Stop that Penis! – South Park does Transgender, Part II

In the world of South Park, nothing is sacred; no subject – no matter how sensitive – is taboo.  In that fictional little corner of Colorado, there appear to be no topics immune from satire – including (but by no means limited to): the desperation of disempowerment and abject poverty in developing countries (“We’ll kick your ass and rape your lass: Somalian pirates we!”); working-class jobs being lost to time-travelling immigrants prepared to work for much less (“They took our jobs!  They terk er jerbs!  Durka durr!”); and the link between pop-culture sentimentalism and the moral inertia of American politics (“’Member Bionic Man?  ’Member the Millennium Falcon?  ’Member Chewbacca again?  ’Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?  ’Member when marriage was just between a man and a woman?  ’Member feeling safe?  ’Member no ISIS?  ’Member Reagan?”).  However: when a television programme shows no fear of ‘going there’, regardless of the topic, the viewer is always in danger of discovering that something they care about (or a topic that is dear to them, or a group to which they belong) is just as vulnerable to attack as any other value, preference, prejudice, belief, identity or principal.  When you are the person being laughed it, it can sting, and it may require a very thick skin to continue to see the joke.


When the fourth-grade teacher at South Park Elementary School goes under the surgeon’s knife to realise his dream of becoming a woman in the 2005 episode, ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ (series 9, episode 1), transgender viewers could be forgiven for taking a sharp intake of breath.  “Oh, god,” it is tempting to think, “what are they going to say about me now?”  Such a reaction, however, would be to underestimate the sophistication of South Park’s satire.  Transgender people are undoubtedly subject to occasional mockery by the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but South Park wouldn’t be half as clever as it is if the satire stopped there – gender nonconforming people per se are too easy a foil for South Park.  The programme takes a broader perspective on the issue than mere sartorial finger-pointing, and is more interested in examining society’s inability to form and articulate appropriate responses to people who do not conform to gender norms, than it is in laughing behind trannies’ backs.  It is, therefore, lazy to accuse South Park of being transphobic.  ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ needs to be considered as a critique of the place of transgender people in social and political life, not as an instrument of oppression and prejudice.  If you can force yourself to watch it, South Park’s examination of gender identity can be a means of encouraging members of the transgender community to confront how they feel about their place in society, and to reflect on their portrayal in popular culture.

(That is not to say that South Park isn’t guilty of the occasional misfire. When Caitlyn Jenner appears on the show, for example – as a broad-shouldered, malformed, lisping, torpid background omnipresence – it really isn’t funny: not because there isn’t plenty to mock Jenner for – she did kill someone with her car in February 2015, after all – but because the way she looks is too banal a target.  Getting a cheap laugh out of someone’s appearance is beneath South Park.  It is, not to put too fine a point on it, something Family Guy would do.)

Political correctness gone mad! – with characteristic tact and subtlety, South Park examines the delicate issue of race and language

As Mr Garrison is being prepped for anaesthesia preparatory to receiving his ‘Fancy New Vagina’, he looks tearfully at his surgeon, Dr Biber, and says, My whole life I’ve been a woman trapped in a man’s body.  A sex-change operation is my last chance at happiness.”  But Mrs Garrison is destined for disappointment.  As the episode unfolds, it becomes evident that Garrison will never be satisfied with the mere appearance of womanhood: what he wants to experience is all the gory biology of being female.  She is heartbroken to discover that the reason she has missed her period isn’t that she’s pregnant, but that she can’t have periods.  Garrison is similarly crestfallen when she is told that she is physically unable to have an abortion:

“Mrs Garrison:  You mean, I’ll never know what it feels like to have a baby growing inside me, and then scramble its brains and vacuum it out?

Doctor:  That’s right.

Mrs Garrison:  But I paid five thousand dollars to be a woman.  This would mean I – I’m not really a woman.  I – I’m just a – I’m just a guy with a mutilated penis!”

For the depth of his transsexual ambition, I think, Garrison deserves a great deal of credit.  His/her version of femininity isn’t posing inanely on the front cover of a magazine, or of parading vacantly down a red carpet at some fatuous awards dinner; his motives are not psycho-sexual in the way trans-exclusionary radical feminists would describe them.  Garrison seeks the lived experience of a real woman, not the mere cosmetic approximation of looking like one, and he is distraught and outraged to learn that surgery cannot grant him what he wants.

To ensure the point is fully and comprehensively made that sex-swap surgery is not a passport to true womanhood, Garrison’s doctor provides a graphic commentary of the procedure as he performs it. “I think,” he says with deadpan irony, “if more people could just see a sex-change operation, they would know how perfectly natural it is.”  In a scene intercut with footage of an actual vagino-plasty, Dr Biber grunts with effort as he performs the operation.  He pauses breathlessly from time-to-time to describe his actions: Now, I’ll just… turn your… penis inside out.  …All we need to do now is… stuff the… unskinned penis inside your… pelvis…   And now I’ll use the skin from your penis to make vaginal lips.”  When the surgery is over, Garrison gazes hopefully at the doctor.  “Do I look like a woman?” she asks, nervously.  Dr Biber pauses.  He wears an uncertain frown, but manages to force a smile as he raises an encouraging thumb at his patient.  “Pretty much,” he says.

In South Park’s 2006 series, Mrs Garrison begins a torrid and unlikely affair with the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins (series 10, episode 12), and this is when curious viewers get to see Garrison’s post-operative body in all its naked, full-frontal glory.  It is a mangled horror-show of scarred, asymmetrical breasts, shapeless hips, and the unaltered bald-head of Mrs Garrison’s former male identity.  When Dawkins learns of Garrison’s gender history, he is appalled, and cannot flee from Garrison quickly enough.  By this stage, another statement of how grotesque and ridiculous South Park’s creators think sex-change surgery is seems somewhat redundant, but here it is, anyway: the real-life Richard Dawkins has built an academic career on arguing the case for natural selection.  His horror at Garrison’s revelation demonstrates just how unnatural he considers transsexuality to be.  The message seems clear that, if you aren’t born a particular way, then you can’t ever be that particular way.  It may be seem cruel, South Park maintains, but that’s the way it is.  Wanting to be a woman when you were born a man is as hopeless and unfulfillable a pipedream as wanting to be a black, six-foot-five basketball player when you were born a five-foot-nine Caucasian, or of wanting to live as a dolphin when you are clearly homo sapiens.

“Just between us girls, nothin’ gets my vadge wetter than a black man singing.” – after undergoing sex-change surgery, Mrs Garrison is finally able to give full vent to the woman within

…Which is a coincidence, as that is exactly what nine-year old Kyle Broflovski and his father, Gerald, seek to do in the ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ episode.  Whilst Garrison strives for acceptance by the sorority of his female peers (“Wow, just look at all these tampons!  Regular, heavy flow…  Oh, boy, I can’t wait till I get my first period!”), Kyle and his father have transformational ambitions of their own.

Disappointed by being denied entry to the state basketball team by a visiting talent-scout, Kyle is forced to confront the harsh reality that “you’re just not physically built for the game…  Jews can’t play basketball.”  Kyle refuses to be brushed-off so easily, however, and pays a visit to the same surgeon who performed Mrs Garrison’s sex-change, where he is told that, to “feel like a tall black man” (and therefore, in Kyle’s mind, to earn him a place on the team), what he requires is negro-plasty:

“It’s a fairly common procedure, really; just the reverse of a caucasio-plasty, just like Michael Jackson had.  Let’s take a look here.  What we do is slice your face and peel it back so we can insert now pigment producing cells inside.  We break the arm-bones in several places and put braces to make them longer.  Now, the knees we need to snap off and fill with small round objects that can cause better movement, and we finish it off with a nice peni-plasty to enhance the genitalia.  Negro-plasty takes about seven hours, and costs roughly three thousand dollars.”

Kyle’s father, Gerald, is outraged when he discovers what Dr Biber has done to his son.  Furiously, he drives to Dr Biber’s clinic to challenge him (“What kind of nut-job would agree to surgically alter my son into a tall African-American?”), but, during the course of their conversation, Dr Biber discovers Gerald’s affection for dolphins…

“Dr Biber:  Ah, you like dolphins, hm?

Gerald:  Ah, bu…  I love dolphins.  Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of…  Huh, b – b – But that has hardly any bearing on what I’m here to –

Dr Biber:  I can make you one.

Gerald:  …What?

Dr Biber:  Invert the back; move the oesophagus to the top of the head.  Yes, a full dolphin-plasty could be achieved relatively simply.

Gerald:  Make me a… dolphin?  …No.  No, no; it’s crazy.

Dr Biber:  There’s nothing crazy about a person wanting to look on the outside the way they feel on the inside.”

Using a sub-plot to underscore the main action of a drama is an ancient theatrical trick, of course – think of the Earl of Gloucester’s troubled relationship with his sons in King Lear, or of Levin’s underwhelming marriage to Kitty in Anna Karenina – but in ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’, the stories of Kyle and his father serve to further emphasise the absurdity of physical transformation at the hands of a surgeon.  You can approximate the object of your desire through nips and tucks and hormones and implants, but you can never truly become that thing.  Kyle’s new legs shatter at exactly the moment he is about to score the winning shot (“I only made him look like he could play basketball.  If he actually does it, the testicles in his knees will explode! Dr Biber wails), whilst Gerald realises very quickly that being transspecies is not all it’s cracked up to be: his dolphinism can never be more than skin deep, and he will never be able to frolic gracefully in the ocean with real dolphins (the basketball stadium he visits doesn’t even provide “special seating for dolphins”; nor is there “a large tank with salt water” that Gerald can use to go to the bathroom).

If you’ve never seen South Park, then it pains me to have to be the one to reveal that Mr Garrison ultimately elects to reverse his sex-change.  With the unforgettable cry of, My penis is on the loose!”, in a 2008 instalment of the show, Garrison chases desperately after a laboratory rat that has had a male member genetically engineered on its back for the purposes of restoring the teacher’s manhood.  It is difficult to imagine a more definitive statement of the programme’s view of the folly and futility of sex-swap surgery.  “You did this to yourself,” Garrison moans, “get your hopes up with a stupid genetic experiment, and now all your money’s gone – along with your penis.”  And to his baffled students, he reflects, “I’ve learned that I’ve really been a dude all along, because the key difference between men and women is that women can have babies.  If you can’t have babies, then you’re a man.”

(But ‘Eek, a Penis!’ – series 12, episode 5 – isn’t quite finished there.  “Hang on a second,” one of Garrison’s colleagues says.  “My wife had ovarian cancer, so she can’t have babies.”  “Then get an AIDS test,” Garrison tells him, “’cause your wife’s a dude”.)

“There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely – or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” (Oscar Wilde, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, 1892)

Ultimately, to appear on South Park is a form of validation.  When a group is chosen for ridicule on the show, it means that that group has achieved significance; to be deemed worthy of satire is an indication that a social group has reached a level of exposure and influence sufficient to make it a notable cultural and political force.  Transgender people should not bemoan or begrudge their presence on South Park: rather, they should celebrate the fact that they are deemed worthy of the airtime.  Mr Garrison’s journey into womanhood – and back again – may constitute damning criticism of the essential dissatisfaction experienced by transsexuals; the unsettling depictions of the grisly minutiae of sex-change operations may be intended to shock and appall viewers into regarding such procedures as aberrant horror-shows; Kyle Broflovski’s negro-plasty – and his father’s dolphino-plasty – may be an unequivocal indictment of the absurdity and narcissism of sex-swap surgery (and of the grasping unscrupulousness of doctors who manipulate patients into forking out small fortunes for procedures they neither need nor truly want)… but transgender people who feel they should be offended by their portrayal in South Park ought to remember Oscar Wilde’s maxim that there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about at all.


