BBC three and Transphobia – Round we go again

About a year ago the BBC messed up with “Russel Howard’s Good News” (see here for more info). Now it’s the turn of “Snog Marry Avoid?”.

This programme is hardly a bastion of good taste but in the past I have quite enjoyed it. I have a strange fascination with totally overdone looks – enormous fake eyelashes, tiny glittery outfits, big hair, all that (the complete opposite of how I present myself, incidentally). There are some problems with the programme which I won’t go into now, but when I heard that it had been transphobic I had to check it out. I haven’t watched since a new presenter took over, although POD (the Personal Overhall Device – a fictional “make under” computer which analyses participants looks and changes their outfits, hair and make-up) is still there and still voiced by the same person.

So I took some time out of my revision schedule to check out the episode (on iPlayer here). The offending comment is at 25 mins 30 seconds (approx). Someone on Facebook kindly transcribed it:

POD – Who are you?
SMA Contestant – I’m Rachel.
POD – Are you sure it’s not Richard?
SMA Contestant – Why?
POD – Pod computes that with those eyebrows, eyelashes and ridiculously big hair, you look like a transexual.

All said in POD’s usual condescending and disparaging tone. I will admit that there is a lot that’s problematic with this programme, not just this particular exchange, so perhaps I should have lower expectations. Regardless, the derogatory use of transexual in this context is inexcusable. I can’t imagine the BBC allowing a similar exchange based around a woman looking like a lesbian.

I complained, dutifully (the complaints form is here if you’re interested). I know some people object to people going out of their way to find things to complain about (or even complaining about things they haven’t even watched) but I think it is legitimate to investigate whether a broadcaster has made a mistake and do something about it. Here is my complaint in full:

I was really shocked by what I heard on Snog Marry Avoid?. I have previously enjoyed the show as a bit of fun, but POD’s words were like a blow to the head. It is totally unacceptable to use transphobic slurs ever, not least in the name of entertainment.

Number one – to remark in a way that is meant to be negative that someone looks like a trans woman is outright transphobia – would the BBC air an episode where POD said in a negative way that someone looked like a lesbian? I certainly hope not, but I also doubt it. This is no different, because transgender people suffer from discrimination and abuse, partly due to the media coming out with “gems” like this.

Number two – were the woman to have been trans, her name would likely not have been “Richard” anyway, since Richard is typically a name for male people and trans women are female, so would almost certainly not have a name like Richard.

Perhaps the term POD, or the scriptwriter, was looking for was “drag queen” – female impersonation is completely different from being transgender (transgender is an umbrella term which includes transsexual). This is not a complicated distinction and I would hope that at least one person involved in the making of this programme could realise this.

Thank you for your time. I hope you can improve standards in the programmes you air in future.

It was written in a bit of a rush and I’m concerned that I’ve said something problematic. Feedback appreciated, as ever. But I think it makes the main point clearly enough.

I got a very quick response from the BBC as follows:

Thanks for contacting us regarding BBC Three’s ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ recently.

We understand you were unhappy POD suggested that a participant in a recent broadcast looked like a transsexual.

This was meant as a light-hearted comment and was typical of POD, which we hope viewers will be familiar with, but we’re sorry for any offence caused.

Please be assured that your concerns have been raised with the production team who will bear this in mind for future editions of the programme.

We’ve also registered your comments on our audience log made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

It’s good to know that it’s ok to be bigotted and prejudiced as long as it’s “light hearted”. I don’t think I’m quite being ignored though, which is something. It’s interesting that all BBC staff can see complaints (your personal details get removed according to the website) and I wonder whether that will raise any comments internally.

I’m not sure where to go from here, whether to push over the “light-heartedness” of the comment. I’ve got a reference number for contacting them again if needs be. Really I should be focusing on my exams, so I might give it a few days to work out where to go next. However I definitely encourage anyone who’s willing to watch a bit of junk TV to watch the episode and complain.

