30 May 2012
Introducing Talking Tabloid Trans
My query, Talking Tabloid Trans, sits within an understanding and application of ‘performance’ and performativity held within everyday ‘popular’ culture and settings. What gets held up as ‘performance’ and the hierarchies and cultural values attributed to those performances were explicitly explored in the Trashing Performance component of Performance Matters. Talking Tabloid Trans builds on these political potentials of the ‘low’ everyday and ‘trashy’ raising questions such as: what is performance, what does performance do and indeed what can it do?
So far much of my thinking about transgender subjectivities in popular culture has centred around contemporary documentaries. As part of an ethnographic study I carried out I invited some trans identified friends and colleagues around to my house to watch documentaries that were broadcast on TV in the UK, which featured trans people. After a screening one viewer said:
“Generally I watch lots of Channel 4 [documentaries that feature trans people]… I want to see if they actually start to make them better, as in make them a bit more acceptable because they’re a bit bad most of the time… At the same time I kind of enjoy the scandal of going round and talking to people afterwards.”
It was this utterance that got me thinking about the potentiality of scandal and whether such ‘bad’ TV can also be productive within our trans collectives, publics and discourses.
In November 2011, a four-part documentary series, My Transsexual Summer, was aired on Channel 4 in the UK. Nearly two million viewers tuned in making it the most popular documentary ever aired across UK TV networks. Indeed, the tone, approach and strategies employed felt different to watching those other documentaries that had gone before it. This difference lay around the original (for TV documentaries featuring trans people) idea of a ‘retreat’ where a group of seven trans people were brought together and placed in a big luxurious house. No doubt the production team took its idea from ultimate TV reality show Big Brother (and of course other current infotaining documentaries). The levels of empathy and rapport generated between the group members were new for mainstream TV. Although the tropes around trans people being suicidal, and victims of hate crime were repeated once more, as was the spectacle of sex change surgery. One contributor in MTS was printer artist, Fox, who has since expressed mixed feelings about the ways he was represented and the methods used. Fox is a print artist and a social media-ite (http://ralphfrancisfox.tumblr.com/). Fox will be my partner in dialogue as we explore Trans and drawing on both of our experiences as trans men and a shared interest in visual culture, our dialogue will hope to think through this idea of ‘potential’ of such trans presence in tabloid culture.
Indeed trans lives featuring in tabloid culture and mass media are often posited as negative, discriminatory, trashy, spectacular and scandalous. Such representations are often critiqued by trans people themselves, but – whilst our dialogue project will mark this – it will also ask: can we locate a queer project that looks to expose the normative and regulative structures which operate in mainstream media? How might we contemplate the ways in which trans in the tabloids forms and contributes to pro-outsiderness and subcultural collectives?
The dialogue will consist of 4 meetings, which will be video recorded, transcribed, and made available within the framework of Potentials of Performance.
The tabloids are dominant products in which people (including trans people themselves) come to know about trans, but despite a noted increase in these narratives across these platforms, so far little critical attention has been given to them within academic cultural discourse. Of course the tabloids are under enormous scrutiny currently. The Leveson Enquiry is raising questions around proper conducts of reporting and implementing privacy laws. Tabloid culture no doubt looks set to change. In addition and with the help of social media trans communities are highly active and a new organisation called Trans Media Watch has been set up to ensure trans people are presented with respect and dignity. Perhaps my dialogue with Fox is a timely one.
To lobby for more serious discourse, more adequate protocols and more respectable journalistic rigour however may be a project that redeems normative systems of knowledge and disciplines that historically and systemically bear significant power. To do this misses a point and a point that is being laid out within a more queer and pro-trashy framework. In her book The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Judith Halberstam posits how failure can be a route into challenging the norms of capitalism, gender and heterosexual life. Foucault calls for an end to ‘all encompassing and global theories’ in favour of ‘something resembling a sort of autonomous and non-centralized theoretical production, or in other words a theoretical production that does not need a visa from some common regime to establish its validity’ (in Halberstam 2011: 10). Tabloids such as gossip magazines, newspapers, day time telly etc. have always operated as an antidote to a more generic privileging of the scientific, political and academic knowledge fields which platforms grand universal laws and sets out arguments and values through authoritative, serious and convincing performances. Trashy performances do none of this, often fore-fronting the human and lived experiences and placing affect and drama as central. In trashy worlds trans people tell their own story, whereas in other fields of knowledge it is often left to the professionals – psychiatrists, surgeons, endocrinologists, sociologists.
In addition queer academics are critiquing notions of the ‘proper’, positing it as a bourgeois project and exposing the hierarchies and distinctions of classed performances. Tabloid press and TV, which feature trans, not only give rise to certain understandings of trans but offer a query in how systems of value – and ones that are distinctly classed – become involved within and play across trans collectives, viewers, and what I am calling ‘trans publics’, that is the various publics that trans subjectivities and actions occupy and form. We are in danger where any value attributed by ‘trans publics’ marries a deemed legitimising of being trans. We might find ourselves falling into an aspirational bourgeois trap. If trashy and tabloid performances are ‘low’, ‘entertaining’, ‘affective’, and ‘stupid’, is our legitimacy of being trans compromised? And if so could this be a good thing? What kind of legitimacy do we want? Do we not want to challenge legitimacy itself?
In addition, responses by trans publics around tabloid culture can take a sort of melancholic dynamic where if only the press were more proper and less dramatic then social legitimacy might be gained. In this way, mainstream performances that feature trans people nearly always fail to be ‘good’ and trans people nearly always feel un-legitimised, invalidated and dissatisfied. And yet, the productivity of such yearnings interests me, as they offer and inspire a necessary politic by trans people, trans organisations and communities and so too then form ‘trans publics’ - the spaces or series of platforms where some sort of action is taken and some sort of discourse is involved.
In recognising this productivity then, for me – whilst marking a critique of such trans representations of the tabloids is important – I wish to stress that this does not mean we should do away with the tabloids and for trans to only feature within a more ‘sober’ or ‘proper’ and ‘pure’ form of knowledge making. Similarly, as I wish to interrogate this on-going relationship between trans subjectivities with ‘low’ trashy and value-less products, this does not mean that I wish to simply reclaim or recuperate ‘bad’ narratives that feature trans people, simply for the sake of argument. Instead, I ask: Is there no such thing as bad publicity? Because, despite being ‘bad’, there is always productivity, not least the productivity of ‘scandal’, and with that a whole host of pleasure and repulsion, which is generated and played out across a network of political discourse and activism within a global field of ‘virtual’ on line and other ‘live’ trans publics.