Let Him Use the Girls’ Bathroom – South Park does Transgender, Part I

To object to the animated TV series South Park because it is offensive is like complaining about a giraffe because it has a long neck.  Offensive is what South Park does; offensive is what it is, and with an average television audience per episode of around 3.5 million (plus uncountable numbers who access it on-line), South Park cannot be dismissed as harmless, fringe entertainment.  South Park has reach and influence: the average age of its fan-base is a callow twenty-five, and it is almost unfailingly very, very clever and undeniably funny.  One minute, you’re guffawing at the shallowness of wearing a wristband as a badge of political sympathy (“There are green Scauses for recycling, blue Scauses for kitties/ And pink Scauses that focus on nothing but titties!”); the next, you’re grinning superciliously at anyone gullible enough to subscribe to the tenets of Scientology or Mormonism (“Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb!”).  In South Park’s irreverent universe, everyone and everything is considered fair game – from the smug, self-absorption of media hipsters (“Been around god’s country, and there’s one thing I know/ There’s no better place for jackin’ it than San Diego!”), to the fashion for unkempt pubic topiary in the 1970s (“Bigger than Earth and denser than gold/ Truly a magical bush to behold!”).  As long as you’re not the one being mocked, South Park is hilarious.  It can take a thick skin, therefore, to enjoy the show when a thing you care about becomes one of its targets, and, occasionally, South Park puts transgender issues in its crosshairs.  When it does so, it is easy to feel outraged, but this, I think, underestimates the sophistication of the programme’s satire.  The 2014 episode, ‘The Cissy’, for example, has much more to say about the politics of transgender than it does about transsexuals themselves.  In particular, ‘The Cissy’ takes some well-aimed potshots at the ill-informed, unwarranted and (frankly) laughable interference of US politicians in where transgender people should be allowed go to the bathroom…


There are few characters in popular culture as grotesque as Eric Cartman.  He is selfish, foul-mouthed, manipulative, dishonest, venal, materialistic, egotistical, homophobic and anti-Semitic; his is utterly unconcerned about his own morbid obesity, and is, in all probability, guilty of premeditated patricide.  At the same time, however, he is impressively self-aware, and, for a nine-year old, remarkably worldly, knowing and cynical, with a grounding in Keynesian economics, Machiavellian politics and Nietzschean philosophy that is far beyond his years.  His ability to hold court over his classmates borders on the Falstaffian, and he possesses a Svengali-like gift for persuasion that once saw him enlist the help of Barack Obama to deny Disney the rights to the Star Wars franchise.  He is an inspired comic creation; a compelling caricature who is funny not despite his faults, but because of them.

In ‘The Cissy’ (series 18, episode 3), Cartman announces that he is ‘transginger’, and, from now on, would like everyone to call him Erica.  In a deadpan monotone – as if he is reciting words he has learned from a YouTube tutorial – Cartman says, “I’m not comfortable with the sex I was assigned at birth, so I’m exercising my right to identify with the ginger of my choice,” before adding, “now get out of my way, I need to take a shit.”  Cartman is summoned to the principal’s office, where, with the same rapid-fire, offhand dismissiveness, he repeats, parrot-fashion, words that he knows will ensure the grudging protection of his teachers and a muddled measure of legal immunity:

“It means I live a life of torture and confusion because society sees me as a boy but I’m really a girl…  I can be transginger without it having anything to do with the ginger I’m attracted to.  Check the state bylaws.”

A staff meeting is held to discuss Cartman’s case, during which, the principal, with searing insight into Cartman’s character and motives, argues, “But this isn’t a hurting, confused child we’re talking about: this is Eric Cartman!”  Cartman has already accused her of behaving with the innate prejudice of the cisgendered, a term that Principal Victoria requires her colleagues to explain.  Cartman’s teacher, Mr Garrison (more of him later), explains that cisgender is “the politically correct name for people who aren’t transgender.  If you identify with the sex you were born with, then you’re cis.”  Mr Mackey, the school counsellor (“m’kay”), is puzzled.  “But then cisgender is just – normal?” he asks, and he has a point.  Cisgender is a moniker that only really makes sense when used sociologically: it isn’t a descriptor; it’s a convenient way to distinguish transgender people from people who aren’t, so that articles like this one can bypass clunky terminology like ‘non-transgender’.

Principal Victoria is right about Cartman’s motives for identifying as ‘transginger’, however.  He isn’t a vulnerable and lonely youngster struggling to come to terms with his gender identity.  He simply wants to enjoy a break-time bowel movement in the most luxurious bathroom facilities the school can afford, and he has not been ignorant of the hopeless knots many US states were tying themselves in when the episode was aired over the toilet privileges of their transgender citizens.

In the next century, human beings will look back on America’s baffling preoccupation with the toilet habits of transgender people with a mixture of shame and embarrassment.  That it was thought necessary to spend time and money on legislation to prohibit 1.4 million Americans from using appropriate public conveniences will seem prissy and ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight.  In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, the strange and alarming influence of the religious right over US politics means that it is considered important to dictate whether transgender people have to stand up or sit down to pee.  Most famously, of course, was the 2016 South Dakota Bathroom Bill (or HB1008, to give it its catchier title), which, in tortuous prose, insisted that:

“Every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school that is designated for student use and is accessible by multiple students at the same time shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.  In addition, any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.”

Under the terms of the bill, schools were required to make “reasonable accommodation” of toilet and changing facilities for transgender students, which “may include a single-occupancy restroom, a unisex restroom, or the controlled use of a restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by faculty”.  Step forward Eric (sorry, Erica) Cartman, who has spotted a legal loophole that he believes will entitle him to his own “special executive bathroom” on school premises: a private, luxury convenience, complete with fairy-lights, a water feature, and soothing muzak to encourage even the most stubborn of stools.

“You can just suck my clit and my balls” – Eric Cartman does his best to deal with the traumatising effect of being forced to use his own isolated executive bathroom as a result of his decision to identify as ‘transginger’

The knack to avoid being offended by South Park is to ask, “What, exactly, is being ridiculed here?”  Is Eric Cartman’s behaviour designed to mock transgender people, or is the intended target something a little more subtle?  As Cartman’s transition is motivated solely by a desire to enjoy the extravagance of his own, personal school toilet, it would certainly seem that ‘The Cissy’ suggests that gender nonconformists are driven merely by the puerile desire to visit a room that would otherwise be off-limits.  Cartman’s transition, accordingly, is fittingly superficial: his only concession to his new gender role is a small pink bow that he pins to his hat, and, by choosing the word ‘transginger’ throughout the episode, he remains stubbornly incapable of using accepted terminology about himself.

An equally legitimate interpretation of ‘The Cissy’ is that Cartman is a cipher through which South Park’s writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, seek to demean the efforts of male-to-female transsexuals to emulate the appearance and behaviour of women.  From this perspective, Cartman’s little pink bow and his inaccurate lexicon serve to highlight how unlike women Parker and Stone think male-to-female transsexuals really are; transsexuals’ efforts to transform can only ever be skin deep, the message seems to be, and they fall a million miles short of capturing the grace, complexity, dignity and sophistication of womanhood.

On the other hand, the message of ‘The Cissy’ could equally be that it is petty and selfish to want to change your bathroom to match your gender.  A subplot involving Randy Marsh appears to support such a reading of the episode.  Randy is the father of Stan – one of Cartman’s school friends – and he has been living a double life as the New Zealand popstar, Lorde.  When a colleague complains about Randy/Lorde using the women’s bathroom at work, Randy responds as follows:

“It started off so simple.  There’s a guy at work.  Hanson.  He would use the bathroom and just blow the thing up, you know?  Not only that, but he was in there all the time!  I finally got fed up and pretended to be a woman.  I called myself Lorde.  Have you ever been in a woman’s bathroom, Stan?  It’s all clean, and there’s enough stalls for everyone.  It was so freeing.  I started singing while I was in there, and then I started writing things down.”

If ‘The Cissy’ is an elaborate argument against the claims of transgender women to use the female bathrooms, I would like to mount a small-scale defence of my own.  I use the women’s toilet – and it has nothing to do with its relative cleanliness when compared to the men’s room – because it is more discreet.  When I’m wearing a dress, I draw far less attention to myself in the ladies’ than I do in the gents’, and it is the attention I do (or do not) attract that determines the ease and comfort of the lavatorial experience for all concerned.  If both conveniences were empty, I wouldn’t care which I used.  In my days as a nascent transvestite, I caused far more embarrassment for my fellow defecators by visiting the gents’ than I ever have as a patron of the ladies’.  As well as triggering innumerable double-checks by people who followed me inside, the most touching incident was when a woman sprinted the length of a cinema foyer in Leicester Square to warn me that the toilet I was about to enter was the men’s.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to the ladies’, and, so far, no-one has batted so much as an eyelid.  People don’t pay much attention to the folk around them in public toilets, I’ve found.  If a cursory glance at what other people are wearing satisfies them that everyone is in the right place, then, to coin a phrase, nobody gives a shit where you shit.

Society must be protected – in South Dakota, men are so determined to watch women pee that many have resorted to wearing dresses to enable them to do so

Hopefully, the satire of this episode of South Park is directed not at transgender people, but at those who get their knickers in a twist over where we do our business.  ‘The Cissy’ may predate South Dakota’s bizarre and draconian ‘Bathroom Bill’, but it anticipates it beautifully.  The controversy caused by Cartman’s feculence could have been avoided completely if the law wasn’t so determined to turn the insignificant into an issue, and if state legislators weren’t so obsessed with dressing up bigotry as an effort to protect women from non-existent transvestite rapists; and, for that matter, if all public toilets were unisex.


For some light bedtime reading, feel free to savour the South Dakota ‘Bathroom Bill’ (2016) here…                        

The Symmetrical Face

Between August 2003 and October 2004, I wasted an awful lot of my spare time writing a novel entitled ‘The Symmetrical Face’.  It was, I thought then, a clever and entertaining exploration of how the life of a young, professional, heterosexual man could go wholly down the toilet if he mishandled the process of coming out as a transvestite (which, at the time, was how I thought it most accurate to describe myself), told in elegant prose, and with a Wodehousian gift for balancing epigrammatic sub-clauses with well-placed semicolons.  The end result was a little over 100,000 riveting, ground-breaking, tragi-comic words, which I would never have bothered finishing at all if the woman I was living with at the time (and on whom the character of Camilla was largely based) hadn’t read an early draft of the first three chapters and expressed a degree of horror regarding the social and professional consequences for her of it ever being published.  Her faith in the likelihood of an agent being impressed by my manuscript inspired me, ironically enough, to return to the story a few years later and finish it.  Sadly, however, her fears were unfounded, and, by the beginning of 2005, I had nothing to show for ‘The Symmetrical Face’ but a fistful of polite but unequivocal rejection letters.  Like every aspiring artist with a fragile ego, my response was to shove the disks containing my chapters in a drawer and forget about them.  Recently, though, I have found myself drawn back to the story: as matters transgender become increasingly common in the media and entertainment, as well as in social and political life, I find myself wondering whether there might be more of an appetite for my book now, and whether I ought to try sending a few thousand words of it to a handful of literary agents again.  It needs tidying up and trimming down, of course: the first draft, for example, contains far too many obscure references to the life of Frida Kahlo, and describes Rolf Harris in terms that seem wholly inappropriate in light of new information about his sexual conduct.  In order to spur myself on, therefore, I have rewritten the first chapter, and present it here with a request for feedback that I hope doesn’t come across as too needy.  At the risk of sounding like an internet attention whore, I would love to know whether anyone is interested in reading more.  If I do receive encouragement, I will start editing and redrafting the subsequent chapters, and serialise the whole story here.  If not…  Well, I shall probably delete this post and pretend the conversation never happened.  Be brutal, darling; be brutal.