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19 responses to “BBC three and Transphobia – Round we go again

    • Here is my complaint to Ofcom:

      During the programme (approximately 25 minutes in) the presenter POD said that a young women looked like a “transsexual” in a clearly derogatory fashion. It is unacceptable to use transsexual (or transgender) as an insult. Trans (transsexual and/or transgender) people suffer discrimination and abuse at a much higher rate than many other marginalised groups in this country – it should be the place of major broadcasters, particularly the state-funded BBC, to set a higher standard and to treat vulnerable people with respect and dignity.

      I have already complained to the BBC but received a very weak response, saying that it was meant as a “light-hearted comment”. It is not acceptable for the television station to endorse transphobia with these attitudes, however “light-heartedly”.

      This is about more than personal offence – this is about a vulnerable group of people who face widespread street harassment, discrimination and abuse, at least in part reinforced and perpetuated by stereotypes and derogatory language employed by various parts of the media. Transgender people (including transsexual people) should have a recognised right to dignity, but this right is undermined by the broadcast of comments like these. I urge you to make the BBC take complaints on this and similar issues more seriously.

  1. You could take it to Ofcom – or Ed Richards, the Chief Executive of Ofcom, which I did when Sky planned to launch its Picnic service on digital terrestrial television. There is also the BBC Trust, Points of View, your MP or contact either the Daily Mail or the Murdoch newspapers – they detest the BBC and would run any story about this issue to turn it into a call to axe BBC Three. I however, would protest furiously against any attempt to remove young adult public service broadcasting from the airwaves.

    I am also aware that BBC Three has had complaints over the years for several shows including Russell Howard’s Good News, also on the grounds of transphobia.

  2. I was a bit taken aback too! I have left the following complaint:

    I was very unhappy with the use of the term ‘transexual’ in a recent episode of ‘Song Marry Avoid?’. In the programme, the term was used as an insult, which I find to be transphobic. People in the transgender community currently receive much derision in society. By using the term ‘transexual’ as an insult, you are perpetuating the negatively, by implying it is a ‘bag thing’ for a woman to appear to be a transexual. I am aware the comment was meant light-heartedly, but a minority gender identity should not be considered an insult! Come on BBC, you’re better than this!

    • Great stuff! It looks like quite a few people have complained now, including Patrick Strudwick (a gay journalist who’s done a lot of work on uncovering “gay cure” therapists). Fingers crossed something good will come of this.

  3. Just complained to, expecting my lame reply anytime soon!

    While watching the last episode of Snog Marry Avoid POD said the following to one of it’s female subjects. ‘Pod computes that with those eyebrows, eyelashes and ridiculously big hair, you look like a transsexual.’ This is intentional derogatory use of the word Transsexual, stereotyping Trans women as ridiculous, over the top parody’s. It perpetuates a myth that Transsexual women are to be mocked, and too look like one (what does one look like anyway?) is the greatest insult. Transphobia is a huge problem BECAUSE of the Media’s inaccurate and sensationalised portray of trans people. Do diversity laws & the updated equality act not apply to BBCTHREE? I imagine you’ll send my a reply defending this as ‘just a bit of fun’. Replace the word Transsexual with ‘Lesbian’, ‘Black’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Homosexual’. Still ‘fun’? I will also be writing a letter to OFcom and will be asking friends and family offended by this to do the same. I look forward to your reply

  4. Pingback: Snog, Marry, AVOID |

  5. I can see why people are upset about the comment, but if I’m honest I think they meant it to be comparing her to one of the big flamboyant drag queens, because of her huge hair and make up. But yeah, they screwed up by saying ‘transexual’.

  6. As a transexual myself you would believe i’d be offended greatly by this but I thought it was an acceptable way to say that she was looking a little like a man when she was trying to look feminim

    • I have a hard time accepting that telling someone they look like a transgender woman is an acceptable way of saying they look like a man – hence implicitly misgendering all trans women.

  7. I am likely to come across as somewhat of a pessimist here, or defeatist, but I left the transgender, and lgb “scenes” behind a long time ago, in favour of living a life without mainstream social influence. I don’t think the lives of transsexuals can ever be improved by TV or Internet representations, as people who are influenced by TV and social conditioning will always have their inherent prejudices or tendencies towards flippancy.

