The India Effect: (what Celebrity Big Brother can teach us about gender politics.)
It is mid January, which for me always means a great pile of newly acquired books: this year both fiction and non-fiction, plus one book of poetry, all waiting to be read with lovely, unbroken spines. So naturally, I have been spending my evenings watching Celebrity Big Brother. I like trash telly.
Firstly, I am always struck when watching these things by how poorly adjusted and generally bad at handling conflict most humans are, which makes me feel vastly better about my own inadequacies so thank you very much Channel 5. This season has seen the phenomenon turned up to eleven however, and me riveted to all and any interaction between India Willoughby, a news presenter, journalist, and trans woman, and the various other housemates. Now I do realise, yes, that trans women are not a monolith, and I don’t doubt there are many in the trans community have been watching Willoughby alienate as many viewers and potential allies as possible from between their fingers, just wishing she wouldn’t. But still, she has, and the uncomfortable truth is that in her behaviour, I can recognise instantly a near perfect microcosm of some of the larger trans activism I have been observing over recent times.
For seven days I have remained glued as a group of adult women, all trying their camera ready best to be as respectful and supportive as possible, attempt to deal with a sulking, bullying, manipulative, and aggressive Willoughby, as she in her turn contrives to continually centre herself and her needs in all things, and ensure others feel obliged to do the same. Even in a mixed sex environment, she has remained at the epicentre of all house conflict, showing next to no interest in the feelings and needs of others, and managing to maintain a steady narrative of victimhood, even as her peers dance desperate attendance in their varied attempts to appease her. One can feel a bit dirty considering this entertainment, but there is empathy too. Willoughby comes across as almost pathologically self absorbed, but at the same time so abjectly miserable, that a want to help ease her distress is only natural. It is in this response to Willoughby, and its fascinating parallels in the way wider society (and in particular women) have responded to the huge and sudden rise of trans ideology, that I am most interested.
For those sensible enough to give a wide berth, I offer an example of an incident occurring with all the women together in the kitchen. The chat is easy, amicable. Willoughby then enters the room, at which they all immediately stop what they are doing and stand alert, looking nervous. Upset and angry at having been misgendered by Amanda Barrie, an actor in her eighties, and having already refused to accept Barrie’s multiple apologies, Willoughby straight away adopts a combative stance, squaring her shoulders and jabbing at the air with a pointed finger: “I am the transgender person here,” she says, “and I am annoyed.” Nobody at first speaks a word, except eventually Barrie, whose one turn at speaking up for herself prompts an immediate accusation of aggression. At this Barrie stands down as others then scurry to try to placate Willoughby and diffuse the situation. The women lower their voices and make soothing noises: of course, they can completely understand why she’s upset. But this appears only to infuriate Willoughby further, who responds by becoming louder and yet more intimidating, air jabbing hard in Barrie’s direction and shouting right at her: “I AM A REAL WOMAN OK? I’M GLAD THAT’S SINKING IN. I’M GOING TO SAY IT ONE MORE TIME SO IT REALLY PENETRATES — I. AM. A. REAL. WOMAN!!” By which point Barrie looks genuinely alarmed. “Yes darling,” she says, far too quickly, her voice pitching at a high octave. Others nod vigorous affirmation: “Of course you are and I totally respect that.” Yet still Willoughby is not satisfied, and still she continues on the offence. As a last, rather desperate grasp, it is suggested that perhaps not talking about it at all might help to make it less of an issue? This is clearly the final straw, and a furious Willoughby storms from the room.
In another example we see one of the men in the group, Andrew Brady, dress up as a drag queen with a glitter beard, and in the midst of all the laughter and admiration of his outfit, Willoughby dissolving into tears. Brady, clearly concerned, responds by removing the clothes and make up, and listening thoughtfully as Willoughby explains how upsetting it is for her as a trans woman to see a man dressed in women’s clothes being laughed at. In his turn, Brady tries then to articulate how his wish had simply been to show himself a heterosexual man secure enough in his masculinity to be able to enjoy dressing up in such a feminine and public way. Willoughby, however, won’t let him finish. Cutting him off mid-sentence, she dismisses him with a wave of her hand. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” she says, before going on to express her view that the male housemates do not regard her as a woman. While great pains are taken by the men to offer hugs and effusive reassurances that they do indeed and always have, an exasperated Brady is soon after filmed walking into the garden alone, where the cameras show him describing Willoughby as a “fucking prick” and a “dickhead.”
