maxwell Zachs himself. The first entry of his I read was Why ‘My Transsexual Summer’ isn’t as good as it should be.
What I see is the inevitable privileging of narratives that do not challenge dominant paradigms of normative gender. […] These narratives are totally valid but I believe they need to be seen in context and juxtaposed with a more diverse representation. A representation that was there in the house but somehow didn’t make it to our television screens.
Max goes on to note that the final documentary lacks Fox’s talk ‘about being mixed race, about his art and about how he sees himself as two spirit’ as well as Max’s own ‘discussion about how I reject gender binary and sexuality and still live an observant Jewish life at the same time’. On that last point, it became very clear that the documentary makers only focussed on Max’s Jewishness a little bit because he worked very hard to make it visible. There’s a monologue of his that opens each episode, in which he talks about his pre-transition life and that now ‘These days, I’m kind of his chubby hairy Jewish guy’. In the last episode, they cut the word ‘Jewish’ out. I wonder how far they went to erase Fox’s cultural/spiritual background and understanding, too, because I sure didn’t hear a word about him being two spirit.
Minorities want diverse representations of ourselves on TV, because it’s wonderful to see yourself reflected, because that means people like us have jobs, because everyone gains wider understanding that way. But representation isn’t enough, of course, especially when that representation involves the erasure of who you are. I expect that a part of why the producers of this show in particular erased so much is because they thought that the general public could only handle so many kinds of difference at a time. People, they likely thought, can deal with male-to-female and female-to-male transitions, but no other notions of gender.
The thing is, minority viewers exist as well as viewers with normative backgrounds, genders, and identities, and people deserve to be represented fairly. Which is not to mention that I think the general public are a bit smarter than that, can handle more than one idea at a time, and actually live lives full of people with all kinds of histories and identities that don’t fit a soundbite or a cardboard cutout storyline.
I get sad thinking about what we lose when diverse representations do not reflect the diversity of the living, breathing people they claim to represent, and what we lose in the process of minimising lives.
(I totally want a follow up series to My Transsexual Summer, and for these seven amazing people to be paid this time…!)