When is indecent exposure not indecent exposure? The argument is raging on social media as to whether the performance of trans comedian Jordan Gray on Friday Night Live could be considered a crime or a brave and stunning celebration of trans bodies. It’s a question which could well interest Jerry Sadowitz, whose second show at the Edinburgh fringe was cancelled after a rogue penis appearance, or John Barrowman, roundly condemned for historic penis antics on set which he denied amounted to sexual harassment.
It is also of interest to feminists. Indecent exposure, or flashing, is a uniquely male crime, notwithstanding the occasional female streaker at a public sporting event. However, what constitutes a crime in real life is not necessarily a crime when it appears on post-watershed TV, although a content warning would normally ensure that those who might be triggered by male full-frontal nudity could switch off in time. Trigger warnings are used willy-nilly these days, and the ones about willies are probably the most useful, considering the proportion of women who have suffered male sexual abuse and might be prone to a trauma response.
The differences in opinion about Gray’s performance were marked not just by the trans issue, but by sex differences too. There is a distinct cultural difference between male and female nudity and between men’s and women’s reaction to it. We live in a world where power and danger can be signified by male anatomy, whether it’s through flashing, exhibitionist fetishes or the sending of dick pics. Conversely, female anatomy is used to titillate, whether in porn, in advertising or the entertainment industry. Men often have no idea of this imbalance in the power dynamic, nor the resulting difference in the way women might experience public nudity, so they are quick to accuse women of being prudes. References to Mary Whitehouse and moral panics have proliferated once again; it’s almost like being back in the time of the No More Page 3 campaign.
If it wasn’t enough for your senses to be assaulted by the piano-playing dick-waving bombshell at the end of Gray’s act, there were plenty of clues in the preceding song as to just how ‘empowering’ an experience this was going to be for female viewers. With lyrics such as ‘I’m a perfect woman – my tits will never shrink. And I’m guaranteed to squirt and I do anal by default,’ set to a refrain of ‘I’m better than you,’ made it clear that Gray identifies as a very niche subsection of ‘woman’ rather than the common or garden variety. Funny that. Well, no, it wasn’t that funny actually.
Maybe the assumption that an ‘edgy, subversive’ comedian on a ‘progressive’ TV channel will be anything other than aggressively misogynistic as default is a little naïve. Or maybe the joke’s on us and he was really sending up a type of narcissistic autogynephilic trans personality for laughs. Or maybe the ‘girldick’ popping up in an unexpected place is simply the trans version of ‘banter’ – yes, it’s offensive, but no, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a joke. Whatever the truth of it, women are conveniently either prudes or transphobes for objecting.
Gray has predictably been defended by trans allies, as if the meaning of an exposed penis changes if it is attached to a body with breasts. Trans allies determinedly see ‘a woman with a penis’ here, whereas most women will see a man with fake breasts – and they should never be sanctioned for saying so. As if all nakedness is ‘gender neutral’, Gray’s fans have been pointing out that Channel 4’s show Naked Attraction has been running for years without objection, so therefore any criticism of Gray must be transphobia, pure and simple. But people comparing this show to Naked Attraction are missing the point. This is not naked attraction; this is naked misogyny.