    I have watched a few of these so called “documentaries” on transgender individuals and they have made me cringe, in part due to recalling the mindset I was in when I was desperate and vulnerable enough to allow myself to be filmed and prodded on my self beliefs like that, but also because of the way in which the majority of these transgender individuals feel they need to conform to a stereotype to “fit in” and be accepted. And then there are those who can’t stop playing the victim, constantly making their self-perceived hardship a competitive weapon, to make sure that others know they have had a harder time in life.

    To think too much about what you are and not who you are, confirms that you have doubt or insecurity and this lack of self belief and the seeking of acceptance from people you don’t know, who wish not to know you, but have a curiosity about your physical condition, which they find bizarre, is allowing yourself to be controlled by your emotional attachment to society, rather than living life to the fullest.

    I guess what I am trying to get at here is; yes, the comments of people on TV or out and about can be hurtful, but the people that are negatively influenced by this are those who already have prejudicial opinions on transgenderism. Those with an open mind may chuckle, but, from personal experience, if they meet you, and you are a strong, self-confident individual, they will accept you for who you are and disregard the physical.

    Transphobia, like other sexism, homophobia and religious or social prejudices is, unfortunately, here to stay. You can’t silence the free speech of those that voice their prejudices without silencing free speech as a whole and the right to speak our minds is something we should hold very dear. We should, however, be thankful that the instances of this sort of phobic comment are rare enough for us to be able to pick them out from the plethora of rubbish on the television and discuss them!

    Hope I haven’t ranted too much and thank you for your blog post 🙂

    Jenn

    • I get your point but I don’t completely agree. I feel that sympathetic television portrayals of gay people has done an awful lot in helping normalise them, and in turn make it easier for gay people to come out. Unfortunately I can’t present any data to support that!

      Further I think that the BBC, with its central role in our society, should be held to a higher standard. If it can’t actively help combat transphobia, the least it can do is not propagate it. In this instance, it’s not so much about freedom of speech as poorly chosen words by a scriptwriter.

      Finally, while there may always be pockets and scatterings of prejudice and discrimination, we can reduce them. We already have. Campaigning, education, visibility and legislation have worked to bring us civil partnerships, and hopefully before long equal marriage, plus recognition of hate crimes and anti-discrimination laws.

      • I understand that the media “can” have a positive role, but that is not to say that it should have any role at all and I don’t necessarily believe that the people that have been positively influenced by such broadcasts are those who would otherwise have transphobic views.

        It’s a sad world we live in where people base their views on what they see on television; having been on the other end of the camera, I know precisely how manipulative these programs are intended to be (for better or worse) and the fact that television is such a “must have” for so many people saddens me always. I go to friend’s houses and the TV is on constantly, as if they cannot live without it and some people actually state that they could not, as if the real world is a fabrication and all that we have to understand each other is a scripted moving picture box that tells us how to think, what to eat, how to act and who to like.

        It would be an ideal world where everyone was accepted, whatever their choices, condition or gender and I share your optimism for a better future. I do not necessarily agree that the comments on this show were a bad thing though, as they have themselves caused discussion on the subject, not just here but in other circles also and that in turn will create more understanding. In a way, if we silence ignorance, we may perpetuate it.

      • That’s an interesting point. However I don’t think the point is so much to silence ignorance as to replace it with knowledge. I don’t want trans people to be invisible and never mentioned in the media, I want to see trans people represented on each person’s own merits.

  8. I have to disagree with what you are saying, IMO as a lesbian woman, i am not offended if some uses the phrase ‘ she dresses like a lesbian’ to someone who dresses quite manly.
    I am a very feminine lesbian but I think this is a bit far fetched as being classed as homophobia or transphobia.

  9. Juliette Bradbury

    As a transgender woman myself I have a concern that being over sensitive about these sort of issues could be counter- productive. Whilst not directed at anyone here I would make the comment that Ayotollahs of the shining path transexual and control freaks with a direct line to the truth don’t help our cause one bit. Juli xxx

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