Despite Namitha's speech, Bigg Boss Tamil continues to promote transphobia

The episode telecast on October 18 reveals how the transphobic mindset that Namitha had called out earlier doesn’t seem to have changed for several within the ‘Bigg Boss’ house itself.
Bigg Boss Tamil 5 contestants Niroop and Abhishek Raja Cinema Payaan in transphobic attire
Bigg Boss Tamil 5 contestants Niroop and Abhishek Raja Cinema Payaan in transphobic attire

Remember when Namitha from Bigg Boss Season 5 ended her powerful testimony about her coming out saying, “Neenga ellaarum yengala vedikkai porul ah mattum dhaan paakuringa” (All of you see us only as some sort of spectacle)? By the rules of Bigg Boss Tamil, all the contestants had to choose from “thumbs up”, “thumbs down” and “heart” reactions after she finished telling her life’s story. Every one of them chose hearts. But if you’d assumed from those reactions that all the cis-hetereosexual male contestants had expanded their understanding of trans rights and representation, you’d be mistaken.

The episode telecast on Monday, October 18 reveals how the transphobic mindset that Namitha had called out earlier doesn’t seem to have changed for several within the Bigg Boss house itself, despite the male contestants claiming to have been moved by her story. Episode 16 ran a segment that required contestants to force a selected four of them to exhibit some form of outward emotional reaction. The four were expected to keep a poker-face throughout their housemates’ efforts to make them display emotion. Namitha wasn't present as she had to exit the show due to some personal reasons.

Contestants Abhishek Raja, an anchor known popularly on social media as @cinemapayyan, and Niroop, an actor, thought the best way to get a laugh out of the four was to dress up in skirts and midriff-baring tops. Both are cis-het men, to our knowledge. Both decided that cis-het men with facial hair wearing “women’s” clothing and make-up amounts to comedy. They both proceeded to play at making out with each other, speak in exaggerated falsettos and adopt mannerisms that are commonly used in Tamil cinema to mock trans people. One of the four contestants expected to remain expressionless through these antics, Raju, is later heard laughing “Ungala pombala veshathula paathathum ennakku sirippu thaangala, antha Niroop ellam thaadiya vachikitu. Ayyayyo!” (I could barely contain my laughter seeing you two costumed as women, especially Niroop with his beard!)

The episode has been rightly criticised for falling back on the same bigoted tropes common in Tamil cinema and TV programmes and even in shows in other Indian languages. Speaking to TNM, queer rights activist and co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles, Moulee, says, “What would have happened if Namitha had been present? Then was Bigg Boss truly a safe space for her? There is a lot that happens on the sets that doesn’t make it past edits. Someone is making a choice of what would be funny according to them to show on screen. Transphobia and queer phobia are rampant in Tamil media. Further, comedy is used to reinforce the kind of bigotry seen widely in cinema, such as for example, the popular Vadivelu homophobic dialogue ‘avanaa nee?’. The makers of Bigg Boss need to have a better understanding of representation. I don’t know if they have queer or trans people on the staff, but they at least need to have a queer eye.”

Moulee further adds that several social media users had drawn attention to the fact that the segment is not only transphobic, but reeks of transmisogyny too—the idea that traits considered effeminate are laughable if displayed by someone who is assumed to be male, regardless of whether they identify as one.

So, will Abhishek and Niroop think that it’s funny when gender fluid people wear what is conventionally categorised as “women’s clothing” if they happen to have facial and/or body hair?

Trans actress Negha, responding to the problematic scenes, says, “It’s ridiculous that this still happens in 2021. Trans people suffer for how they choose to dress. It’s not easy to come out. I wear these clothes with pride in front of my family. Who we are is not a joke. But cinema and TV shows keep up their mockery. If my trans, queer community and I say such representations are offensive, then it just means it is. At a time when the trans community is raising its voice against cis-het male actors playing the roles of trans women and stealing our spaces, this goes even a step further to suppress our voices and representation."

Only last year, Bigg Boss Telugu was condemned for an entire segment dedicated to making a supposedly comic spectacle of male contestants “dressing up as women”. Even in this season’s first episode of Bigg Boss Tamil, host and actor-turned-politician Kamal Hassan drew criticism for attempting puns in Tamil with the English term trans woman while introducing Namitha to the audience. He’d said that he doesn’t choose to use the widely preferred Tamil term thirunangai and instead went on to attempt a painfully prolonged word-play-in-translation. Who is he, a cis-het man with no lived experience of trans people’s lives, to decide what they should be called? It was pointed out, as soon as the episode aired, that this goes against their very right to self-determination. It appeared that Kamal was also attempting to score political points using the Bigg Boss platform, given that the respectful term “thirunangai” was coined by former Chief Minister Karunanidhi. If so, it was in exceptionally poor taste to do so at the expense of a community he is not from, particularly when a trans woman, the first to enter the Bigg Boss Tamil house, was sharing the stage with him.

The fault here lies not only with the two contestants and Kamal Haasan, but an entire media mechanism that considers inclusivity to be token gestures rather than in-depth understanding. What must be many hours-worth of footage is edited to be turned into the episodes that finally make it to our screens. Reality shows are scripted. There are a host of people at Vijay TV, the producers of Bigg Boss Tamil, involved in the decision to air the offensive segment. At what point are they going to start listening to the voices calling them out for their unacceptable content?

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