Chapter One

When Camilla and I moved into The Lighthouse, I knew I would forever remember this as the most special time in our relationship.  When I was very young, I saw a film that, with the exception of the opening sequence, I can barely remember.  I can’t recall the plot, any of the characters, or even the film’s title.  All I can recollect is the way it opened with a lightning quick tour of all the inlets and cliff-faces of Britain’s coastline.  In grainy black and white, the camera thundered around the fjords of Mallaig and Cromarty; galloped over the deserted mudflats of Cromer and Lowestoft; skipped through the docks at Folkestone and Weymouth; weaved between the cliffs and rocky outcrops of Gower and Bardsey; and skimmed over the beaches of Blackpool and Morecambe.  This listing, lurching journey ended as abruptly as it had begun: at the foot of a lighthouse on a promontory washed by the turbulent, grey Irish Sea.  The images in this short film, whipping headily past the eye, haunted me throughout childhood, so when Camilla announced that her bank had acquired the property known as The Lighthouse, I knew before I’d even seen it that I would be infatuated and enchanted by the place.

Which I was.  The Lighthouse stood strong and tall at the end of a causeway projecting a short way out to sea from the mainland.  It was striped red and white like a candy cane in an American cartoon.  The day we drove up to see it was one drenched in glorious sunshine, and the sea around the rocks and caves was blue and still.  The hexagons of glass at the apex of the lighthouse scintillated like burnished silver in the brilliant, clear azure sky.  The estate agent’s tour was wholly superfluous: there was no way we were ever going to ignore the opportunity to live somewhere as uniquely idyllic as this, irrespective of how much work we would have to do on the structure ourselves.  Camilla had recently been promoted by the bank for which she worked.  Her new job carried many perks, including a generous sum of money to assist with the cost of relocating.  We would have to find a substantial amount from somewhere ourselves, we realised, but we were certain it would be worth it: The Lighthouse was like somewhere from a dream.

A newer, automated, more dependable lighthouse had been constructed a small distance further along the coast.  As a result, the old one had been converted and had its beacon decommissioned, but all the antiquated equipment was still locked away in the glasshouse on the roof.  At the base of the structure was a gravel drive fringed on two sides by lines of sturdy sycamore trees.  On the inland face, a flight of five concrete steps led to the small front door that opened into a tiny vestibule and a wooden staircase that turned a right angle onto the first floor.  Here, where the building was thickest, was a sitting room that Camilla filled with cushions and rugs and drapes.  Another staircase led up to the kitchen and the dining room, with its black and white checked floor tiles.  From here, as the lighthouse tapered towards a narrow point, a tight, wrought-iron spiral staircase led up to the study and the guest bedroom.  More steps then twisted up to the master bedroom with its gorgeous windows in every wall.  On the fifth floor was another small sitting room.  On the day I moved out, this room still contained the boxes of stuff we’d never got around to unpacking.  The bathroom was on this floor as well.  That room was a palace of ferns and mirrors and candles, with an Olympic swimming pool-sized bathtub where Camilla and I drank champagne and swallowed oysters we pretended we’d caught ourselves and built the daydream castles of our future.  A ceiling hatch opened into an airlock that in turn permitted access to the iron gantry that haloed the beacon house.  From here, an open staircase circled down to the ground, clinging to the steep slope of the outside walls before meeting the ground on the side that overlooked the ocean.  It was over an hour’s drive to the nearest small town, but there was a wooden jetty for a rowing boat; a wholesome breeze; the endless panorama of the ocean to the west; gently undulating countryside rolling away to the east; the perpetual music of the water slapping against the shore; an obscene mortgage to pay; but we didn’t care if we never saw another human being ever again.

Like the first day of the summer holidays after your first year at school, this was a time of infinite and exciting potentiality.  We had an eternity of days and years ahead of us, and a mutually unexplored ocean to navigate and explore together.  In this continent, we were so strong we could deflect bullets, and we found one another so fascinating and sexually alluring we would never tire of one another’s company.  This, I was convinced, was the beginning of our conjoined life.  We would weather whatever the world hurled at us together, sharing every inch of ourselves and every moment of our existences.  It would be perfect.  We would be perfect.  Camilla was perfect.  I loved her wholly and totally, with, in reverse order of proximity to the ground, my head and my heart and my libido.  On our first morning in The Lighthouse, as we stood in the ground floor lobby with our books, clothes and belongings spilling out of tea-chests and trunks around us, there was a wonderful and magical sense of standing at the threshold of an undiscovered country.  That glorious feeling of beginning-ness grew and intensified as we gradually started finding the perfect places for our possessions – as, indeed, we lined our nest.

In the principal months of our inhabitation of The Lighthouse, I discovered – to my infinite delight – that I was nowhere near as hopeless at housekeeping and DIY as everyone (including myself) had feared I might be.  I soon became adept at putting on door handles upside down, and hanging wallpaper with Polyfilla.  In no time at all, I could build flat-packed furniture in less than eight days, and I quickly had grand and ambitious plans to nail down a bit of carpet on the first floor landing and move the television into the attic bedroom.

These were the glory days, fully two years before David’s fatal illness.  At that time, I was so highly regarded at work that I was granted a munificent six-month secondment from my teaching post at the college, during which I was supposed to be conducting research for my PhD and getting set up for the rest of my life.  My career at St. Catherine’s was to be so long and prosperous, evidently, that the Principal wanted my domestic circumstances firmly established.  Initially, I filled this time with home repairs and preparations for the thesis I never get round to writing.  At home, Camilla managed our finances, and I took care of the important things, like tuning in the video and tidying the cupboard under the stairs.  I astounded myself by becoming a reasonable cook, and worked on improving my personal best for ironing shirts (a record which eventually plateaued at twenty minutes per shirt).  I claimed my new enthusiasm for practical household matters was postmodern and detached, but secretly, I adored every moment of it.  I started watching television programmes where teams of camp fops wrecked one another’s houses by turning their living-rooms into mediæval banqueting halls and Turkish bordellos.  Suddenly, I knew what a throw was when used as a noun; the difference between a sconce and wainscoting ceased to elude me; and I could confidently point out which colour was mauve – even if it was side-by-side with taupe.  I began to form opinions on upholstery, and always kept a colour chart by the bed in case I got any nocturnal urges.  I could hold my own in discussions over stencilling, and positively pore over the IKEA catalogue when Camilla was watching.  For the first time in my life, I was rubbing shoulders was plasterers, carpet fitters and feng-shui experts.  I became highly skilled at rubbing my hands and frowning at monumental home improvement tasks, sucking knowingly on my teeth with my head cocked on one side, chortling, “It’ll cost you, love,” in a Cockney accent.  I acquired a multiplying collection of tools in a durable plastic carry-case – some of which I even knew the function of.  I could tell the difference between a Philips-head screwdriver and whatever the other kind is called.  I owned a rich variety of different styles of nail, including some with crinkly edges, which a friend of Camilla’s later informed me – doubtless due to his years of do-it-yourself experience –  were called screws.

Grunting and sweating, I levered the kitchen door off its hinges and manhandled it onto the gravel outside to strip the paint off it with a lethal mixture of KY Jelly and hydrochloric acid.  Using a drill I’d borrowed, I fixed shelves to walls at daring and avant-garde angles, and put up tiles in abstract and daring patterns.  I didn’t use the drill to put up the tiles, of course: I used a non-adhesive form of gritty toothpaste, but only after using a special implement to smash them into a thousand pieces.  (Well, actually, I did briefly flirt with the idea of using the drill to put the tiles up, but had to stop when Camilla observed that I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing.  We argued about that, and I was forced to concede that she was fully justified in calling me a clueless bastard.)

Under such pressure, it was hardly surprising that we argued long and loud and often, although I did always ensure that I put the toilet seat down.  I did realise at this time, however, that men possess a counter offensive in the toilet seat lowering debate, which is that women rarely replace the shower-head at a level appropriate for males of average height.  Thanks to Camilla, most of my early showers in the Lighthouse began with an invigorating nipple massage.  I found arguing about trivial matters to be cleansing for the soul.  A wholesome rant about something that wasn’t important left me fatigued but warmly refreshed; going absolutely mental can be beneficial for one’s circulation and respiration.  But the best bit about arguments was always making up afterwards.  Sometimes, I think I initiated disagreements because I was subtly addicted to the fizzy, emotional rush of being subsequently forgiven, as well as the reward of an energetic session of conciliatory love-making.  In fact, I enjoyed these bouts of recently reunited screwing so much, I would end arguments as quickly as they had escalated to screaming pitch by accepting sole responsibility for whatever had caused them in the first place.  (“No, no, don’t worry about it.  It doesn’t matter; I’m just being childish.  You can buy me a birthday present next year.”)

After six months in The Lighthouse, we were proud of the eyrie we had moulded around ourselves.  We fell out periodically, but it didn’t matter.  Perversely, I got a kick out of the stomach-turning, white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of our relationship: every couple experiences peaks as well as troughs, and I vainly believed ours to be the unavoidable consequence of packing two such charismatic personalities into finite space.  I adored Camilla, and she gave the impression she was rather fond of me, too.  When she entered a room, I never ceased to buzz with a mixture of pride, excitement and adolescent embarrassment.  Thinking back now, on a good day, I would offer ten fundamental reasons why I would have lain down and died for her when we first moved into The Lighthouse…

One: I loved the fact that she had been the one to ask me on our first date.  Camilla had enrolled for the evening classes in psychology I was teaching at the college.  She had left school at sixteen, and returned as an adult to sit a couple of A-levels so that she could apply to university.  Two weeks before she sat the final examination, she had suggested we go for a drink after class.  Unromantically, my response was, “I’m sorry: I’ve just sneezed on my hand.”  She gave me a paper tissue, and despite my appearing so singularly ungallant and unsophisticated, she thought I was worth getting to know better.  Under my tutelage (or so I liked to think), she achieved quite a respectable grade, but her promotion and us finding the Lighthouse became a more attractive prospect for her than attempting to subsist in student penury.

Two: I loved the way she asked me in Spanish to kiss her.  She always accompanied this request with a smouldering, Latin-American glance that happily bridged the divide between coquettish and passionate, and I found it impossible to resist.  For a long time, I only had her word for it that kiss me was what she was saying.  She might have been telling to stick my head up a badger’s bum for all I knew, but the onomatopoeic pout of words was so lyrical and lilting, I would have kissed her anyway.  She used to tell me to fuck off in Spanish as well, but it always sounded so strange and exotic, she could’ve murdered me in a foreign language and I wouldn’t have minded.

