In The Guardian 15 Dec 2017 Owen Jones wrote that transgender people face a “relentless media campaign” against them, and are “desperately lacking in influential media allies”:
A Daily Telegraph front page this week was headlined “‘Trans’ survey for 10-year-olds”. The article took issue with the NHS for asking whether children were “comfortable in their gender”. And so we’re back to the 1980s arguments behind Section 28, which barred the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools… Consider these recent headlines.“The transgender zealots are destroying truth itself”, screeched the Mail on Sunday. “The skirt on the drag queen goes swish swish swish”, wailed the Sun, adding “Trans classes for kids age 2” for good measure. “Church: let little boys wear tiaras”, howled the Daily Mail, describing “New advice on transgender bullying for C of E schoolteachers”.
Is the corporate media truly hostile to gender ideology?
What the corporate media actually says
First some reality orientation. Media research has been undertaken by Transgender Trend, in an attempt to account for the soaring number of children being referred to gender reassignment clinics.
We decided to take a section of the media – the UK national daily newspapers – not only to find out the number of articles about ‘transgender kids’ published between April 1 2016 – March 31 2017, but to analyse the content of those articles in order to understand the actual message which the ‘general public’ has been receiving over the twelve-month period….
The researchers identified an “uncontested belief in gender and sex-role stereotypes as evidence that a child is really the opposite sex”, referenced in 22 of the 27 articles on child transitioning. They also found that:
…the caution expressed by clinicians in the articles about gender clinics is not making its way over into other news stories; there is very little note of caution in the child transition stories… It is not, therefore, that editors are unaware of at least some of the risks and questions around diagnosing and treating children as ‘transgender’ but that they choose largely to minimise them and continue to publish cheer-leading child transition stories as if the issue is settled.
Critical articles tended to focus on “political correctness”, particularly involving schools. For example:
The Daily Mail published more articles which were critical or balanced (such as this one) but this was offset by the number of uncritical/celebratory transition stories (such as this). The Sun followed the same pattern, critical of ‘politically correct’ policies in schools (like this) but encouraging of childhood transition (this for example). The Express was also critical of school policies (here) but totally unconcerned about young girls ‘socially transitioning’ at home and school (here).
From this evidence base they conclude:
It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public ‘acceptance and recognition’ of not just ‘transgender and gender diverse people’ but the completely new belief that children are ‘transgender,’ together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity.
In other words the corporate media studied in this research heavily endorsed the core idea of gender ideology: that there is a gender identity in us all, which is defined through sex stereotypes, and which for the great majority of people closely aligns with their birth sex. In other words it naturalises sex-stereotypic appearances, habits, restrictions and behaviour. By implication, discontent with stereotypes now marks you out as part of a small, sharply defined minority. The researchers add:
Celebratory media coverage of ‘trans kids’ has continued unabated since the Tavistock referral figures were announced this time last year, with ‘serious’ publications like Time magazine and the National Geographic getting in on the act with glossy promotional features.
This coincides with the wholesale replacement of “sex” by “gender” now taking place in the language used in government, neoliberal public and private institutions, and of course the media: “gender” having a vaguely radical connotation for a small minority, while for the rest, the great mass of people, it continues to link males to masculinity and females to all things feminine.
There are many forces committed to transgender ideas, such as postmodern academia and various kinds of “gender specialists”, but none of them have even a fraction of the reach of the corporate media. This trend, as a mass, normalised phenomenon, has been brought to us by the capitalist class.
What the bosses do and don’t need from gender ideology
The capitalist class has every reason to champion the core idea of gender ideology. It cherishes the underlying message that females are naturally feminine, naturally nurturers, naturally inferior. What the bosses need is a way to keep the mass of working women from challenging their role as unpaid drudges in the home, unpaid maintainers of today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves, at a time when women have flooded into the workforce and can see every day that they are equal to men. Then there are the added secondary benefits of accepting lower pay, and profits for the cosmetics and fashion industries.
For these reasons the capitalist class has abandoned the old biology-is-destiny notions that XX chromosomes lead directly to lipstick and kitchen aprons. Individual bosses may lament this, but the old ideas simply won’t wash in today’s world. In gender ideology they have a more sophisticated way to preserve female stereotyping.
Centuries of propaganda mean that the old ideas linger in the minds of many ordinary people. Opportunist politicians, notably Trump, sometimes find it convenient to play to this gallery, but this does not reflect the underlying reality within major conservative parties like the US Republicans, where gender ideology is “pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives“.
