Comment: Channel 4 Secrets of the Living Dolls was little more than a freak show

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Writing for, Helen Belcher says the recent screening of Channel 4’s Secrets of the Living Dolls was a backward step for the network and that it did a disservice for trans people by broadcasting the programme.

In life, I’ve found, three things are certain: death, taxes and conflict within marginalised groups.

Channel 4’s programme, Secrets of the Living Dolls (broadcast Monday 6 January) has drawn a fair amount of criticism, albeit not as much the criticism of Channel 4’s preceding programme Benefits Street. “Dolls” focused on a small group of men who use latex bodysuits and face-masks to dress as women.

From the off we were treated to heavily made-up and strangely misshapen heads, as well as the relentless focus on genitals.

Trans people are used to this prurient fascination with their genitalia – as if they have to be public pubic property so others, usually without any medical training whatsoever, can discern the reality of their condition. Indeed, on Tuesday two states-side trans activists put an American television presenter politely but firmly in her place when she asked the standard inevitable questions. I still wait for the day when Jeremy Paxman asks someone on BBC 2’s Newsnight whether they’ve had a vasectomy. Yes – it’s that inappropriate, folks.

Nowhere in the “Dolls” programme was any explanation given to motivation, beyond “escapism” and “that’s how I want to be for that day”. But the “why” question is also thrown at trans people, and there’s rarely an answer that’s deemed acceptable. Trans people just “are”. Asking why is as meaningless as asking why people are gay, or why people like trains. I find it hard to understand why everybody isn’t trans! I guess this is where the “woman trapped in a man’s body” cliché has come from – it’s a shorthand way of trying to explain to a largely uncomprehending audience yet is inadequate in so many ways. The guys featured in this programme could, I suppose, be subverting that message – men trapping themselves in woman suits.

Gender dysphoria comes in many different guises. For some it’s social, for others physical, and very often it’s a mix between the two – usually with other aspects of identity thrown in. Despite the current (and possibly illegal) practice to be “diagnosed” by a psychiatrist before being able to access NHS treatment, the condition is essentially self-diagnosed. Any “illness” is usually stress-related, caused by dealing with that uncomprehending audience.

The desire to present a feminine image can be very strong. I know of some trans people who dare not transition because the image they see in the mirror is nowhere near the image in their head. For them “dressing” doesn’t alleviate the dysphoria sufficiently, and they can’t see that living full-time would be any better. Short of magic, there would appear to be no solution. (I personally hoped for a magic solution until I was well into my 20s.)

Am I saying that the folk featured in “Dolls” were trans? Well, probably some of them were. (I’m guessing , folks!) Even now, I regularly hear (usually part-time) trans women afraid of going out “en femme” or revealing their “alter ego” for fear of the social consequences – exactly the same sentiments as expressed in the programme. So I can see that people would hide their “habit” away, and be frightened of revealing it. I have seen enough trans people get relief from telling others – in exactly the same way as some in the programme. And those featured did get grief for transgressing gender boundaries. Of course, the folk featured may not be trans at all, but simply enjoy wearing women’s clothes over latex bodysuits.

There’s a tyranny of passing that’s often discussed in trans circles – the requirement to appear presentable. Society drives that to a large extent. The insidious drive to ensure that only beautiful women are on public display isolates many women – not just trans women. Now the media is discovering trans women (again), the focus on presentable ones only will further aggravate this isolation. Humanity is diverse, and trans people are just one area where the full extent of that diversity becomes apparent. But if you already feel you’re on a losing streak because you feel you are too masculine to present in a way you feel would be acceptable, then you’re going to be driven to other solutions – however extreme.

Television coverage of trans people tends to fall into two main categories: a target for throwaway yet destructive comedy; and the sympathetic freakshow, often with a heart-warming ending. “Dolls” fell into the latter category, once you’d got over the strangeness of having static heads talking without moving their mouths, and not blinking – ever. Society has moved on in the last decade. The message from groups like Trans Media Watch has slowly permeated the public consciousness, however thinly. Except for television producers, apparently. “My Transsexual Summer broke the mould” I was told last year. “Dolls”, though, came out of the same mould as before.

The programme has drawn its fair share of criticism on trans forums too. In a way there’s a sense that “we’re not like them – we’re normal”, which I think is largely driven by a fear that whatever treatment is available can be withdrawn if the condition isn’t seen as serious. Rather than fighting a common enemy, once again these marginalised communities are trying to determine a hierarchy of worthiness. It’s always slightly amused me – people who’ve thrown off one of the biggest shackles society provides then argue about whether someone else has done it “the right way”. Who wants to be normal? Well, lots of people – and normal was a word heavily used at the beginning of the programme. “These people are normal” we were told – repeatedly – yet apparently largely disowned by some trans communities.

Did Channel 4 do trans people a service by broadcasting this programme? Well, in my view, probably not. The public’s level of understanding of trans issues is still almost non-existent. A focus on this group of people that could be considered under the trans umbrella without an explanation of context will mean, for example, that cis-people could start to think that bodysuits is the answer for everyone. There was no explanation – just exposure.

As such, and whatever the intent, it was still essentially part of the old “freakshow” tradition – just when trans people are starting to demand to be in the media on their own rights, not simply because they are trans. It was standard trans documentary material in oh-so-many ways. Players of the “trans drinking game” may not have survived much past the first half hour. Does it become acceptable to squeeze a trans woman’s breasts to see if they’re real? Not really, despite the programme’s imagery.

Instead, why not talk to these people about their motivations and fears – and start unpacking them, seeing what role wider society has to play in shaping those fears, and how that those fears are reflected within different communities?

Channel 4 – you know you could do better, because you have done.

Helen Belcher is one of the founders of Trans Media Watch and was listed 13th in the Independent on Sunday’s Pink List 2013.

As with all comment articles, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of PinkNews.