Three: I loved it that we seemed born to sleep together.  I don’t mean this sexually: I mean it in the dreamy, eyes closed, lost in the arms of Morpheus sense.  Our sleeping forms jig-sawed with perfect compatibility.  We could even share a single bed without any irritable discomfort.  As if agoraphobic, we required only the very centre of the mattress, where we slept like child siblings in a fairy story: Camilla’s back nestled against my chest; my arm draped protectively and possessively over her hip.  Soon after dozing off, our breathing would synchronise, and we would awake next morning simultaneously, without a trace of clammy, night-time perspiration.  There were no fights over the duvet, and in the morning we would invariably be lying in the same tessellated letter V formation in which we had turned out the light.  I was very fond of listening to Camilla fall asleep.  The delicate crisp of her lips parting; her hand in mine slackening but not letting go; and the regular pant of her breathing becoming fractionally more shallow.  This sounds slushy, I know, but the little involuntary muscle spasms of her sleeping limbs made my heart melt.

Four: I loved how she hooked her hair behind her ear when it fell across her face.  This gesture was alluring, I think, because of its quintessential femininity.  If she were poised over our dining table, papers and documents spread around her, Camilla would sweep her hand over her face in a thoughtless, liquid movement to tidy stray wisps of hair behind her ears.  In the cartoon Pocahontas, there is a scene in which Captain Smith is making his way down a pier over steaming green water towards the titular heroine, who waits in a small, bobbing wooden boat.  As he gets closer, she gathers her long, black hair into her hand and scoops it over her shoulder.  She looks delightful, and this is a cartoon, for goodness’ sake, so what I am talking about?  Pocahontas would never leave her tribe for me, and I know it.

Five: I loved the fact that, when I talked, she listened.  She listened to my opinions and attitudes; she listened to my ideas and my feelings; she listened to my drunken reaffirmations; she listened to what I had to say about art and politics, and tried to remember what I’d said.  Whilst she was listening, she showed that she respected and cared about what I had to say, even though some of the things I told her must have been extraordinarily difficult to hear.  As a teacher, naturally I thought I was interesting, but Camilla’s wide-eyed attentiveness made me believe I could ramble until peace and democracy were restored to the western world.  It was the occasions when she refused to listen to me that most graphically demonstrated I had seriously erred, but I couldn’t help loving the signals she gave me by denying me the oxygen of publicity.  If I were ever excessively patronising, insulting, unreasonable or outrageous, Camilla would warn me to mend my ways with a wall of silence.  I learned from her that, sometimes, knowing when to put your fingers in your ears can be just as important as listening.

Six: Camilla remains one of the only people I’ve met prepared to stick her finger up my bottom.  It’s difficult not to love someone for that.  I’ve read that, if men do possess a G-spot, it’s located up their arses, where the flesh of the anus can be pressed against the pubic bone.  My enthusiasm for this form of intercourse started when Camilla was exploring that region during a bath together.  I had manoeuvred my hips experimentally so that she really had no choice.  (“Do you like that?” she had asked.  I’d asked her whether she was comfortable with it, to which she’d replied, “If you like it, then I like doing it for you.  Provided I don’t end up with anything unpleasant beneath my fingernails.”)  To the uninitiated, it’s an odd sensation that can be moderately painful, but welcomely intrusive and filling.  I’m not an ambassador for anal intercourse, though.  It clearly isn’t for everyone, and, apart from anything else, the number of women prepared to bugger their boyfriends is quite small.  It isn’t an easy subject to broach, either, and a person prepared to poke their finger in another’s fundament must never, under any circumstances, be asked to make breakfast in the morning.  Camilla, however, was willing to perform this most intimate of acts.  At least, if she wasn’t, she was very good at pretending she was.  It wasn’t something I demanded every time we popped between the sheets, of course – an individual very much needs to be in the mood for easing objects up their behinds.  Selfishly, I have to admit I wouldn’t be keen to root my finger into Camilla’s rectum: here is a case when it categorically is better to receive than it is to give.

Seven: I loved her ability to teach me about myself.  Until I’d met her, I’d tended to base my self-image on how I was perceived by others.  Without praise and approval, I was nothing; if I was alone and fell over in a forest and there as no-one there to hear it, I would make no sound.  I wanted my students to find my classes riveting, laugh at my jokes, and approve of my dress sense.   I thought that a hermit’s existence must be truly awful, for we are defined by our presence in the lives of others.  Many years previously, David won a writing competition with a short story in which he described a lone figure drifting unnoticed in the spaces between other people’s lives.  This character was a hoarder of knick-knacks and bric-a-brac, which he travelled to flea markets and car boot sales to acquire.  One evening, he’s riding the bus back to his dingy flat.  He’s sitting at the back, gazing sightlessly out of the window into the gloaming, when he realises something peculiar about his reflection in the glass.  What’s peculiar is that he doesn’t have a reflection.  It’s gone.  Without contact with other human beings to nourish and feed it, the essence of himself has evaporated.  He has become nothing.  Camilla showed me, however, that my sense of identity was not dependent on the recognition of others.  She refused to over-indulge me, and demonstrated that the way you behave towards your significant other is much more important than anything you could say to them.  She didn’t spoil me, but she was always there to say well done if I’d succeeded, or tell me I’d fucked up if I needed it.  Through Camilla, I saw that the unquestioning loyalty and respect of another human being is something you have to earn and work hard to preserve.  Love is not easily won, and is never sustained by sycophancy or empty promises.  Whenever I felt unsure of the way I was conducting my life, I only needed to ask myself whether Camilla loved me.  If the answer was, all things considered, yes, then I knew I remained a decent human being.  That knowledge generated a sense of well-being that came from beautifully from within.

Eight: I loved her smile.  It was a million dollar, Hollywood, light-up-a-room smile.  She had a smile bright enough to read at night by.  She had the rare gift (which I have never had) of being able to throw on a smile even when she felt terrible.  When I’m pissed off I can’t hide it, but Camilla could mask her true feelings with a wholly radiant, beaming smile.  There was more to that smile than just making the muscles work, though.  Anyone can grin wide enough to show you their fillings, but no-one can fake that genuine twinkle in the eye like she could.  She had a giggle to match it, too.  The sort of headline-grabbing giggle that cuts through extraneous noise and creates silences, like swearing in church.  When Camilla laughed – I mean, really laughed, from her soul – people turned and stared.  For some reason, she laughed most easily when she was with me, and that made my bosom swell with pride as well.

Nine: I loved the things we had in common.  We shared the same ambitions, conceits, vanities, priorities and passions.  We also shared the same jealousies, insecurities, prides, egocentricities and failings.  Our mutual obduracy led to times of rocky uncertainty, when the only means to achieve compromise was through a team of trained UN negotiators, but it also made us strong.  It made us aim for common goals, and feel mutual satisfaction over things we both felt to be important.  Our relationship even acquired its own slogan.  The first time Camilla tried to dump me, I told her a story about something I witnessed in a city somewhere in Eastern Europe, sitting in a pavement café on a seventeenth century market square.  “The sun beat relentlessly down over the tall, gabled town houses and onto the cobbles,” I explained, “and the capacious goblets of beer I had already drunk had taken me well beyond the point of feeling slightly tipsy.”  We had been arguing, but this made Camilla fall silent.  She stood in the centre of the kitchen, her hands on her hips and her jaw set stubbornly, expecting to be anything other than impressed by my poetic attempt to wheedle my way out of trouble.  Nervously, I continued, “I was watching this boy – he’d have been about two or three years old, and he was charging about the place, having a great time chasing pigeons and waving a great fist full of paper streamers in the air.  He was shrieking and laughing and grinning his little head off.”  Camilla was softening, I could tell.  “Then his mother grabbed him to wipe the trail of snot he’d exuded in his hysterical excitement.  He shuffled his feet and twitched while she did it, gasping to be off again waving his streamers about.  But when she’d finished and the boy was ready to hurtle off again, he couldn’t move.  A look of frustrated confusion crinkled his face.  He tugged at his arm, snuffling with tiny sounds of exertion, but his big sister was standing on his streamers.  He couldn’t wave them: they were anchored to the floor.”  Camilla let her hands fall to her sides, and I knew I’d been forgiven; that I was only moments away from a conciliatory embrace (and, hopefully, a shag too).  “That’s what you’re doing by ignoring me:” I concluded, “you’re standing on my streamers.”  And that was it.  Her heart broke and that became our watchword whenever one of us was in danger of spoiling any joint enterprise with cowardice, laziness or self-interest: you’re standing on my streamers.

Ten: most importantly, I loved the way she made me feel when I was with her.  When we were apart, I always got the uneasy feeling that one of us was in the wrong place.

If this list reads like the lyrics to a soppy love song, that’s because that’s how I felt. When we first arrived at The Lighthouse, our life was exactly like a soppy love song.  Each morning, in the beginning, I awoke with an unreal sense of how amazingly fortunate I was.  I would peel myself from our sleeping chevron embrace and skip down the wrought-iron spiral staircases to make breakfast, singing Disney tunes and grinning from ear-to-ear.  Camilla didn’t mind that I could be wimpy sometimes.  She didn’t mind that I wasn’t the sort of boyfriend she could watch playing rugby on a Saturday morning, nor that I didn’t have a square, rugged jaw-line.  She found my phobia of birds trapped indoors endearing rather than infuriating, and was very forgiving of my ignorance of car mechanics and electrical repairs.  She respected me because I wasn’t troubled by my uselessness with these things.  My self-esteem didn’t suffer under the knowledge that I was far from a trophy boyfriend.  She loved me for who I was, and it was totally reciprocal.  I was alarmed, therefore, when, at the start of our second month in the Lighthouse, she sought my opinion on cosmetic surgery.  “I’m thinking of having my tits done,” she said.

We were decorating the small, circular hallway.  I was teetering recklessly at the top of a stepladder, tentatively dabbing brush-fuls of emulsion at the ceiling of the stairwell.  Camilla was sitting on the base of the ladder to hold it steady.  She took her breasts in her hands and jiggled them illustratively.

“You want to have your boobs insured?” I asked.

“No, you idiot: enhanced.”  She looked at me.  “Wouldn’t you prefer it if I had a cleavage you could lose yourself in?”

I pondered her chest for a moment.  I liked it precisely the way it was, and told her so as I stretched out my paintbrush.  The ladder wobbled dangerously.  “I’m extremely fond of your breasts.  They’re your breasts.  I love you, ergo, I love your breasts.”  I looked down at her from my perch.  She was gazing up at me, her breasts still cupped in her hands.

“But if they were just a size or two bigger, you’d have more to play with, so to speak.  Imagine: a décolletage like Niagara Falls, all of your very own!”

“Are you winding me up?”

“No!  Big boobs are the fin de siècle status symbol.  Women can twist men around their lipsticks if they push a big chest in their face.  Men don’t prefer blondes: they prefer big jugs.  The bank is a male dominated environment.  Most of these men are so animal and basic that even a tiny bit of feminine guile is enough to manipulate them.”

“By feminine guile, do you mean big tits?”

“Well… yes!”

