What Makes A Woman: Munroe Bergdorf offers an unflinching portrait of the reality of her trans identity

Lucy Hunter Johnston

Channel 4's gender identity season hasn’t got off to particularly flying start.

While Genderquake, the first programme in the series which premiered last week, was hailed as a pioneering and eye-opening reality TV experiment, its spin-off Genderquake: The Debate, aired to... well, a kind reading would be controversy . A less kind would be near universal panning.

In the live show, panellists including Germaine Greer and Caitlyn Jenner were heckled by a studio audience so viciously that more than 200 people have complained to Ofcom.

So it’s a relief that this week’s offering is rather more thought-provoking, primarily because, despite the broad title of the show, the focus is narrow, exploring the thorny, emotive issues surrounding identity through the perspective of a single trans woman — the model and activist Munroe Bergdorf (10pm).

Bergdorf herself is not an uncontentious figure. Last year she was fired by L’Oréal after writing on Facebook that all white people are racist (or “discussing white privilege” as she puts it in the show). In February she was appointed to Labour’s LGBTQ+ advisory panel but quit days later after offensive tweets she had posted surfaced online.

But in many ways these missteps make Bergdorf an excellent presenter. She is uncompromising and outspoken, and her on-camera style has a refreshing honesty; there’s very little pretence and she allows herself to be vulnerable with the viewer as she unflinchingly recounts the realities of her life as a trans woman — the self-harming, the “desperate” suicidal teen years, the dysphoria and then finally, a glimmer of hope as she seeks acceptance.

The film is told in four parts. In the first Bergdorf travels to Belgium, where she undergoes a painful, radical procedure to feminise her face. As an introduction it’s an extraordinary — and gruesome — insight into the trauma of sex reassignment surgery. I wonder if anyone could watch the flecks flying through the air as her face is peeled away from her skull and still think that many are choosing to identify as trans to be part of a trend.

Controversial: model and activist Munroe Bergdorf (Channel 4)

A highlight of the show is the juxtaposition between the following two chapters. In one, Bergdorf is walking in an “inclusive” fashion show in New York, in the other attending a feminist talk in Bristol about the proposed changes to the gender act. The Americans are eclectic and freakish, a bunch of fabulous oddballs and outsiders, a rainbow party where anything goes and anybody is welcome. Their overriding message is a heady one: freedom of expression reigns, and acceptance of self and other is key.

On our side of the pond, though, things are rather more drab. Here the argument is shrill and angry, and definitions rigid. There is fear, and there is hatred.

Arguably, this is an unfairly biased framing of the current, necessary debate — narrating the show through Bergdorf’s eyes alone inevitably means there’s only one pitch to the argument, and women in opposition to her are presented as malicious harpies stuck in the dark ages. But perhaps it’s too much to ask that one show adequately explores every element of this vast topic. Of course, there is far, far more ground to be covered here, but an hour spent in the company of Bergdorf is an interesting way to start.


Pick of the day

Patrick Melrose - Sky Atlantic, all episodes available now

The reviews are in, and pretty much everybody is agreed that Benedict Cumberbatch did a fantastic job in the first episode of this five-part adaptation of the semi-autobiographical series of novels by Edward St Aubyn.

Writer David Nicholls took the bold step of rearranging the order of the stories, putting the second book first. This had the advantage of placing Cumberbatch centre-stage, as the drug addict visiting New York to collect his father’s ashes.

That doesn’t sound very joyous, but Cumberbatch dominates the episode so completely that it feels at times like a one-man show.

The tone is set in the opening scene where he receives the phone call bringing news of his father’s death while fumbling with a syringe.On his face there is the faintest hint of a smile as a melancholy tune by Cat Stevens unspools on the soundtrack.

Screen time

The Last Man on the Moon - BBC Four, 9pm

When Mark Craig’s documentary was released in 2016 the review in the science magazine Wired suggested it was “a remarkable story made dull”. Possibly that’s a result of the temperamental requirements of being an astronaut. Level-headedness is a prerequisite; showmanship isn’t.

The film tells the story of Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, who died last year, the last of 12 astronauts to walk on the Moon. His testimony about his experiences is quietly compelling, even if it is augmented by a bombastic soundtrack. Cernan’s view of his life’s journey was that it was a matter of fate and resilience. Being an astronaut also required selfishness, and he apologises to his daughter for not being fully present during her childhood.

The humour is exceptionally dark: “Think happy thoughts,” Melrose instructs himself. “You’re here to collect your father’s corpse.”

Royal Wives at War - London Live, 8pm

No matter that Her Majesty hasn’t spent the past few weeks bingeing on Suits so she can have a right natter with Meghan Markle because they’re still bound to have a better relationship than the Queen Mother did with Wallis Simpson.

Their frosty stand-off is recounted in this mix of reconstructions and archive footage.

Spooks - London Live, 10pm

The closure of so many municipal pools is soon to be reversed, which is excellent news for those who are unable to afford private gym memberships; a drawback with the increasing access to public swimming spots is that most of London will be flooded.

That’s the disaster which the spies — who do well to avoid eye-bags and stress lines — face in this blockbuster series finale, because environmental terrorists are holding the Thames Barrier to ransom in exchange for the publication of an obscure government document.

A dossier called Aftermath is what the terrorists want — a document the government denies exists. But (the big fibbers) it does, and it contains plans for a future resource war…

Chat: Chef David talking to presenter Liam Charles (Channel 4)

Catch up

Bake Off: The Professionals - All 4

This baking contest may be a spin-off from the cuddly Great British cake-fondling show, but it feels at times like a non-stick version of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The bakers are less fabulous than you might expect from professionals, but the judges, Benoit Blin and Cherish Finden, below, are fierce to the point of indecipherability, expressing their views in a Babel of half-baked accents.

​Westworld - Sky On Demand/Now TV

This column bows to no robot in its admiration for the actor Peter Mullan, who has demonstrated his poetic way with a Scottish curse in a number of fine productions. But in episode four of the current series of the dystopic fantasy he gets to do a solo dance to Roxy Music’s Do the Strand (on coloured vinyl, too) before staring menacingly into the mirror. Once seen, never forgotten.

The next episode reverts to childhood, where we learn the reason for Melrose’s disdain for his father.