Lastly, we have the now notorious exchange in which Willoughby asks male R+B singer, Genuwine, whether he would ever date a trans woman, to which he replies — perfectly reasonably — that he would choose not to. Rather than this clearly stated boundary signalling the end of the conversation however, Willoughby seizes on the opportunity to make the case that if he is happy to date other women, and he accepts that she’s a woman, he has no reason not to date her. And with that, she makes to reach her arms around his neck and kiss him. When he laughingly recoils, Willoughby’s response is to turn to other housemates with palms to the sky and an injured expression. See, it says? What I am forced to endure?
On Friday night India Willoughby became the first contestant to leave the Big Brother house, and I don’t doubt for a minute her fellow contestants all breathed a large sigh of relief. Nobody likes eggshells between their toes. As a viewer I also breathed a sigh of relief. It is painful to watch a fellow human engage in such blatant self sabotage, continually projecting their own lack of self acceptance onto others. Rejection as self fulfilling prophecy is not my idea of a good time.
But considering we are now at a point in our history at which many are pushing for an ill defined concept of gender identity to replace sex as both a protected characteristic, and the way in which we categorise others as either male or female, I believe it is worth exploring how responses to India Willoughby in the Big Brother house might reflect wider societal attitudes. For as Willoughby pointed an accusatory finger at Amanda Barrie and shouted that she is a real woman, so too do transactivists and their supporters point fingers at the masses, shouting that there can be no debate; that trans women are women, and if we do not align with this new idea we can consider ourselves terrible people, dicing on the wrong side of history. To which the general response can be summed up neatly as, ‘Yes darling! Of course you are and I totally respect that.’
The problem is that while you can perhaps legislate for speech and expression, you cannot legislate for conviction. In other words, you might be able to force people to say a certain thing, but you cannot force them to truly believe it. The contestants in the Big Brother house felt bound by enough social pressure to express a belief in Willoughby as female, (as I too feel bound by enough social pressure to concede, as a matter of courtesy, female pronouns to an individual I do not, in fact, believe to be female,) but their true feelings leaked fast out of every interaction they shared. Crucially, it was in this gap between expression and belief that so much of India’s distress seemed to lie.
It is a fact that no natal woman has ever felt the need to approach another, and shout at her that she is a real woman. And in return, no natal woman has ever felt the need to say to another, of course you are and I totally respect that. Such an exchange serves only to reveal that neither party wholly believes what they are saying. And so here lies the crux: trans women know they are not women in any concrete, material sense, which is what has given rise to all the various mental gymnastics regarding sexed brains and souls trumping the bare facts of ones reproductive system. In an attempt to relieve distress and provide a theoretical framework for validation, the truth must necessarily be bent, squeezed, and hammered square into a round hole. But the actual truth of our physical selves does not require endless validation. As a biological woman of average height and blue eyes, I’ve no need to harangue, manipulate, or bully others into confirming my femaleness, or the fact that I am 5'4" tall, because these facts are self evident. I’ve no need to develop mind bending theories around height or eye colour, and insist that others subscribe to them under threat of being made a social pariah, because I am secure in the knowledge of what is real and true about myself. Nobody has ever once felt the need to say to me, “I believe you have blue eyes and I respect that,” because in the face of an obvious truth, this would be a ridiculous thing to say.
The root of Willoughby’s rage, and that of the trans activists demanding ever more outrageous expressions of validation, lies here. When we are asked to go along with such blatantly false claims as trans women have periods and can get pregnant, it is because any previous acknowledgement that trans women are women simply wasn’t enough to fill the void created by that undercurrent of self doubt. Trans women know exactly what the majority of women (and some men too) are doing: placating, humouring, pitying, and playing along, either due to a belief that it is no skin off their nose, or out of fear, and a self serving need to be seen as right and good. The behaviour of the Celebrity Big Brother contestants is being writ large across the country, as is India’s response. Understand that it will never be enough to state that trans women are women. Instead we must change everything: our language, our social behaviour, and even our inborn sexualities.
The danger of course, as perfectly demonstrated by the conflict in the Big Brother house, is that this level of pretence corrupts human relationships and ultimately causes more distress than it relieves. We cannot get along while lying to each other on such a fundamental level, and legislation that forces us to do so paves the way for more problems than it solves. There is no respect inherent in dishonesty and — more importantly — absolutely nothing at all wrong with the truth: that trans women are trans women; distinct from natal women by virtue of their biology, but entitled to live as they wish, worthy of the same rights, respect, and representation as anyone, simply by virtue of being human beings. There is nothing wrong with embracing the reality of being trans.
What is wrong though (and not only wrong, but a doomed and deeply flawed strategy) is to force people — either by law or social coercion — into pretending to believe something they do not, in the hope that they will eventually come to accept it. That way lies anger, resentment, and almighty, explosive backlash. There is space in this world for everybody, but living successfully with others requires generosity, open discussion, compassion, and honesty.
My money’s on Courtney.