“But what if one of these Neanderthal dullard males tries to take more than you’re offering?” I said, sitting on the top rung, the paintbrush dangling between my knees.  “I acknowledge that any man short-sighted enough to allow a woman to walk all over him because he thinks he has even the smallest chance of sleeping with her deserves all he gets, but there are risks inherent to that kind of sexual politicking.  For starters, what if a man attempts to get his mucky paws on you?  What if he tries to cop a feel?  You assume your victim is stupid.  What if he is so dull, he doesn’t realise that to take the sex he isn’t actually being offered is wrong?”

Camilla bristled with wounded pride.  “I can look after myself,” she said.

I know that.  But if you’re going to use sexuality as a weapon, you have to be prepared for unpleasant consequences.  I hesitate to say it, but if the ensuing sexual harassment case went to court, I would hate for the judge to rule you’d been asking for it.”  (I drew inverted commas in the air with my free hand.)  “If you won’t take my word for it, read Camille Paglia.  Her book’s upstairs.”  I rose to my feet gingerly and mustered the courage to dab the paintbrush into another corner.  “I’ll tell you what,” I said, “you have your breasts enhanced, and I’ll have my buttocks shaped.  Or lifted to make a headrest.”

“You’re laughing at me,” Camilla said, “and you have an archaic attitude towards plastic surgery.  Breast enlargement is a simple operation that’s relatively inexpensive – and it’s reversible.  It won’t be long before minor cosmetic procedures are no more complicated or time consuming than having a tattoo or buying shoes.  You’re making a big deal of it because you assume the surgery is still dangerously in the Dark Ages.  Silicone implants don’t really explode on aeroplanes.”

“I don’t want you to have a boob job.  If you started shoving silicone pouches in them, they wouldn’t be yours anymore; they’d become the property of some surgeon who thinks he’s an artist.  I fell in love with those breasts: don’t you dare alter them in any way!”  I felt inexplicably paranoid.  Irrationally, I was afraid that, if Camilla undertook to have her body altered, she would want a similarly enhanced boyfriend to match.  On a day-to-day basis, I was quite lazy about my appearance, if not actually downright scruffy.  I wondered whether Camilla was issuing me with a warning of some kind: Smarten yourself up a bit, or else!  Stupidly, I added, “Besides, I like your flabby thighs and conical tits.”  I did all the cooking for fortnight to apologise for that parting shot.

Our first year in The Lighthouse was a happy one, and, by Christmas, we had completed enough of the decoration for Camilla to invite her family to stay.  The September before that, Camilla returned to work, and I had the house to myself during the daytime.  I worked hard on preparations for my thesis.  I intended it to be an examination of the social function of teenaged girl’s magazines.  I wanted to prove that exposure to these rags, with their advice on dating, personal cleanliness, and general growing up, gave girls a head start over boys that was distinct from essential biological maturation.  I bought more copies of Seventeen, Mizz and Sugar than is really healthy for an adult male.  I searched in vain for a boys’ equivalent that hadn’t been relegated to the gay lifestyle sections of newsagents.  Upon my return to the college after the Christmas holidays, I was to be serving as head of the social sciences department, and hoped that having something published would add invaluably to my academic kudos.  Camilla willingly read every word I wrote, and her feedback was enthusiastic and instructive.  By the time I returned to work, however, the thesis remained unfinished, and – although it was never actually forgotten – it fell shamefully into neglect.

Camilla and I enjoyed a period of wonderful honeymoon.  We sat in the window seat of the lounge watching the waves together.  We danced salsa in the living room together.  We dressed for dinners we had cooked together.  We went for long walks across the cliffs together.  We went down to the beach and made sandcastles together.  We talked and laughed and cried and fought together.  We enjoyed gymnastic, balletic sex together.  At a fund-raising jumble sale for David’s thespian cronies, we bought a set of tarot cards.  I wrapped a shawl around my head and kept the instruction booklet concealed in my lap. We had thick, drippy church candles staining the wood of our dining table and I lied about the rosy future the deck failed to foretell for us.

For her birthday, I gave Camilla an easel and oil paints.  She had always boasted about how good she had been at art at school, and she began painting, hesitantly and inexpertly at first, but with increasing alacrity.  Her favourite place to paint was on the white-painted balcony at the top of The Lighthouse.  The occasional canvases she produced began as seascapes, but evolved into fantasy scenes thick with allegory for fertility and childbirth, where fish copulated in the air above the waves, and drifts of kelp and bladderwrack squirted milky fluids from phallic protuberances.  When the weather was bad, she set her easel up beside the freestanding mirror in the bedroom and painted amateurish self-portraits with claustrophobically foreshortened perspective.  Most of these, mercifully for the art establishment, ended up being thrown in the bin.

Like all good things, however, these magical days did not last forever.  Camilla learned things about me she was unable to bear.  She tried hard to stand by me, but ultimately it proved too much for her.  At the time, I hated her for her disloyalty, but now I understand I was asking for more than any woman could realistically give their boyfriend.  Now, what I remember of our joyful times are mostly images: catching one another’s eye across the crowded room at our housewarming party; touring Spain the summer after David’s death; the dress she wore for her graduation from my psychology class.  I remember the way she fell to the floor and cried with her hands pressed into her face when she came home from work and found me curled foetal on our bed wearing it.


Still reading?  Thank you for sticking with this self-pitying, solipsistic nonsense to the end.  If curiosity gets the better of you, I have a number of short stories available to read at – none of which are about trannies or gender-benders.

Transvestism on the Radio

Despite practising a form of entertainment wholly unsuited to the medium of wireless, the ventriloquist Peter Brough attracted 15 million listeners to his BBC radio show, ‘Educating Archie’, during its 1950’s heyday.  Every week, audiences tuned in to hear the latest adventures of Archie Andrews – the mannequin of a wisecracking schoolboy, into which, Brough assured us, he was throwing his voice without moving his lips.  At the beginning of March, 2016, BBC Radio 4 reached a second aural landmark by placing another essentially visual phenomenon on the radio: it granted two thirty-minute slots in its late-night schedule to the stand-up comedian (and self-proclaimed “metal-head, amateur occultist, musician” and “vegan heterosexual transvestite”), Andrew O’Neill.  Keen to bolster its claim to be representative of Britain’s increasingly diverse population, and to be providing a voice for its multiplicity of minority groups, the BBC evidently thought that squirrelling away two episodes of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday evening was the best way to promote tolerance and understanding, and to elevate the profile of the UK’s transgender population.  …But who cares what time ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ was on, or how many minds it cured of prejudice and ignorance!  It was a comedy show, and should be judged, therefore, according to how funny it was, right?


Part one of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ was much better than part two.  The first instalment was fresher, more confessional, and crammed more food-for-thought into its thirty minutes than the sequel, but both episodes suffered from having the sort of well-behaved studio audience whose self-satisfied snickering becomes a barrier to enjoyment.  O’Neill’s audience reminded me of the kind of prim, easily-pleased, middle-class Edinburgh Fringe goer who is so eager to applaud weak punchlines and tolerate mediocre material, that the performer is exonerated from the responsibility of having to win the crowd over and hold their attention – and of having the quality of their material sifted and judged.  Such audiences attend stand-up comedy not to laugh or to be challenged, but to spend an evening agreeing with politically right-on soliloquising, and to cheer vicariously at a bourgeois outrage they can empathise with.

O’Neill is very much preaching to the easily converted, therefore, when he begins episode one by offering a selection of alternative epithets for ‘transvestite’.  He is, he suggests, a ‘pharmacist baffler’; a ‘clothes poof’; a ‘correct toilet double-check instigator’; and a ‘patriarchal birth-right rejecter’, who is, by his very existence, “laying bare the arbitrary nature of our socially constructed gender norms”.  The language of gender is clearly important to O’Neill, which makes his cruelly dismissive treatment of a member of his audience in episode two seem particularly unwarranted.  In order to observe that sexual attraction amongst hetero-males is based on the appearance of femininity – rather than actual biological differences between the sexes – O’Neill invites a spectator to participate in a thought-experiment.  He asks his stooge to choose a sexually alluring celebrity female.  The man in the third row picks on-screen, teen-bait karaoke singer, Anna Kendrick, and is then required to choose who he would rather sleep with: Anna Kendrick if she had a penis, or lugubrious, hang-dog, alcoholic (and deceased) character actor, Michael Elphick, if he had a vagina.  To seal the deal, perplexingly, O’Neill also adds a hypothetical £80 million pay-out by way of an incentive for choosing one or the other.  (Anna Kendrick would be so flattered…)

By way of proof that he is not exclusively attracted to beings who possess the necessary equipment for procreation, O’Neill’s willing participant says his choice of partner for the beast-with-two-backs would be “she-male Kendrick”.  With the impatient splutter of a petulant teenager who thinks his parents don’t understand his recent conversion to vegetarianism, O’Neill mutters, “What an incredibly offensive term,” before patronising his otherwise guileless and well-meaning respondent by telling him he still has a lot to learn.  But can ‘she-male’ really be considered offensive?  I’m not sure any label can be deemed offensive unless it has been used as a tool of oppression; as an instrument of ghettoization and control.  I don’t remember reading about years of violent historical struggle for she-males’ economic and political equality, or of shameful periods of she-male slavery, or of there ever being she-male only seats at the backs of buses.  The worst that can be said about ‘she-male’ is that it’s a bit of an eighties’ moniker – that it’s the sort of word you used to find printed on a masseuse’s calling card in a London telephone box – but an offensive term?  No.

Frame Radio
Resplendent in tartan leggings and a black mini-skirt, and showing-off armfuls of elaborate tattoos, this is how Andrew O’Neill appeared to all twenty-eight members of Radio 4’s late-night audience in March, 2016

O’Neill’s dissection of whether it is the female sex per se who are attractive to heterosexual men, or whether it is the accoutrements of womanhood (long hair, clothes, make-up, and so on) that men find sexually alluring, is a timely one.  On April 4th, 2016, twenty-five year-old New Yorker James Dixon confessed to beating twenty-one year-old transgender woman, Islan Nettles, to death when she told him that she had been born male.  In August, 2013, Dixon and some of his friends had been chatting-up a group of girls on the pavement of a suburban street.  “I asked the one I was talking to if she was a guy,” Dixon admitted, and when Nettles had said yes, Dixon had become possessed by a “blind fury” at having “got fooled by a transgender”.  Dixon had punched Nettles so hard, he had knocked her to the floor, and he had then continued punching her until she had lost consciousness.

The ability to distinguish readily between male and female, O’Neill observes, is a biological necessity; the need to be able to find a mate is hard-wired into human biology to ensure the continuation of the species.  To aid this instinctual, atavistic drive, society has made it even easier to differentiate male from female by dictating that the sexes should dress and present themselves in contrasting ways.  Encountering transgender people, therefore, often proves disorientating, and leaves us uncertain of with whom we should be attempting to propagate the human race.  O’Neill argues that, as a result, transvestites are the targets of a great deal of misdirected homophobia: crossdressing confronts heterosexual men with what they really find desirable about women, and that makes those men angry because they are ill-equipped to process the nuances of attraction transvestism embodies.  Transvestites show that femininity isn’t biological – it’s cultural.  Crossdressing, from this perspective, is thus a political act (intentionally or otherwise): by carving out a comfortable social space for yourself, you force the world around you to confront its assumptions about sexuality and beauty.  Islan Nettles isn’t the only transgender woman ever to have paid a high price for that.

