The recent furor (read: minor fracas) in the UK over Jerry Springer – The Opera was largely aimed at two things – the number of swear words used – apparently an impressive 8000, although you have to remember “chick with a dick!” repeated by 27 cast members 5 times (as is opera’s annoying way) counts as 27×5, not 1; and secondly, at the portrayal of Christ as “a bit gay” and a bit daft. I didn’t get as far as the second half, as I found it all a bit annoying, so have no comment on the latter, and as to the former, well I like the odd swear word from time to time – the etymology of rudery is a fascinating thing particularly when the words so clearly come from Anglo-Saxon and were respectable back then (ref: shitten). I guess the Norman invaders in 1066 just wanted to make the natives look rude. The origin of the F-word (see, even I’m being coy for sensitive readers) to which I could devote a long entry remains shrouded in mystery and myth interestingly, but the parentage of most of the rest is pretty respectable, or at least charmingly onomatopoeiac.
No, the reason I didn’t take to JS – The Opera, was that I was disappointed in Stuart Lee, one of the co-writers and the erstwhile Lee and Herring and Fist of Fun Lee, who I quite liked because they were so childish (for international readers: british comedy duo of the 90s who repeatedly failed to get their series renewed by the BBC). Disappointed because, from the first half I saw, he didn’t really do anything but regurgitate the typical Jerry show in a supposedly ironic way. I suppose it’s not his job to challenge but merely to make some money, which he at last has seemed to manage to do, but he did seem to have some ability to dissect hypocrisy and go for the jugular. But the constant attacks on sometimes vulnerable transpeople that Jerry perpetuated like a circus act in almost every episode seems to have gone beneath Stuart’s radar or at least his previous dislike of bullying. I suspect his audience might have been reduced if he had actually critiqued this a bit, and you can always dress up layers of irony as (“ahhhhh!”) actually having a go. But I don’t think he was; he was just joining in with Jerry’s subliminal bullying. He certainly seems happy that Jerry endorsed it: the latter apparently took a bow at the Opening Night. Simon Cowell, Angus Deayton, Michael Moore and Sir David Frost (yeah: that lot) are used to proudly puff up its reputation on the show’s webpage, while supposedly subliminal messages like “Chick with a Dick” flash by on the website in sub-Jam style, 10 years too late to look anything but a desperate grasp at the provocation that Jam did so well. David Hasslehoff and Dido are big fans. Jim Davidson might have been proud of all this, but it’s all a bit disappointing from you, Stuart.
So, it didn’t feel fair or interesting writing something about just how subtly damaging the original Jerry Springer show was to transpeople, because it’d be like complaining that the Colosseum games in Roman times were a bit mean on the lions, christians and slaves thrown into the ring. Of course Jerry and his production company wanted people to get hurt and end up throwing chairs at each other, because the majority enjoyed it. Jerry’s previous incarnation, Jerry Bentham would probably have approved: “the greatest good of the greatest number”.
But, Stuart could have done this differently. He retains transsexuals as circus clowns, perpetuates the idea that they’re all screwed up, just as the cinema of the 50s and 60s did about gay people, and even seems (in my reading) to confused high camp with being brain/body differently gendered – possibly even mistaking it for another sexuality or a version of being gay. I won’t repeat the quote, but you can see it here at comment 4 if you really want to – this was addressed by the mob at the queening supposed transsexual. I’m sorry: “gay man’s”? Most straight or bisexual transgendered women, being women, tend to prefer straight men.
Stuart can claim of course that he’s just reporting it as it happened on the show, the crowd baying for blood and sieg-heiling Jerry – but he’s not, as he has a surreal dig at religious sensibility at the end which I never saw in any JS show. He’s just made another roman circus for fun. Which is fine, but I’m allowed to say it doesn’t help people like me, so here I am saying it.
