BBC’s Trans Documentary ‘Swansea Sparkle’ Gets Things So Wrong

Swansea Sparkle - A Transgender Story

Before I get into this in depth I want to make a couple of things very clear from the outset, firstly, this is my opinion and only reflects the view I myself had on the programme.  Secondly, any of the issues I have with the documentary are with the people who produced it, not towards the people who took part.

Last night the BBC aired a new documentary focusing on the trans community in Wales, specifically on three individuals in the lead up to a trans event called Swansea Sparkle, from which the show gets it’s name.

Now, it should be noted straight away that the show did do one thing that most documentaries on the trans community do not, it included someone who identifies as a transvestite.  It’s important to remember that the trans umbrella covers many different types of people, including transgender, gender fluid, transvestite, non-binary and transsexual people to name but a few.  Including people from more than one of these categories is a good thing, however, what ‘Swansea Sparkle – A Transgender Story’ fails to do is to explain what a transvestite is, and how they differ from someone who is transgender.

For someone who is a part of the transgender community I understand these differences, I know how a transvestite and someone who’s transgender differ.  The general public probably don’t though.  Without explaining these differences it can become quite muddy to the general population who don’t have any experience with the trans community and it could leave them with the wrong ideas.

Paul, who is the founder of a local support group for members of the trans community as well as being the person behind the Swansea Sparkle event, makes it clear during the course of the film that he still considers himself male, but dresses in women’s clothing and goes by the name Sadie when cross-dressing.  Without him, or the shows narrator, explaining that a transvestite is someone who wears the clothes of the opposite gender but does not wish to transition it could lead to audiences into believing that all people who are trans are like this.

Some of this confusion will be expanded upon when the documentary introduces us to Rhian.  Rhian is transgender.  The narrator tells us this, Rhian tells us this.  Yet every single time she is spoken about by the filmmakers she is called Robert, and referred to using male pronouns.

The BBC even misgender Rhian on their promo material.

The BBC even misgender Rhian on their promo material.

If someone is transgender, if they are open about the fact that they are transitioning then it’s vitally important that they be called by their real name and pronouns, not the ones they were assigned at birth.  The show does not do this though, instead they misgender and dead-name her throughout, even though she, and the people in her life, use the correct name.

It doesn’t matter if she’s close to the beginning of her transition, it doesn’t matter if she’s still coming out to people, it doesn’t matter if she’s still learning how to do makeup, it doesn’t matter than her voice is deep or masculine.  She is a woman and she should be given the basic respect of being treated as such.

When the documentary fails to do this, repeatedly, it not only disrespects Rhian, but also reinforces the notion that transgender women are men.  If the show has just introduced us to a transgender woman, but refuses to call her a woman or use her name then why should anyone else who’s watching this,

This is further expanded upon when the narrator uses language like ‘men who want to transition fully to women’, ‘him becoming a woman’ of ‘dressed as a girl’ when talking about trans women.  Surely anyone watching this who isn’t educated on the subject will be thinking that trans women are ‘really men’ because that’s how they’re referred to, and a ‘documentary must be right because it’s factual’.

A prime example of some of the sentiment poor programmes like this can promote

A prime example of some of the sentiment poor programmes like this can promote

A lot of people take television at it’s word, especially if it’s a news or documentary programme, and just like the tweet above people will take what they’re being told and repeat that.  And this documentary is telling people that trans women are men in dresses, that they should be called he and him and called by names that are not theirs.

If the BBC are going to produce a documentary on transgender people then they need to take responsibility to make sure that they educate those watching it on the subject.  When they are exploring people from different parts of the trans spectrum they need to make sure that the people watching it understand how a transvestite differs from someone who is transgender.  This show does neither, it doesn’t educate at all.

‘Swansea Sparkle – A Transgender Story’ shows a snapshot in time from the lives of three trans people without giving any background or perspective or explanation.  For someone in the trans community who’s watching this isn’t an issue, we know about the trans community, we already have a lot of that info.  For someone who isn’t a part of the trans community, who’s suddenly dropped into the middle of these people’s lives it’s like expecting someone from the 18th century to understand a documentary on the Internet.  They might understand some notions, but without the education to go alongside it, it’ll be alien, and the wrong conclusions may be reached.