Frame Tease
Asking for it: in the gullible heterosexual male, the evocation of carnal thoughts by trouser-teasing, transvestite honey-traps like this one, can result in feelings of anger and aggression, as well as in uncontrolled eruptions of violence

When O’Neill was describing his childhood bewilderment at wanting to look like a girl, I identified with much of what he said, and I was happy that he allowed the strength of his confession to stand on its own, without trying to shoehorn jokes into the narrative.  At five, he said, he thought there had been some sort of postnatal error; that maybe he’d been born a girl and then somehow surgically altered to have the reproductive equipment of a boy.  With the wisdom of introspection and adulthood, he now realised that this had been his five-year old brain telling him that he would be much happier wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, but it wasn’t until he was in his late teens that he felt able to confide his “urge” (not, as he asserts, “hobby, lifestyle choice or subculture”) to his closest friends.  This moment – and the glorious non-reaction of his father when he first glimpsed Andrew en femme – are cited by O’Neill as the keystones of his self-acceptance, but it was with insightful poignancy that he then summarised the transgender paradox…

For a transvestite, being confronted with the disparity between how you want to look and how you actually look can be heart-breaking.  When you present yourself in public in female role, the reaction you are hoping for is, “She looks hot.”  The reaction you get, on the other hand, is, more often than not, “That bloke’s wearing a dress.”  O’Neill admits to occasionally wishing he had a more feminine face, but maintains that he is at peace with his self-proclaimed inability to pass as female, and so has stopped attempting to.  Hence, he has some pertinent advice for transvestites who seek to be happy in their own skins: accept the limitations of your own personal form, and dress accordingly.

The number of transvestites who look terrible (and, it must be admitted, give the crossdressing community a bad name) is legion.  Most of these, O’Neill argues, are fetish transvestites: men who wear what turns them on, instead of what suits them, based on a perception of femininity that crystallised along with their sexual preferences around the age of five.  Equally likely to provoke raised eyebrows (rather than admiration for their refusal to conform to established gender norms) are what O’Neill refers to as “fancy-dress party only transvestites”.  These are the men who – despite their protestations that they are doing so simply for harmless, hilarious fun – always arrive at costume parties dressed as schoolgirls or French maids, because this is the only outlet for their sartorial predilections that they have so far felt brave enough to exploit.

With exacting precision, O’Neill observes that, when a man cross-dresses, he attracts ridicule.  This is because of the superordinate status to women he has been granted by historic and hegemonic processes in society: when a man wears woman’s clothes, he humiliates himself because he is perceived as having subjugated himself; of having deliberately debased himself by abandoning the trappings of the masculinity that underpins the superiority he has heretofore enjoyed.  The corollary is not true, however.  Women who power-dress (for example) do not invite derision because they are perceived as having put on a uniform more befitting the dominant, masculine role – not of having deliberately stepped out of one.

Frame Jessica Rabbit
Without the necessary self-discipline or serendipitous physiology, the self-image of a male-to-female transsexual may be hopelessly incongruent with what is physically attainable in reality

As if in acknowledgement of the paradox inherent in parading transvestism on the radio, O’Neill begins both episodes of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ by asking members of his audience to describe what he is wearing.  Volunteers genially oblige, as O’Neill explains that he knows he is lucky – being a performer – to inhabit a social world in which he has greater freedom than most to dress as he pleases.  From his privileged position, he maintains, he has a responsibility to represent transvestites as well-adjusted and non-deviant; as people who are happiest when they wear women’s clothes (and who are not ‘depressed’ or ‘confused’, as it is convenient to assume crossdressers’ proclivities make them).  O’Neill thus has a duty, he asserts, to humanise transvestism.

As part of this process of humanisation, O’Neill uses a conspicuous portion of his sixty minutes of airtime to emphasise his own heterosexuality.  He reminds listeners with unwarranted frequency about how much he “fancies women”; of how his attraction to women was so profound that it led to a desire to emulate them; and of how “the sexuality of transvestism” is the product of “an overdriven heterosexuality”.  Ladies should consider a night with him, he suggests, “if you’re bored of knowing where your clothes are.”  He tells his audience how much he likes “heavy metal and drinking booze”; tells two anecdotes about how being out in public with his wife precludes from him looking gay; and declares that his joy at possessing a functioning penis has made him totally uninterested in seeking sex-change surgery.

O’Neill then rejects the stripe of trans-exclusionary radical feminism that is epitomised by Germaine Greer’s most recent media outbursts – and by the apoplectic proselytising of Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan – by dismissing feminists who brand transvestites fetishists and attention-seekers, as “shit feminists”.  The audience cheers, and, tragically, an opportunity to explore a genuinely complex and interesting issue through the medium of comedy is lost, in favour of a bargain-basement laugh from an easily-satisfied audience.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s pathological need to remind his audience of his own heterosexuality serves not to reinforce his claim to be challenging socially-determined gender norms, but to undermine it.  His defiance of what has – and what has not – been determined as ‘male’ and ‘female’ via historical, institutional and hegemonic processes is purely sartorial.  For O’Neill, gender nonconformity is a question of the right to wear skirts and make-up, not of the freedom to be truly different.  By continually referring to his attraction to women, his bloke-ish inclination towards beer and breasts, and his personal attachment to his genitals, O’Neill is emphasising his fundamental similarity to his audience (and, therefore, to a humdrum stratum of society generally), not to his essential difference from them.  He may choose to dress like a girl, he reminds us, but, other than that, he is the same as everyone else.  That BBC radio chose O’Neill as the voice of English transvestism isn’t merely tokenistic: in its lazy, half-baked, cowardly way, it underlines the belief that crossdressing is an eccentricity, and does nothing to promote the political agenda of subversion – and of embracing an ‘alternative’ worldview – that gender nonconformity can genuinely claim to entail.

O’Neill’s sixty minutes of mainstream broadcasting is the same sort of tragic missed opportunity that occurs in the denouement to David Walliams’ 2008 children’s novel, ‘The Boy in the Dress’.  Walliams’ book follows the transvestial voyage of discovery of its twelve-year old central character, Dennis Sims, and, in its opening chapters, tricked me into thinking that here, at last, was a novel with the potential to break new ground in the education of young, impressionable readers on the feelings and frustrations associated with crossdressing.  However: when Dennis finally plucks up the courage to attend school dressed as ‘Denise’, he blithely overcomes public scorn and derision by proving himself a whizz on the football pitch.  Dennis may like to dress like a girl, in other words, but that does not prevent him from excelling in a socially-sanctioned, stereotypically male endeavour like team sport.   Through aptitude in an activity already loaded with public approval, Dennis is able to win back the approbation of his peers despite his partiality for girls’ clothes.  And the moral of the story is: People will accept you whatever you wear, provided you are good at football; people will overlook any sartorial handicap, provided you are still, essentially, a boy.  (And that’s without me wading into the dubiously amoral swamp of Dennis blackmailing his headmaster over the latter’s own crossdressing habits, or of me unpacking the creepily quasi-erotic relationship between Dennis and the girl who helps him discover his inner-female – the school’s resident teen-siren, Lisa James.)

Frame Boy in the Dress
‘The Boy in the Dress’: as lazy, cowardly and disappointing an exploration of adolescent transvestism as should be expected from bafflingly famous talent-vacuum (and amateur audition-show catamite), David Walliams

O’Neill cites Eddie Izzard as a formative influence.  It was the experience of seeing Izzard perform stand-up, he maintains, that inspired O’Neill to become a comedian.  The problem with Eddie Izzard, though, is that he stopped being funny after his ‘Glorious’ tour in 1997, and now spends most of his time running marathons and performing his Eddie Izzard tribute act in the United States.  Izzard has also reduced his cross-dressing to having perfectly coiffed hair and wearing nail-varnish with well-tailored suits.  If I was being generous, I would admit that Izzard’s stylistic conservatism is an inevitable consequence of his growing old and finding what looks best on him, but nail-varnish with a Saville Row suit might actually be what Izzard means when he describes himself as an ‘executive transvestite’.

The trouble with having a role-model, however, is that Andrew O’Neill isn’t eight years old.  If you aspire to buck trends and blaze-a-trail, you exclude yourself, by definition, from having idols.  If you have a celebrity role-model, you anchor yourself to a set of values that have been pre-determined for you by the status quo, and, consequently, to an established mode of thinking and behaving.  You can’t claim to be doing something new if you declare that your heroes have done it before, and you aren’t courageous or radical if you beg an audience to overlook your unorthodox fashion choices by pleading with them to find you funny.  O’Neill didn’t even have the challenge of winning his studio audience over, and his insistence that – apart from his skirt, lipstick and leggings – he likes booze, birds and boobs just as much as the next man, was not a step towards a greater understanding and acceptance of gender nonconforming people, but a reminder of the institutionalised conditions that continue to be placed on that acceptance.


Andrew O’Neill’s website can be visited here…

Further Thoughts on Transgender Casting in Hollywood

On October 18th, I was inspired by Rebecca Root’s performance in the BBC sitcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’ to write a blog posting about transgender characters in contemporary film and television. There is evidently an appetite for stories about societal outsiders. The 2015 film ‘The Danish Girl’ (about Lili Elbe, who, in 1930, was one of the first people to undergo sex-change surgery), for example, will attract the curious as well as those seeking a morbid thrill, but will not feature a transgender actor in the title role. Instead, Eddie Redmayne will don the twinset and pearls: transgender characters, it seems, are very much à la mode, but producers and directors remain frustratingly constipated regarding the casting of transgender actors to play them. In my previous posting, I drew a parallel between the casting of cisgender actors in this way and the Hollywood traditions of casting white actors in black and Asian roles, and of auditioning able-bodied actors to play disabled characters. (The first tradition is now extinct; the latter is still very much with us.) I have been induced to write a second posting on this topic by the suspicion that I haven’t yet got to the heart of why gender casting in film and television is so lazily conservative.


It can’t be easy being an out-of-work actor. Spending half your life being told you’re not good enough must slowly erode your soul, and it must be even more galling to spend the other half having your nose rubbed in images of the handful of your peers who were in the right place at the right time every time you open a magazine or switch on the television. For every actor that becomes a household name, a hundred others wallow in the relative obscurity of playing a corpse in an episode of ‘Casualty’, or with their face completely hidden by a Cyberman’s helmet. As the old joke reminds us: I met an actor once. I said to her, “Two pints of lager and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, please.”

In the 1976 thriller ‘Marathon Man’, Dustin Hoffman plays Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy – a postgraduate history student and keen amateur runner living in New York. When Hoffman’s character starts seeing his new girlfriend, Elsa Opel, he has no idea of her connection with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In the film’s most notorious scene, Levy is kidnapped and tortured by Dr Christian Szell – another fugitive of the Third Reich whose contribution to the Final Solution included the torture of Jewish prisoners. Levy is strapped to a chair whilst Dr Szell (played by Lawrence Olivier) picks away at his cavities with a dental probe in order to extract information from him about Else’s part in the distribution of a cache of stolen diamonds. Levy is completely ignorant of any plot to steal the precious stones, but Szell continues torturing him anyway – with evident increasing relish. In order to prepare for this scene and lend his character an appropriate air of terror and exhaustion, Hoffman forced himself to go without sleep for seventy-two hours. Reflecting on their work together, Olivier is reputed to have asked Hoffman how he thought the week’s filming had gone. Hoffman had then described his gruelling regime of preparation to Olivier, who is reported to have been stunned by Hoffman’s revelation that he had stayed awake for three days in order to make his performance more convincing. “Don’t you prepare for your roles like that?” Hoffman is supposed to have asked. “Heavens, no,” Olivier replied. When Hoffman then asked the English actor how else he was supposed to add realism to his characterisation, Olivier is reputed to have said, “It’s called acting, dear boy.”

