How Hayley Cropper – a woman playing a man playing a woman – softened us all up for the rise of the transgender movement.
This article originally appeared on The Martian Anthropologist.
Hayley Cropper is a fictional character, but is important because she was the first transsexual character in a British soap opera. I’m going to use female pronouns for Hayley, because (a) she isn’t real and (b) she was played by a female actor, which I believe is in itself significant for the way the character was received.
Between January 1998 and January 2014, Hayley was a character in Britain’s venerable TV series Coronation Street, which has since 2010 had the distinction of having been the world’s longest running soap opera. Corrie, as it’s known, was first broadcast on 9 December 1960 and inspires tremendous loyalty among its fans, including veteran TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith. It’s estimated that around 7m people watch every episode, and when we’re not having a pandemic, it airs six times a week. Wikipedia describes its appeal as follows; “Influenced by the conventions of kitchen sink realism, Coronation Street is noted for its depiction of a down-to-earth, working-class community, combined with light-hearted humour and strong characters.” It is set in Weatherfield, a fictional town based on Salford near Manchester, and as every media studies student knows, a Manc accent is shorthand for salt of the earth reliability and no postmodern nonsense.
Even people who never watch Corrie recognise its signature tune and know about its significant characters, particularly the women. We know that redhead Elsie Tanner was “the siren of the street”. We know that Bet Lynch was a blowsily glamorous barmaid with a blonde beehive and a fondness for leopardskin print. And we know that Hayley Cropper was a gentle, loving soul who wouldn’t have hurt a fly.
Hayley, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, first appeared in Corrie as Hayley Anne Patterson in January 1998, during the very short tenure (March 1997 to December 1998) of producer Brian Park. Park was specifically brought in to shake up the programme, which was losing viewers. He axed several of the older characters and introduced storylines gauged to appeal to younger viewers, of which the Hayley story was apparently one. I find it extraordinary that Park decided to introduce a transsexual character rather than a gay or lesbian character, given how much attention there was on the genuinely homophobic Section 28 before it was finally repealed in November 2003. (Corrie’s first gay character was Todd Grimshaw, who was introduced in 2001 and retconned as gay in October 2003.)
As Hesmondhalgh tells it (but not until Feb 2017, when the story appeared in several media outlets) the Hayley character was originally intended to be a a little (rather ill-judged) light comedy. Roy was destined to go on a series of disastrous dates, one of which would be with pre-op transsexual. Having been offered the part, Hesmondhalgh decided that Hayley shouldn’t just be a joke. Who can blame her? Actors’ careers are insecure, and doubtless she would have wanted to find a way to give the character more longevity.
Hayley first appears as a new hire at Firman’s Freezers and is portrayed as shy, reserved, and utterly lacking in authority or management skills (not at all masculine, you see). A female colleague takes Hayley under her wing and introduces her to Roy Cropper, who runs the local cafe, Roy’s Rolls. They find that they have a lot in common (more than Roy has bargained for, in fact) and their friendship turns to romance. The budding relationship falls apart when Hayley tells Roy that she is “female by choice, not by birth” and that she used to be Harold. Roy doesn’t cope well with this at first, and she leaves for Amsterdam where she has what at that time would have been called sex change surgery. But true love wins the day, and he goes to Amsterdam to fetch her back to Weatherfield.
When Hayley and Roy return to Weatherfield, Hayley’s boss sees a piece of official correspondence addressed to Harold – what would now be called her “deadname” – and fires her. She is reinstated after Roy throws beer over him in the pub. They don’t mess about with HR procedures in Soapland.
There were lots more soapy twists and turns, all calculated to win sympathy and to demonstrate that Hayley is just like any other woman, and wants what any other woman wants. A man who loves her just the way she is, a big white wedding, and children.
In an episode screened on 23 April 1999, Hayley and Roy persuaded the vicar to hold a blessing ceremony for them in church, in lieu of the white wedding they couldn’t have, what with being the same sex. Mean old Les Battersby “tips off the press” so the ceremony can’t happen, as the vicar would be “for the high-jump”. Hayley mopes about in her tiara and veil, Ray mopes about in his shiny grey tailcoat. Kindly old ladies offer nostrums about meanies “disliking what they don’t understand”. A brave lady vicaress offers to “marry” them in Roy’s Rolls. Kiss, throw bouquet, dance, cake, all’s well that ends well, car with pans tied on the back, Battersby’s wife thumps him.
