Munroe Bergdorf’s Transitional is a valuable cultural artefact. For those who do not know, Munroe Bergdorf is a model, activist, and media celebrity. She has appeared on talk shows, written articles, and hosted podcasts such as The Way We Are. Last year, she was appointed Contributing Editor to the British Vogue. As a transgender woman, much of her content is focused on gender identity and self-expression.
Upon completing Transitional’s 194 pages, I was left with mixed feelings. I only previously knew Bergdorf from her Good Morning Britain appearances, so the book provided an educational insight into her as an individual. She writes with great eloquence and champions some empowering messages. Nonetheless, towards the end, I found the book hampered by a lack of nuance.
The book’s premise is that we all transition. Transitioning from boy to girl is just as natural as growing from girl to woman. She says that, in an ideal world, transitioning will be seen as just as natural and beautiful as coming of age. Hence the book’s subtitle, “in one way or another, we all transition.”
I enjoyed Transitional most when Bergdorf was recounting her life experiences. These make for fascinating and humbling reading. She whisks us through her childhood, her relationship with her parents (her British mother and her Black Jamaican father), her past as a young gay man, her move to Brighton University, and her transition. The most moving passage is when she describes a university friend called Demi, a key figure in improving Bergdorf’s self-acceptance:
“A bright spot in this difficult time was meeting a new friend called Demi. …Demi was a glamazon, one of those stunningly beautiful people you’ll walk past in the street and for a split second forget your own name. …I had no idea that she was transgender until someone outed her to me in the kitchen while shoving a generous bump of ketamine up their nose. …She was thriving, independent and happy…and seemed to have all the things I thought I’d lose if I came out as trans.“
This is possibly the book’s most important passage:
“There’s a magic in being extraordinary, which she was in terms of her beauty, but there’s a magic in being ordinary too. She wasn’t a celebrity, she wasn’t a performer, she didn’t lead a life that was by any means excessively glamorous. She got up and went to work in the morning, clocked out at five and had fun at the weekend.“
To use a very contemporary phrase – “preach”!
Tragically, Demi’s story does not end well, which leads us to another frequent theme: Bergdorf’s trauma. She is strikingly candid when discussing her past, ranging from her parents’ less-than-happy reaction to her coming out as trans, to a series of violent and abusive relationships. The book definitely made me sympathise with her. She has suffered some truly horrendous things.
Nuance is also at its most present in the biographical sections. Bergdorf describes her mother’s bad reaction to her coming out as gay (pre-transition) but writes later, “Rebuilding a relationship with my parents has been one of the most necessary, rewarding and healing processes in my recovery. The concept of forgiveness has often eluded me…[s]ooner or later you have to face the music if you want to move on and heal.” I think this is admirable. Similarly, another theme of the book is coming to terms with who you are rather than constantly running away from the truth. I think this, too, is admirable.
Then we get to the ‘essay’ chapters, where nuance is glaringly absent. For example, in 2017, L’Oréal sacked her from a modelling post for some previous Facebook comments she made about race. When writing about this, Bergdorf never once questions if she was right. She claims the backlash showed how white society isn’t used to being critiqued.
She never wonders if she was perhaps going too far when calling white people “the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth” or when declaring that she had no energy “to talk about the racial violence of white people anymore. Yes, ALL white people.” Nowhere does she consider that the backlash was even slightly understandable. She could have stood by her comments while still acknowledging that they had the potential to offend. She does not. Instead, she holds herself up as the ultimate whistle-blower who was silenced for speaking the truth, reducing her critics to having “axe[s] to grind”. Interestingly, one of her critics was transgender broadcaster India Willoughby, who didn’t believe that we should “[tar] any race with one brush”.
This lack of nuance often pervades the book’s political sections. For instance, she is a staunch believer in the controversial Critical Race Theory. If you also agree with this theory, you will no doubt enjoy these chapters. For readers with questions, the tone can feel alienating. This line about feminism is an interesting example:
“I realised that my ideas of feminism comprised of women who were themselves exploitative and privileged – women who behaved like white men.“
You may wonder how a woman can behave ‘like white men’. I haven’t a clue.
She also states that “call-out culture and pile-ons are sometimes necessary to draw attention to things.” I disagree, and as Bergdorf herself has suffered vicious social media abuse, I was surprised that she took this stance. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated in 2022 that “nobody” deserves pile-ons, not even those deemed to have “deserved it”. “There is a difference between valid criticism,” Adichie rightly says, “and this kind of backlash.” One wonders what exactly Bergdorf is advocating when defending ‘pile-ons’.
In conclusion, I am not in line with some of her beliefs and found the tone off-putting in places. Nevertheless, as said at the beginning, Transitional is a valuable cultural document. I am grateful to understand Bergdorf more and know more about her origins, especially as everyone’s views are somewhat born out of their trauma. To understand Bergdorf’s life is to understand why she believes the things she does. And that is certainly worth a lot.