The Producers
For virile, dyed-in-the-wool, straight-as-a-die masculine actors, learning the craft of playing transgender women can take years of training

This apocryphal story illustrates quite neatly what it is that actors are paid to do. The job is, by its very nature, concerned with pretending; with convincing audiences that actors are someone they are not; with making us believe they are actually in situations that, in truth, have merely been evoked through the power of dialogue, sets, costumes, lighting, special effects and music; and with adding verisimilitude to faked emotions in order to trick us into thinking they are real. When acting is done well, it fools us into making an emotional investment in the trials and tribulations of a person who doesn’t exist, and, furthermore, it makes us wilfully ignorant of the very fact that we are being fooled (or at least to stop minding that we are).

Accordingly, an able-bodied actor is capable of training themselves to imitate the symptoms of an illness or disability so skilfully that, as an audience, we buy into the fiction completely. When we hear that Daniel Day Lewis’ preparations (for instance) to play writer, artist and cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’ (1989) were so thorough and immersive that he spent the duration of the shoot in a wheelchair (not leaving it even during breaks), fractured one of his own ribs under the physical exertion of the part, and insisted on pushed around by the other actors and taking his meals through a feeding tube, we are encouraged to view even the regimen of the method actor as involving a level of dedication and personal sacrifice that borders on the heroic.

The result is undeniably impressive – well done, Daniel for pretending to have cerebral palsy; good for you, Eddie Redmayne for being able to ape the effects of motor neurone disease in 2014’s ‘The Theory of Everything’ – but is it ethically proper for an able-bodied actor to be cast in a role that an actor who actually has cerebral palsy or motor neurone disease could have played? The answer to that moral conundrum, for my money, depends on the answer to its obverse: Would an actor confined to a wheelchair ever have been in the running for any of Daniel Day Lewis’ other roles (like Abraham Lincoln, or John Proctor in ‘The Crucible’), or for the parts that comprise Eddie Redmayne’s CV (like Marius Pontmercy in 2012’s ‘Les Misérables’, or art-deco era transsexual Lili Elbe)? I don’t have any more sympathy for an out-of-work actor than I do for an unemployed miner or down-at-heel encyclopaedia salesman, but it must be both baffling and infuriating to be a disabled actor and witness roles that (surely) were written for you going to actors who could land any able-bodied role they wanted.

The important distinction here is that the traffic only flows one way: a non-disabled actor can learn to pretend to be wheelchair bound; a disabled actor can never pretend not to be. Similarly, a cisgender actor can learn the mannerisms, verbal tics and inflections, posture and body language of a transgender man or woman, but transgender actors are years away from being cast as biological males or females. The probable reasons for that require a little unpacking.

Film and television play a vital role in shaping who is generally considered to be beautiful, desirable, titillating or sexually alluring. The media have yet to educate the viewing public to find transgender beauty appealing in any conventional sense, so norms are very firmly entrenched that determine that only a certain type of woman (or man), of a particular age and with a specifically prescribed body shape, can be said to possess mainstream sex appeal. Only actors who conform to the accepted cultural template will be marketed as ‘sexy’. With his preppy, English good looks, prominent cheekbones, boyishly tousled ginger hair and cheeky smile, Eddie Redmayne cuts an attractive figure. His fan-base is not in the least bit shy of admitting that they have posters of him on their bedroom walls and his calendar on their kitchen noticeboard; he is a poster-boy for Burberry, for heaven’s sake! Put him in Lili Elbe’s clothes and he doesn’t lose his allure one bit – which is important, because it is via reliance on the loyalty of his fan-base that Focus Features hope to fill theatres with people to see ‘The Danish Girl’ when it opens next month.

There are, of course, plenty of male actors who don’t lose one iota of their charisma by dragging up, and Eddie Redmayne is certainly one of them. There are also a great many male-to-female transsexuals and transvestites who make very attractive women. Indeed, when positive attention is given to transgender women in the media, it is almost always in terms of how surprisingly sexy they are. For the Daily Mail, Laverne Cox is “a shimmering beauty” and “every inch the glamorous television star that she is” (October 21st, 2015); for Marie Claire, Caitlyn Jenner’s choice of “classic, form-fitting silhouettes” leaves her “looking utterly gorgeous” (October 15th, 2015); whilst even The Times is not above describing 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst as having “killer cheekbones” and “eyelashes you could land a helicopter on” (October 20th, 2015).

The danger of setting transgender women up as sex-objects – with passing them off as attractive biological females – however, is that men and women tend to feel angry when they find out they have been cheated. In February 2004, Sky TV aired a reality show called ‘There’s Something about Miriam’, in which six British men (who were all professionals aged between 22 and 28) competed for a £10,000 prize and a date with twenty-one year old Mexican model, Miriam Rivera. The key to winning the prize was to secure Miriam’s affections, and the men set about wooing her with alacrity. Twenty-three year old lifeguard and skiing-instructor Tom Rooke won the prize money and an all-expenses paid romantic holiday for two with Miriam, but, in the show’s finale, Tom’s sultry dream date was revealed to be a pre-operative transsexual. When the contestants learned of the deception that had been perpetrated against them, they filed a law-suit against Endemol for defamation, personal injury, and conspiracy to commit sexual assault. All six of them settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but the moral of the story is obvious: if a gang of red-blooded heterosexuals find out that the woman they all fancy was once a man, they are going to be pretty vexed about it. Miriam is lucky she had the social mores of a television studio to protect her: if the same thing had happened in a nightclub, there is a good chance she would have been beaten to a pulp.

The ethical fallout of this fascinating anecdote finds its fictional parallel in the 1992 movie ‘The Crying Game’. The film’s marketing department made the unsavoury decision to sell the IRA thriller on the basis of a twist regarding one of its main characters – the cabaret singer Dil. When Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) finally finds himself on the brink of hopping into bed with Dil (Jaye Davidson), Dil lets her gown slip to the floor and the camera pans slowly down her body to reveal… a healthy and tuberous set of man-bits. Fergus’ initial reaction, predictably, is horror at what he was about to do, but, after a period of soul-searching, he accepts that he had started to fall in love with Dil and that he could, in all likelihood, learn to live with her certain little extra something. For the audience, though, it’s too late by that point: they can’t un-see the parts of Dil they have been shown (largely because of the tawdry, shock-horror way in which they have been shown them), and any work the film tries to do to cultivate respect and understanding for the transgender community has already been irreparably undone by this cheap and sensational peep show.

The Crying Game
There’s something about ‘The Crying Game’: Stephen Rea contemplates what he has just learned about cabaret singer Dil

So: Hollywood doesn’t cast transgender actors as biological men or women because producers cannot guarantee their appeal in a market that expects to be able to fall in lust with its leading lights. As if that weren’t cruel enough, film and television makers fear casting transgender actors in transgender roles for the exactly the same reason: in order for a transgender character to be palatable, audiences need to be able to find them conventionally attractive.

I have not included the casting of heterosexual actors as homosexuals (and vice versa) in my discussion, and I’d like to end this posting by explaining why. A disabled actor cannot pretend to be able-bodied, and transgender actors have so far been denied the opportunity to pass themselves off as biologically male or female. For able-bodied cisgender actors, however, such restrictions do not apply: with a bit of make-up, voice training and physical coaching, a performer can give a convincing imitation of pretty much any disability or point on the transgender spectrum. If it’s necessary for the plot, a spot of CGI can even remove an arm or a leg. This – simply and self-evidently – is not fair. Finding work is already difficult for able-bodied cisgender actors who don’t enjoy the right connections. For their disabled and transgender colleagues, the barriers to obtaining employment are even more intractable: to be denied even the opportunity to play characters with roots in their own social and demographic communities must be absolutely soul-destroying. In the case of characters whose primary narrative function is their sexuality, however, the door swings both ways. A straight actor is no more capable of learning to pretend to be gay than a gay actor is of acquiring the idiosyncrasies, nervous habits and peccadilloes needed in order to pretend to be straight. Heterosexual actors enjoy no advantage here, and gay actors have been playing straight since the time of Thespis. Given that heterosexual roles in film and television outnumber homosexual ones by an estimated nineteen to one, that’s probably just as well.

‘Boy Meets Girl’ – Some Thoughts on Transgender Casting

This is my first blog posting, and I wanted to open with an innocuous, impersonal piece by way of testing both my ability to write engagingly in the blogging register, and whether or not there is an audience for what I have to say. The first episode of the BBC2 sitcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’ first aired on UK television shortly after the nine o’clock watershed on Thursday, 3rd September, 2015. I initially thought I could offer a review of this series opener as my first blog posting, but it now feels as if – with ‘Boy Meets Girl’ having completed its six episode run on October 10th – I have missed the cultural moment a bit with that objective. Instead, what follows are some of my thoughts on the one aspect of the programme that made it so notable: namely, the casting of a transgender actor in a transgender role.

 [To save you a trip to Wikipedia: ‘Boy Meets Girl’ told the story of the relationship between a 26 year-old biological male called Leo (played by Harry Hepple), and 40 year-old male-to-female transsexual, Judy (played by Rebecca Root). The pilot episode (written by Elliot Kerrigan and filmed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) was the product of a competition held by the BBC in 2012-3, which invited writers to submit scripts containing positive portrayals of transgender characters.]


The main conceptual stumbling block of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ was that it tried to achieve two contradictory things simultaneously; seeking both normalise the notion of transgender at the same time as problematizing it. Leo’s reaction to Judy’s revelation (with which the show chose to open) that she “used to have a penis” was the very epitome of open-minded acceptance. Leo, truly, was a paragon of laissez-faire magnanimity. He couldn’t have been any more tolerant: his wide-eyed, artless smile practically a facial shrug that allowed Judy’s confession to roll off it with a dismissive so what? And Leo wasn’t the only character to have accommodated transsexualism so comfortably into his worldview – to have the rare gift of being able to treat someone’s gender history as casually as the colour of their hair. Judy’s mother and sister were equally at ease with her lifestyle choices, as was almost everyone touched by the natural ebb and flow of Leo and Judy’s social interactions (like the Italian waiter who was the other witness to Judy’s neat summary of her penile antiquity). After a bit of half-hearted humming and hawing in later episodes, Leo’s brother and northern everyman father were similarly unfazed by Leo’s choice of partner, and treated Leo to nuggets of platitudinous wisdom to the effect that they had no issue with whomever his girlfriend might be, as long as she was decent, and he loved her.

