She’s known as an outspoken transgender activist; she once claimed (in a roundabout way) that all white people are racist, and she more than held her own on the subject against an infuriated Piers Morgan. Which is why Munroe Bergdorf’s first UK documentary is likely to defy many people’s expectations.
In What Makes a Woman – part of Channel 4’s Genderquake season – Bergdorf sets out to explore the changing world of gender and identity by way of her own very personal journey, and it often shows her in quiet, intimate and very vulnerable moments.
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We see Bergdorf preparing to undergo her latest surgery, which she hopes will help her “feel more at home in my own skin”. “I’m not going in there with a picture of Beyoncé,” she says, “I’m going in there to look like me”.
Decisions like this are clearly not taken lightly and the footage of the procedure is not for the faint-hearted as a saw is used to smooth down her brow ridges and her lower jaw is moved forward. But the most affecting scenes are Bergdorf’s fear prior to the op, the pain afterwards and her declaration some weeks later that “I finally feel like myself”.
There are more moments of vulnerability when Bergdorf attends a discussion by a feminist group called We Need To Talk. There’s a real sense of menace in the air as transgender people gather outside to protest the meeting of so-called TERFS – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists – who believe trans women are not female but are in fact men threatening to infiltrate women’s space.
Bergdorf is extremely articulate in one to one interviews so it’s a shame she doesn’t feel able to stay and debate them, but it’s also understandable – the atmosphere inside the meeting is heated and she’s surrounded on all sides.
“When we [see] events like this, which directly are designed to deny [transgender women’s] very identities and the fact that we even exist, it’s extremely hurtful and concerning,” she says as she leaves. But she later sits down with one of the organisers, Venice Allan (aka Dr Radfem, just in case you were in any doubt).
They have an interesting debate about female and transgender rights, but it ends tellingly with the good Dr declaring “feminism is about women!” when surely feminism is about equality.
A trip to a fashion show – where designer Rio Uribe uses his Gypsy Sport brand to showcase models who challenge norms – is more celebratory and a chance to consider different expressions of femininity or gender fluidity. It leaves Bergdorf – who admits she has always aspired to a reasonably conformist image of female beauty – wondering “maybe I don’t need to be so rigid”.
And then it’s time for the science part. Investigators conducting a study at a hospital in Germany are currently working with only a relatively small sample of data but already believe it shows that “gender is a spectrum”. Does that mean scans of Bergdorf’s brain will show that she is neurologically male or female? Or is she something else? Either way, “it doesn’t change my own views about my own identity… and in the end brains, like people, are all individual”.
What Makes a Woman provides a valuable grounding in the ins and outs of the transgender debate for those of us who could use it – but it’s also a profile of a intriguing, sensitive, likeable person who is herself still on a journey of discovery.
What Makes a Woman is on tonight, Wednesday 16th May, at 10pm on Channel 4 and available afterwards on All4