After BBC presenter Jenni Murray published a piece in the Sunday Times questioning whether a man could “become a woman” by taking hormones and perhaps getting surgery, not only was a petition launched to have her fired, but she was reprimanded by the BBC. Yesterday, it was reported that the broadcaster issued Murray with an impartiality warning, telling her she must remain impartial on “controversial topics.”
While I agree that journalists have a responsibility to do fair and balanced reporting, I’m left wondering how understanding that women are female is “controversial” and am troubled by the notion that Murray’s comments constitute a bias. This reeks of the longstanding myth of the unbiased male reporter that is rooted in the idea that men’s perspectives are neutral whereas women’s perspectives automatically constitute a bias. The notion of “impartiality” has long been gendered, but in light of this particular debate, I’m curious to know how often reporters have been reprimanded for accepting the claim that a male can legitimately become female simply by saying so. Based on the increasingly common practice of reporting male violence as “female violence,” I’m inclined to think never.
Murray references India Willoughby in her piece, who lived as a man and succeeded in the male-dominated field of journalism for his entire life before transitioning at 50. Willoughby appeared on BBC’s Women’s Hour after saying that women’s hairy legs were “dirty,” but it was Murray who was told she didn’t understand womanhood, as she challenged Willoughby’s sexist assumptions. Murray writes:
“Unsurprisingly, my polite and informed line of questioning exposed me to a barrage of criticism on social media. I was a TERF and didn’t understand what Simone de Beauvoir , the author of one of the great feminist tracts, The Second Sex , meant when she wrote: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.'”
Of course, Murray did understand. Rather, those who never read de Beauvoir’s text have misinterpreted it and continue to bash those who have read it over the head with their convenient inventions. “As a matter of fact,” Murray clarified, “I have understood perfectly what de Beauvoir meant ever since I read her as a teenage girl,” pointing out that the author discussed the reality of the second sex intentionally and correctly:
“Your sex, male or female, is what you’re born with and determines whether you’ll provide the sperm or the eggs in the reproductive process. What de Beauvoir was analyzing was gendered socialization.
In other words, the girl who grows into a woman goes through a lifetime of pressure to become the socially constructed idea of what a woman should be, regardless of her innate talents, abilities or ambitions. It’s what feminism has sought to challenge. She did not mean that an individual born into the male sex, socialized into the expectations of the masculine gender, can simply decide to take hormones and maybe have surgery and ‘become a woman.'”
As an “unbiased reporter,” Murray was perfectly within her rights (and, indeed, obligation) to state basic facts about womanhood and the impact of socialization on females. Unless we are prepared to consider patriarchy itself up for debate, all journalists should understand how gendered socialization works and how it harms women.
“I’m the Bridget Jones of trans!” Willoughby announced recently. “I work in television, and I haven’t got a guy.” That Willoughby can’t see anything more to the reality of someone like Bridget Jones, beyond working in television and not being able to “find a guy,” speaks to what Murray points out in her piece. Jones’ fictional (albeit realistic, in many ways) reality included things like sexual harassment, body hatred, sexist treatment in the workplace, and pregnancy — things that Willoughby has the (male) privilege of dismissing, instead presenting womanhood as being about little more than cute outfits and chasing boys.
But we have yet to hear that Willoughby’s sexist opinions about women constitute a bias that should render the journalist unemployable. Rather, we are expected to leave Willoughby’s statement to Murray back in December — “I’m not a transwoman, I’m a woman” — uncontested. Why is womanhood only up for debate so long as the parameters of the debate are dictated by males?
Murray’s skepticism and (carefully managed) anger at the notion a person who spent their entire life as part of the dominant class of people can suddenly redefine the meaning of womanhood should resonate with women everywhere.
Instead, this anger and these questions are unspeakable. Numerous men were aghast that a woman would dare even to have an opinion about womanhood, going so far as to suggest Murray should be fired.
Jenni Murray (who isn't trans) talking about privilege while telling trans people how to live their lives. Can she not see the irony? pic.twitter.com/EURxBtgrCZ
— WayneDavid (@WayneDavid81) March 5, 2017
Willoughby openly mocked Murray, suggesting she had “been on the sherry” and that she needed a makeover, calling her a “dinosaur.” The journalist also went on to demand Murray be fired, saying, “The fact that she’s still allowed to host Woman’s Hour while spouting this bile is ridiculous and she should finally be sacked.”
It seems even women do not have the right to speak about themselves. Men, the ultimate “unbiased reporter,” maintain the right to define our realities and experiences. Rather than reprimand Murray, the BBC should support her, and remind her colleagues that speaking the truth is part of their job description.