While the bosses gain from the core ideas of gender ideology, they derive no added benefit from other, unfolding features of trans thinking or the fruits of trans activism, such as censorship and no-platforming, and disputes over woman-only spaces. (As for the actual protection of vulnerable trans individuals from abuse or violence, they couldn’t give a damn.) Even celebrations of child transitioning are only useful insofar as they carry the message that we are all naturally pink or blue inside. The bosses feel no need to support every twist and turn of gender ideology.
There are in fact several reasons why the corporate media might find fault with some aspects of transgender and gender-fluid politics. One is to appease the social conservative section of their audiences, hence the rant by Peter Hitchens in the Sunday Mail that Owen Jones complained of. Another is gender ideology’s entanglement with the Left. And thirdly, elements of this new ideology sit uneasily with the liberal values of some journalists and commentators. These latter two factors will now be discussed.
The attack from the Right
Gender ideology is championed by most progressives and the Left, as previously discussed on this blog. This makes some aspects of gender ideology a target for the tabloids: they hate identity and intersectional politics because it draws attention to many kinds of inequality and suffering inherent to capitalism. They also know that within this this milieu there are far-left activists to keep an eye on. So their coverage reflects the split noted in Transgender Trend’s research: “born-in-wrong-body” good, “political correctness” bad.
The same division has been evident in the Australian media. The Australian, Murdoch’s national flagship, ran a campaign against Safe Schools, an anti-bullying program funded to bring gender ideology into schools, which had some far-Left involvement. At the same time the regionally-based Murdoch papers, with a much larger total circulation, have affirmed gender ideology. A partial exception is the NSW Daily Telegraph, which has combined both approaches. For example it cited Catherine McGregor, “Australia’s most senior ranking transgender military officer” and winner of an Order of Australia award, who initially opposed the Safe Schools program, declaring:
Safe Schools teaches a derivative of Queer Theory, which I believe leads trans people into a blind alley. Most of us transition because gender is important to us and we feel torn between our anatomy and our psychology.
This attack on transgender political correctness has also been joined by more sophisticated right wing outlets like the Spectator and Quillette which have tried, with some success, to win over gender-critical feminists who have been so badly abused by their traditional allies in the Left and in the LGB community.
In Britain there is a further reason to attack gender-related political correctness in the mass media. Jeremy Corbyn’s support for gender ideology has occasionally been used against him as a small part of the corporate media’s campaign to bring Corbyn down by any means possible. His agenda has given hope to millions of ordinary working people, ground down by neoliberal austerity: they are starting to lift their heads, got off their knees: that has to stop. His personal integrity and talent have made him hard to slander so it is a matter of throwing any kind of mud at him and hoping some sticks: antisemitism, transgenderism, whatever works.
The strains on liberalism
Editors, commentators and journalists in the broadcast and print media broadly follow the needs and interests of their corporate overlords, but they do so within a belief-system that they take seriously. There are points of friction between gender ideology and the ideals of liberal democracy, leading to certain challenges from journalists such as Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan in Britain’s Times and Sunday Times.
There is of course a liberal case for gender ideology: defend persecuted groups; it is simply decent to accept transwomen into women’s spaces (trustworthy sources say they pose no threat); give kids freedom to choose their identities.
Liberals do like free speech, though. Yet any attempts to question gender identity are said to be comparable to gay conversion therapy and so deserve to be silenced, and trans-critical women’s liberationists are haters who should be physically threatened and shut down, even when speaking on unrelated issues.
Liberals support women’s spaces to defend women’s safety and dignity, based on a “common-sense” amalgam of right wing ideas that women are naturally and eternally vulnerable and “different” with left wing ideas that women in our society face discrimination and therefore harassment. Well, it is one thing to open women’s spaces to post-op transwomen, another to let in those who are self-identified, maybe bearded, with no interest in physical transitioning. But since they too have a mystical inner identity as women, they must be allowed to self-id, without a humiliating bureaucratic rigmarole, and have every right to walk in on a 14 year old “cis-privileged” girl getting changed.
Liberals tend toward a humanism that accepts, for example, the evidence base of developmental child psychology. But gender identity thinking says clinicians should never question children who “choose” to take the path toward surgery, sterility and life-long drug dependency. If we all have a mystical gender identity it exists in toddlers as well tweens and adults. Kinder kids should be taught so.
The truly remarkable thing is how few liberal commentators have picked up on these and other points of tension, especially considering the sheer, stupendous extent of the changes demanded by the trans lobby, and the pressures it has put on liberal thinking: such is the hegemony of gender ideology, thanks to support from the ruling class and the lack of challenge from the Left. But the more push-back there is against gender sexism, the more liberal commentators will respond to the ways in which it clashes with liberal values. In Britain, some of this push-back has come from gender-critical women’s liberationists, who are better organised than elsewhere.