Misinformation about the trans community can greatly affect people within that community.

Misinformation about the trans community can greatly affect people within that community.

As well as misgendering those involved in the documentary and seeming unable to even find any basic information about the trans community to share with the audience it would seem like the people who made the show got the ‘trans documentary checklist’.

We get treated to so many tropes within just 40 minutes that if you were playing the trans documentary drinking game you’d struggle to make it to the 20 minute part, even hardened drinkers.  We get treated to shots of makeup and nail polish, oh god there are so many shots of makeup in this one piece that they can fill the BBC stock footage archive for years!  We get our participants putting on makeup.  We get them putting on their clothes.  We get shots of wigs and fake breasts.  We get pre-transition photos and discussions about family.  We get sad parents who are upset about having a trans kid (more on that in a bit).  We even have the use of the word tranny.

It’s not bothering to try and educate people or give a true and fair representation of the trans community, but instead seems to be trying to produce yet another programme that ticks every trope box, no matter how disgusting or harmful it can be.

One of the ones that I’ve seen way, way too often that this show uses is the inclusion of the parent of a trans teen who feels like their lives will in some way be made worse because their child is trans.  Yes, Llyr’s father seems to be supportive of his daughter, but the fact that he turns around and expresses the fear that he could be mocked or ridiculed because of his daughter is disgusting.

Transgender children are the ones suffering, they’re the ones having to struggle through being trans.  Their parents discomfort that some of their friends might look down on them or mock them is literally the last thing that should be a worry when it comes to transgender teens.  But, this show says forget about the bullying, forget about the harassment, forget about the mental anguish they go through, forget about everything but the disappointment and pain the parent go through.

But then the documentary doesn’t seem to be concerned with telling stories that help trans people or to treat us with respect, so of course they’re going to be more concerned with the way a trans child will hurt the poor cis parents.

Another thing that the show included that really, really angered me was the inclusion of one of Rhian’s friends laughing as they played the song ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’.  Now, this is mostly personal for me as I’ve literally had someone stop their car in the middle of the street, wind down the window and shout that song at me.  However, showing friends of trans people mocking trans people shouldn’t be done in a television programme.

Yes, it might happen behind closed doors, and it might be friendly banter that those people don’t mind (we’ve all been in those kind of friendships where friends joke around with each other like that) but including it in a documentary could end up telling the public that it’s okay to openly mock trans people because their friends do it.

There is so much wrong with this show for me to be able to go into fully in this article, I spent most of my time watching it shaking my head and groaning in frustration.

There are some real people in this documentary with real stories that are worth telling, but the people who made this awful programme ignored that.  They ignored any information about the trans community.  They ignored their responsibility to educate and inform.  Instead they made yet another documentary that mocks trans people, that perpetuates wrongful stereotypes and puts getting ratings above anything else.

I feel bad for Paul, Rhian, Llyr and the other trans people involved in this show.  They went into this trying to tell a good story, trying to make things better for the trans community and to spread a positive message.  Instead they’ve been dragged into yet another trans-exploitation piece, one that mocks them, one that could even get them the hate of fellow members of the trans community.

Please don't lash out at fellow members of the trans community

Please don’t lash out at fellow members of the trans community

I’d like to ask anyone who has watched this show and is left feeling angry and disappointed to remember that it’s not the fault of those who took part, but the people who made the film that are to blame.  Complain to the BBC, spread the message that the show was incorrect, but please don’t take it out on those brave enough and kind enough to share their stories with the rest of the world.

After the poor Miss Transgender UK documentary and now this, the BBC has proven that it has a long way to go to produce content about the trans community that can actually benefit people, rather than being for sensationalism and ratings.



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Amy is a journalist and editor contributing the websites Planet Transgender, Gay News Network, The Bottle Episode, The Retro Box and Claire Channel. Amy is also a published comic book writer and letterer.

In addition to her writing Amy has also worked with the Centre For Hate Crime Studies in Leicester and has worked in the capacity of an advisor to the United Nations Entity For Gender Equality and The Empowerment of Women.

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