When I told one of my flatmates I was writing about Will Young today, her response was ‘Will Young’s still alive?’ A little harsh, I thought, but then that’s showbiz – I’m old enough to remember when Will Young first won Pop Idol back in 2002, and in pop terms that’s like eleventy-hundred years ago now. So it isn’t hugely surprising that Young has reached that difficult age at which a thirty-something pop star’s fancy turns to thoughts of staying relevant. It’s just a shame that he decided the way to do this was by using a trans man as a prop, the way Sting did with his rainforest pal, Reoni Metuktire, back in the ‘90s (see? I told you I was old).
By now readers will have probably seen the story – initially shared as an ‘exclusive’ on the Independent newspaper’s website because Will Young is of course A Serious Artist – that the man who once came second to Gareth Gates in the nation’s affections has released a video featuring a real life transgender man walking naked through the streets of London. That’s a quote, by the way, that last bit. The Independent, a serious quality newspaper, used the phrase ‘a real life transgender man’. Roll up! Roll up! Prepare to be astonished at the sight of the real life transgender man!
Still, at least the Indie got the dude’s gender in there. Cutting-edge nu-media entertainment content-hub Digital Spy (estab. 1999) went for ‘Will has used the video as a platform to tell the story of a real-life young male-to-female transgender’. Um, ‘transgender’ isn’t a noun, lads. Better overhaul those style guides.
Also, I’m pretty sure the video doesn’t tell the young man’s story, unless he’s in the habit of wandering around the streets naked with a pair of Polaroids glued to his bits, which is mainly what the video consists of. A ‘real-life female-to-male transgender’ (this phrase shows up in a number of different reports, by the way, which strongly suggests this is how it was written on Will Young’s press release. Meditate on that) makes his way through the streets of Brighton, where people point and laugh at him, where he gets assaulted and menaced by groups of cis men and women, and then, eventually, we come to the big reveal of his trans status, which is…
…okay, I’ll give them props for this, they didn’t just finish the video with a great big shot of a vagina. Instead, we find out that those Polaroids glued to the chap’s nethers are in fact…get ready for this…BEFORE PICS! You know, pics of the trans guy when he ‘used to be a girl’! Ah, how us trans folks love a good before pic. Oh hang on, wait, no, I don’t mean love, I mean the other thing. Hate. That one. Yeah.
In fact, it’s as if the video itself has been designed as a sort of one-stop, four and a half minutes long repository of all the things trans people find annoying and, in some cases, triggering. Weird obsession with our genitals as defining who we are? Check. Traumatic images of cis people assaulting and groping us? Check. Freakshow connotations (‘a real-life trans person!’)? Check! Before pictures! Check and mate…as in, mate, mate, Will, mate, what the Hell were you thinking?
Well fortunately we don’t have to wonder what Will Young was thinking because, in the same press release which contains the phrase real-life female-to-male transgender, Will lets us know that:
‘This video isn’t about selling records or my personal benefit. This video is about taking a moment in time to explore a section of society who stand up for themselves. To tell a story and offer a window through music into someone else’s life. I’ve never felt so humbled and proud.’
…all of which would sound a lot more convincing if this video actually presented a more convincing portrait of trans lives, or showed the trans guy in it actually standing up for himself instead of being a passive victim, or if, I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong and I feel bad for even thinking this but maybe, y’know, if the entire point of music videos wasn’t TO SELL RECORDS FOR THE ARTIST’S PERSONAL BENEFIT. Y’know. That.
Because that is what’s happening here. This isn’t about helping trans people, this isn’t about offering cis people a window into our lives, this isn’t about any of that patronising shizzle. This is about Will Young trying to find a way to make himself appear so damn relevant it hurts, and using a trans man’s body to do that. Because in the end, for all his earnestness, Will Young is a creature of marketing, created by the dark arts of Simon Cowell, ever seeking what trend he may devour, and the bandwagon he’s opted to jump on this time out is cis-produced media which purports to do good for trans people while actually shitting on us all for fun and profit. Trans-sell: it’s so hot right now.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.