Sometimes, the most interesting insights on what is happening in our culture come not from worthy, well-thought out social commentary, but from car crash TV – like “Come Dine with Me”.
Eat, drink and be wary
For those unfamiliar with the genre, the concept is pretty simple. Four random individuals are brought together to battle for a £1,000 prize. Over a week, they each prepare a meal for the other three, and then vote according to how well they reckon they’ve been fed.
And its absolutely not about culinary skills. Most people prepare passable nosh, which means the real interest is in the developing relationship between the participants. Sometimes fun, sometimes friendly, it works best, as all such genres, when the guests prove to be quirky – but not entirely weird – and when real feud’s open up between the diners.
One recurrent theme throughout this series is the appearance every so often of a trans guest. Either Home Office estimates and GIRES surveys are woefully wrong, or the UK is just awash with trannies who cook!
All human clichés are there
Yesterday was one such. The characters delivered on to our screens, courtesy of selective soundbite and pointed voice over fitted a number of recognisable stereotypes. On the female side, there’s the sassy, abrasive self-opinionated woman, joined by the bubbly cuddly fun-lover. Then there’s the old buffer, whose role is msotly to charm the first two and peace-make.
And there’s the twonk: in this case, Peter, whose sense of humour mostly consisted of a series of insensitive semi-jokes that alternatively fell flat and pissed off the other guests – espesh the girls.
Now, if any of the above are reading, I’m not accusing any of you of being these stereotypes: rather, these were the roles assigned to you by the producers and into which the filming neatly slotted you.
First two nights were highly predictable: growing tension between the group and Peter, with the question on every viewers’ lips being the obvious: will he get a slap off sassy lady before the evening is out. Elderly gent charmed. Bubbly woman bubbled.
Then a shock. A surprise. On the third day it was Peter’s turn to cook and…his guests arrived to discover, with varying degrees of shock and amusement, that Peter had become Patricia for the evening. As he explained to camera, this wasn’t a wind-up. He dressed once a month or so and it made him feel better.
It wasn’t exactly a success. Patricia indulged many of the clichés that can give cross-dressing a bad name. She was feminine only insofar as highly revealing dress, coquettish manner and sexual innuendo are “feminine”.
Her transformation seemed to exist mostly in the sexual arena, exemplified by manners and behaviour that would in most circs, in most women, be regarded as highly improper.
And yet…the dynamic changed. Old buffer was distinctly uncomfortable. He seemed unable to get his mind away from the idea that this was just some bad taste joke. He was obviously revolted by the physical elements of Patricia’s playfulness and looked and sounded as if he was in intense fear of being suddenly and uncomfortably buggered.
The women…went for it. Sassy lady remarked that she found some of Patricia’s behaviour uncomfortable…but she admired the bravery. Cuddly one confessed to being simultaneously repulsed and yet to having more fun than she was used to.
There was even a setback for the buffer, as his own charm turned sour and he ended up offending the girls.
And Peter/Patricia? Cut past the flirtatiousness and a different, more social, more at home persona seemed to be trying to get out. Oh: so much wrong about the character! But beneath the surface something much, much more appealing than his everyday self.
Which leaves me only to pontificate. I can have no more understanding of Peter’s motivations than any other audience member. But as someone who felt socially gauche, excluded and reduced to sometimes inappropriate wordplay as male (and now “home” and at ease as female) I could identify even with this manifestation of trans.
I felt for Peter, and wondered how much easier life could be for him if he had been shown, early on, what trans can mean. Sure: he might still have opted for socks-down-the-bra flirtiness. Or he might not. Who knows?
Growing acceptance of t’Tranz
Two other takes. The first is a poke in the eye for rad fems. I know, myself, how women mostly enjoy relating to trans. They have fewer probs, whilst it is the blokes…the sophisticated charmers like the one discomfited in this programme…who have issues. And this show reinforced that. In essence, trans is OK with most women…and rad femmery is going to have to be far more convincing to persuade them otherwise.
Last of all is the show itself. You could characterise this sequence as the usual media misrepresentation of trans-ness…but i’d say not. The show provides equal opps put down…and nothing in its deconstruction of Peter/Patricia was any worse than its deconstruction of any other cliché.
Yet its regular inclusion of trans guests helps to normalise the whole. And – whisper it low – sometimes the most normal guest on a show happens to be the trans one!
I’m sure not all will agree…but still, Come Dine with Me could be another front in the war for trans acceptance.