In August 2010 they got married for real, because Hayley had been able to take advantage of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, making her legally a woman. They could, of course, have waited until 2005 and had a same-sex civil partnership, but that wouldn’t have been the same, would it? Being a completely normal average woman, Hayley wanted to marry in church, in a big white dress, with a tiara and a veil.
There were storylines about children – Hayley and Roy fostered a child, and in 2003 there was a truly bizarre story about a baby, summarised in this Manchester Evening News story from January 2019. “In 2003, the Croppers become the victim of Tracy Barlow, who drugs Roy and takes him home after taking a bet she could get the most faithful man into bed.” The Croppers buy the baby from scheming Tracy, but are forced to give it back when it turns out that the father was someone else entirely.
Hayley’s usefulness to campaigners didn’t end with her Gender Recognition Certificate and her wedding to Roy. In 2013, following Hesmondhalgh’s decision to leave the show, the programme makers decided that she should also be a spokeswoman for assisted suicide. Following a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and a bucket list storyline, Hayley drank a “cocktail of drugs” and died in Roy’s arms on 20 January 2014. 2013 was the year that male actor Laverne Cox first appeared as a trans woman in Orange Is The New Black. I do wonder if Hesmondhalgh, who became a vocal campaigner for “trans rights”, realised that being a woman playing the part of a trans woman had become unacceptable.
Transgender pressure group Press for Change (founded 1992 by Christine Burns and Stephen Whittle) apparently weren’t happy with the way the character was being portrayed, and within a couple of months of Hayley’s first appearance, they quickly recruited a “trans advisor” (Annie Wallace) to act as a script consultant. How this actually happened is a bit of a mystery – as Wallace tells it in an interview with the Manchester Evening News, he was approached by producers of the ITV show after he wrote to the Radio Times and to Hesmondhalgh as a fan of Hayley. How far in advance are soap opera storylines planned, and scripts written? It seems far more likely that Hayley was planned as a sympathetic character from the get-go.
The Hayley storyline was extraordinarily influential from the very beginning. In October 1998, MP Lynne Jones tabled an Early Day Motion praising Coronation Street’s handling of the transsexual storyline, and calling on the government to give people who have had a sex change the legal right to marry. Jones had a history of campaigning on this issue since taking up the case of a transsexual constituent shortly after the 1992 General Election when she won her seat in parliament, and set up the Parliamentary Forum on Transsexualism in 1994.
Stuart Jeffries says, in an interview with Hesmondhalgh in January 2014, “Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of Hayley – including her trip to get gender-reassignment surgery, and her frustration that she had insufficient legal status as a transgender person and so initially couldn’t marry Roy – also helped catalyse a national debate that led to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, a law that granted transgender people full legal status in their acquired sex.”
Hesmondhalgh herself became a patron of Press for Change and of Trans Media Watch, and is still a vocal campaigner for “trans rights”. Here she is on Loose Women in November 2019. “That’s the way to change the world, be in someone’s living room, four times a week.” Earlier this year, Hesmondhalgh was interviewed by Pink News and said that she wouldn’t now accept the role, as she is a “cis woman”.
I think it is very significant that the decision was made to give the role to a woman. Hesmondhalgh is a petite 5’3″, and being female, she has female proportions, small hands and feet, and a female face. I think the programme makers back in 1998 knew that if they gave the role to a man, the audience would know that Hayley was male. This would make it almost impossible for the story to not be comical, because with centuries of pantomime dames and decades of Carry On films in our DNA, the British find men in drag hilarious. A man playing the role would also give the audience the Uncanny Valley sensation, and lessen the acceptability of the character and the storyline, because back then we didn’t all know that TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN.
It is impossible to quantify the role of Hayley Cropper and Coronation Street in the very rapid capture of public sympathy for trans causes, the changes in legislation, and the institutional capture. What’s absolutely clear is that nothing about the character or the storylines, or the campaigning behind the scenes, or the six awards given to Hesmondhalgh to keep her in the eye even of those who didn’t watch Corrie, was accidental. It was all part of a grand longterm plan to get us to where we are today.