The nub of the matter is the original show’s insistence that transwomen “used to be men” (and vice versa, although transmen I don’t think were featured heavily, because they’re not as funny). This of course is a common thing you hear everywhere including on supposedly supportive programs on the BBC, but it doesn’t make it any less false. From this vital first premise, on which many a Jerry Springer show spun to its inevitable chair-throwing conclusion, lay the idea that the transperson was being deceitful in not telling her lover that “he was really a man”. Many of the participants (some of whom, with hindsight, appear to have been actors or heavily staged) played along with this, more fool them, although in the last episode I blinked at the girl was heard to mutter a little submissively “well Jerry would say I became a women, but I’ve always been one…” before the lions were let loose. Much the same tricks have been played on UK TV recently, borrowing from American-style formats: the Sky series There’s Something About Miriam (the “something” being, fairly obviously from the start, in her pants) seemed to almost fetishise Miriam’s status as an inter-op transsexual woman being chased by a gang of unwitting men – and portrayed her as “I’m really a man”, which she stupidly played along with, presumably because the money was good. Why then did the program refer to her as “she”? Because the production team were stupid and confused and it would of course have ruined the enjoyment of the hundreds of beered-up Sky viewers clutching their groins and ooing at their 56″ plasma screens. Transsexuals as the new performing bears.
Because this idea is so pervasive that post-operative transsexuals “used to be men” (or women), and because so many transsexuals bow to the same pressure and use the same phrases in the rush for acceptance, we have to ask “how do we define a man or a woman?”. If your answer is purely on the basis of what’s attached to the front of the body (“Miriam’s” frisson, played to suspiciously fetishistic extremes with bikini shots), then why the same excitement and furor on Jerry Springer when a post-operative “confesses” to her boyfriend? Surely she’s a woman then, and he has nothing to complain about? If neither of these, chromosomes maybe? But 1 in 2000 births are intersex in one way or another, one of the deepest taboos of our time, which means there’s a fighting chance one of the readers of this weblog will be intersex and not know it. What about an AIS woman? They’re XY (male chromosomally) but their bodies didn’t respond to the masculising androgen in the womb, and they usually grow up happy and secure in their identity as women, even though XY, many never finding out. If you think gender’s down to any of these, what’s your gender? Had your chromosomes checked recently?
The answer is that, of course in all likelihood you know what your gender is: it’s what you know you are inside, and always have, and probably not given a thought to. You may be uncomfortable with your gender role at times: how your current society expects you to act. But you’re probably pretty sure if you’re a man or woman, and if your doctor told you tomorrow your chromosomes were unusual, it wouldn’t change your mind. It’s called gender identity and it’s somewhere deep inside you – in the Map of the Human Heart, and likely created by the unique timing of washes of hormones in the womb.
That’s why Miriam, unless she made some horrible mistake electing for surgery always was a girl, and why Jerry’s victims always were the gender they’re supposed to be lying about being just before they get beaten up on his shows.
One day, there’s going to be a program called “Jerry Springer – The Nopera”, for non-operative transpeople like me – the ones who choose to keep the body they were born in, either because they can’t or won’t change it, because they stubbornly expect society to catch up and understand that your gender identity might not fit your body, that gender is more about the heart than handbags or hand-drills, and expect in time at least a few of their friends and family may be able to leap the gap and address them with (and think of them as) their real gender. It may seem like a big leap, but other societies have been recognising (and welcoming) this since history began. If you’re a Christian and are campaigning against Jerry Springer – The Opera, save a little of that energy and also use some of Jesus’s compassionate intelligence in revisiting gender identity instead of following the mob. If you’re not, like me, but are born in a Judeo-Christian culture, have a go at re-examining the tradition in which you’re currently embalmed, that seems to have uniquely blinded us to variations in gender identity. If you’re from another culture, you may live in one of the lucky ones where you can see this clearly! Heck, even supposedly tyrannical Iran is arguably more progressive than the UK and US.
So Jerry Springer – the Nopera. It will feature non-operative transgendered people, who will confess that they have been lying all along about their gender: that in spite of their bodies, they are and always were a different gender inside compared to what may be expected from the outside. I’ll be on first, apologising to the headmaster of my single-sex school for breaking school rules, that I was really a girl all along, and didn’t think to mention it, but really should have done so and popped next door to the girl’s school. I’ll confess to my first partner when we were 16 that I was really a girl, and that I’m sorry I put her in the position of having a lesbian relationship without knowing it, but reassure her that it doesn’t make her a lesbian (dread thought!). Several other “noperas” (as we will decide to call ourselves) will follow, some with the opposite polarity to me, confessing that they should have explained earlier to their parents why they screamed when told to “put on a nice dress for your gran”, always ended up climbing trees, and really started scaring them by binding their breasts as teenagers. Few chairs will be thrown. Scatter-cushions will be used instead for some gentle biffing. Viewing figures will be abnormally low. Simon Cowell will not appear at the premiere, claiming he has instead to wash his hair that night.