Which is, of course, how things should be. But for a story to have any impetus, something within in has to constitute an obstacle that must be overcome; and for a story to have any thematic relevance, it needs to subject an issue to some sort of scrutiny. A television programme that trumpets itself on having cast a transgender actor in a transgender role, moreover, would be guilty of dishonesty if the very fact that one of its characters had transitioned form one gender to another wasn’t – at least in part – the issue that gave the drama its… well, drama. For ‘Boy Meets Girl’ to have any edge at all, it needed to be about transgenderism as well as having transgenderism form part of its makeup, and so the liberal broadmindedness shown by Leo needed tempering with a glance at society’s dark underbelly. In episode four, there is a scene that takes place in a bowling alley: on a date with Leo, Judy has abuse hurled at her by two spotty teenagers. From the adjacent lane, these pasty, instantly forgettable shibboleths of transphobia shout the word freak, and demand to know, with the befuddled and incongruous logic of the bigoted, what Judy is, exactly. (“She’s your girlfriend?” one of them demands of Leo. “How can that be?”) The angry youths, however, have all the savagery of a sleeping puppy; no-one swears or threatens violence; and there is no sense at all of the terrifying and irrational aggression that can lead, say, to the June 2015 murder of Mississippi transgender teenager Mercedes Williamson.

Leo and Judy’s struggles to come to terms with their own relationship (and the response to it of the world around them) are low-key and prosaic. As ‘Boy Meets Girl’ strives to remind us every time it appears as if the transgender ‘issue’ seems in even the slightest danger of overwhelming the show’s otherwise cosy ambience, Leo and Judy are just an everyday couple who face the same petty trials and tribulations as everyone else, and Judy’s gender history isn’t the only threat to the ordinariness of their relationship. There is also the fourteen year age gap between them, which, whilst being hardly a romantic deal-breaker, is wide enough for Leo to be operating within a framework of completely different pop-culture references and assumptions. It is difficult to tell whether use of this age gap as a structural springboard for exploring transgender issues is a deliberate trope of ‘Boy Meets Girl’, but it makes it possible for the writers to turn Leo into a student, with Judy as his teacher. Into Leo’s mouth, therefore, are placed the questions that the passingly curious might have about gender transition (Why do you need to take hormones? When did you start the change? Can you still have sex?), and, true to form, Leo takes all the answers in his stride. His questions, though, would be equally applicable if his girlfriend was (merely) a menopausal cougar, and not also a transgender menopausal cougar.

‘Boy Meets Girl’: Leo takes yet another of his girlfriend’s harrowing revelations on the chin
‘Boy Meets Girl’: Leo takes yet another of his girlfriend’s harrowing revelations on the chin

What exactly is ‘Boy Meets Girl’ about, then? Is it about what it is like to have a transgender girlfriend? Is it about what it is like to be someone’s transgender girlfriend? Is it about being in a relationship with an age difference? Making an original sitcom can’t be easy when the genre has been so refined and subverted. (Take, for instance, Vic Reeves’ and Bob Mortimer’s 2014 ‘House of Fools’, which distils the sitcom genre so insightfully down to its essence that each episode only makes any sense in the context of its own internal logic.) The sitcom is a tired format, and ‘Boy Meets Girl’ needed to be about something new in order to constitute more than just another wheeze of a dying and anaemic televisual beast.

There are other things about ‘Boy Meets Girl’ that niggle me. It isn’t very funny, for one, and I’m troubled by the implied whiff of failure that hangs around the fact that Judy – who is 40 years old – lives with her mum. This simple domestic detail (and if any aspect of transgenderism deserves deeper exploration through the medium of comedy, it is this) speaks volumes about the lifestyle options of transsexuals. Here is the tacit but chilling suggestion that, unless you have the safety net of immense wealth and inexplicable celebrity (unless you are, in other words, Caitlyn Jenner) to cushion you once you transition, an appalling consequence of the decision to bring an end to a lifetime of depression by changing your gender can be unemployment, friendlessness, and penury so severe that you are left with no option other than to move back into the parental home.

But, but, but… For all its faults, ‘Boy Meets Girl’ has taken the heretofore unthought-of step of casting a transgender actor in a transgender role, and Rebecca Root is exceptionally good. She is authentic, sincere, and delivers some of the clichés of the transgender condition (“It’s like being born in a prison and never having a release date”) with a straightforward conviction that is genuinely heartbreaking.

(At the start of 2014, I had a series of coaching sessions with Rebecca Root in order to help me lift my voice to a more feminine pitch. I was a lazy student, and must have been an unrewarding project for Rebecca, but I enjoyed the lessons – and Rebecca’s company – a great deal. Each hour began with a physical warm up that reminded me of the sorts of self-conscious drama lessons I didn’t relish as a teenager, followed by exercises aimed at helping me visualise the rises and falls in my voice – like a sine wave – as I attacked the first consonants of words, and then formed them into sentences with the appropriate cadences and uncertain hesitations that typify societal expectations of women’s speech. After six classes, though, I never progressed further than the initial M sounds of words and a recitation of ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, although the blame for my sense of being permanently stuck in ‘lesson one’ can in no way be attributed to Rebecca.)

It is staggering to think that, considering the relatively high exposure transgender people receive in fiction and the popular media, Rebecca Root is the first transgender actor to be cast in this way. Not even the great ‘Coronation Street’ (which can, in all sincerity, claim to be the only truly feminist soap opera on British television) had the courage to cast a transgender actor when it introduced the first mainstream transgender character ever – Hayley Cropper, née Patterson – in 1998. In November this year, Focus Features will release ‘The Danish Girl’: the story of Lili Elbe, who became a transgender pioneer by undergoing, in 1930, one of the first surgical procedures of sex-reassignment. Transsexualism was a nascent science at this time, and the surgery was both experimental and dangerous. I hope I’m not spoiling the ending of the film by pausing to note that it is likely that the fourth operation Lili underwent – which sought to create a vagina – led to her death at the age of 48. The film is also the story of Lili’s relationship with her Danish wife, the painter Gerde Gottlieb, and, whilst I’m sure their relationship was far more complex – and will generate a great deal more drama – than the one portrayed between Leo and Judy in ‘Boy Meets Girl’, it seems distasteful that the role of Lili should have been given to Oscar-darling Eddie Redmayne, rather than to a transgender actor.

The reasons for Redmayne’s casting in the role of Lili Elbe are, depressingly, as obvious as they are frustrating. Redmayne’s name on the poster guarantees the film a great deal of exposure; without him, the studio would probably never have stumped up the cash to get the film made in the first place; and his presence, crucially, pretty much ensures that ‘The Danish Girl’ will make a tidy profit for its financial backers. Redmayne isn’t the first dashing, young, attractive, heterosexual, middle-of-the-road non-transgender actor to play a transgender character, of course. This list of mainstream movies featuring (or headlined by) a transgender character who was played by a cisgender actor is quite a long one. To name but three: Jared Leto was handed an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon in ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ (2013); Gael García Bernal played transgender actor Ángel in 2004’s ‘La Mala Educación’; and Hilary Swank landed the role of transman Brandon Teena in 1999’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.

More unsavoury still are the decisions to cast women as male-to-female transsexuals. ABC’s comedy series ‘Ugly Betty’, which ran from 2006-10, starred Rebecca Romjin as fashion magazine editor Daniel Meade’s transsexual sister, Alexis; Felicity Huffman’s preparation for 2005’s ‘TransAmerica’ included coaching in how to look and sound more masculine; and – spoiler alert – the villain played by Sean Young in the postmodern satirical masterpiece ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ (1994) is revealed in the film’s denouement to be a transgender woman.

There are two possible reasons for these lazy and cowardly casting decisions, and neither of them are particularly pleasant. The first is that film and television producers assume that audiences find transgender characters who cannot be deemed sexy in any conventional sense unpalatable. The second is that the principal motive for the production of any of these movies is the generation of profit, and putting a familiar face in the transgender role (whatever that actor’s personal gender history) is a way for film and television studios to hedge their bets because they know that devotees of a particular performer will purchase cinema tickets or buy the DVD for whatever they’re in. And if financial gain is the real reason these movies get made (rather than, as was surely especially true in the case of ‘Ace Ventura’, because someone at the studio believes that these are important stories that need to be told), then the whole notion, concept, culture and community of transgenderism is being exploited. Storytelling, raising public awareness, or whatever noble aims they ascribe themselves for this exploitation, are not the producers’ priorities when they commission any film containing transgender characters or exploring transgender themes: their goals are nothing more elevated than getting bums on seats and putting cash in the bank.

Western popular culture has (almost) moved on from the exploitation of ethnic groups for cheap laughs, and the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles is now something we look back on with a mixture of shame and bemused embarrassment. ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ last appeared on British television in 1978 (although its official live tour endured, jaw-droppingly, until as late as 1987). It is testimony to changes in attitudes that it is now unthinkable for an actor to black-up to play Othello (as Lawrence Olivier did in 1965, when the National Theatre’s version of the play was committed to celluloid), and we are able to recognise Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr Yunioshi in 1961’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ as the film-wrecking anathema that it is.

Mickey Rooney: a subtle and nuanced portrait of the condition of the Japanese expat living in post-war New York
Mickey Rooney: a subtle and nuanced portrait of the condition of the Japanese expat living in post-war New York

Whilst attitudes towards cross-racial casting may have improved considerably over the last two decades (by which I am not referring to the whitewashing of characters so that a Korean American, for example, becomes a blonde European, or a Muslim character is rewritten as black), the propensity for Hollywood to cast cisgender actors in transgender roles remains the norm rather than the exception. The same appears to be true in the casting of disabled characters. Eddie Redmayne (him again) won the 2015 Oscar for best actor for his impersonation of cosmologist and brainbox Stephen Hawking, whilst Daniel Day Lewis was similarly lauded for his portrayal of writer and artist Christy Brown in 1989’s ‘My Left Foot’. I had always been a grudging fan of the Fox Network show ‘Glee’ (2009-15): something about the achievement of solidarity and shared understanding by a group of high-school misfits through the power of song appealed to me, until I found out that the character of Artie Abrams – a cipher used to explore issues relating to paraplegia – was played by an actor perfectly capable of springing out of his wheelchair and moonwalking to cover versions of Michael Jackson hits. That actor Kevin McHale wasn’t in the least bit disabled was a casting stroke of such dishonesty that it undermined the sole redeeming message of ‘Glee’: that it is okay to be different (as long as you’re only pretending to be).

A man would never play the role of a biological woman in a Hollywood movie; a woman would never play a biological male; a white actor would balk at the idea of painting their face to portray a black character; and the days are gone when any self-respecting Equity member would sellotape down their eyelids to take on a Korean, Chinese or Japanese role. With these simple truths in mind, why is it still considered acceptable for an able-bodied actor to be cast as someone with motor-neurone disease or cerebral palsy? And why, for that matter, are we not outraged when cisgender actors play transgender roles? Because no-one else could play them? That would be a lie.

I can only think of one possible reason why casting directors aren’t brave enough to dip into the transgender and disability talent-pool when the right part comes along, and it is founded on the erroneous assumption that, unlike ethnicity (which is something you’re born with and cannot change), disability, sexuality or gender identity is something you acquire, choose, or – with a great deal of effort and the right treatment – can reverse. With this logic, it remains a norm of popular culture that it is okay to patronise certain groups in our society by hijacking their right to tell their own story, and to make money whilst doing so. For this reason, the casting of Rebecca Root – and the optimistic agenda of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ – do represent a significant milestone in the way the makeup of society is represented in film and television. However: until all trans-characters are played by transgender actors, the story being told about the transgender experience can never be the whole story.