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Refusing to be a digital-age victim

Try as they might, documentary makers couldn’t portray the star of The Girl Who Became Three Boys as damaged.

David Bowden

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It has been two weeks since the Olympics opening ceremony began with a Shakespearean exhortation promising us: ‘clouds methought would open and show riches. Ready to drop on me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.’

What riches indeed! Not even ones confined merely to the Greatest Show on Earth; over the past fortnight we have also had images from the Curiosity rover treating us to the shimmering glory of a Martian sunrise. Still the Paralympics to come: a different sort of achievement, but no less remarkable. Such things that make one not so much cry to dream, as yell with the sheer joy to be alive.

Me? Well, I watched a documentary entitled The Girl Who Became Three Boys, which focused on the disturbing real-life tale of Gemma Barker, who (I think you may guess this) pretended to be three different boys in order to sleep with two different girls. A programme which, it must be said, recalled Shakespeare’s lines only because said speech was delivered by Kenneth Branagh while dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel quoting lines from Caliban, which at least mirrored Barker’s multi-layered performance. That and, like most of Shakespeare’s plays, most of the deception and disguise required only a change of hats.

Barker’s story was a grim but compelling one: jailed for sexual assault earlier this year, she had created a series of fake Facebook identities to seduce two of her underage real-life female friends, incredibly managing to maintain her deception to the extent that one of the girls, on first discovering that her boyfriend was not who ‘he’ claimed to be, thought she had been raped by her friend’s ‘boyfriend’. Tracing out Barker’s activities was rather like a Shakespearean comedy or extremely complicated French farce. Indeed, it was not profoundly different from the plot of Nico Muhly’s recent excellent opera, Two Boys, or the much-discussed 2010 documentary, Catfish.

The Girl Who Became Three Boys often struck a deeply uncomfortable tone in trying to tackle an almost unbelievable story, which, no matter how farcical, ultimately centred on an 18-year-old committing a serious sexual assault on a 15-year-old – an assault which would of course have been classed as criminal even without the fraud involved. It focused on the story as told from the perspective of Barker’s victims, only one of whom (Jessica Sayers) was willing to go public with her identity. In eyebrow-raising fashion, the only other contributors (apart from friends and family) were court reporters who had covered the case, rather than experts offering a learned opinion. Make no mistake, this was a programme very definitely concerned with satisfying vulgar curiosity rather than offering genuine insight. Less hard-hitting investigative documentary, more televised version of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ magazine stories.

Yet, rather perversely, this superficiality was possibly its strength. On first glance, Barker’s story ticked many of the right boxes for reflecting concerns of our time: a cautionary tale about the vulnerability of teenagers to online predators; questions over whether Barker was evil or ill (she has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum); an exploration of the questions raised around gender and sexuality which made the Hilary Swank film Boys Don’t Cry, based on the similar-sounding Teena Brandon story, into a touchstone for cultural-studies graduates. If nothing else, as quite a few commentators have remarked, it offered a worrying insight into sex education in schools.

The problem that Three Boys at least tackled head-on, however, was that the story was genuinely too exceptional to offer much insight. Barker baffled police and psychologists with her refusal to offer any motivation for her crimes, but she was hardly a master criminal; her disguise amounted to boyish clothes and a hat, and she relied on others’ preconceptions around shy and uncommunicative teenagers who would rather text or email than engage in conversation. Like all con artists, she simply exploited and manipulated the trust and naivety of her victims.

Here, admittedly, the credulity of her victims was incredible and offered plenty of prurient entertainment – though that was tempered by the knowledge that these were equally lonely and shy children, well-supervised enough that their social activities were reduced to social networking, ultimately betrayed by someone they considered a confidante. If anything, their rationale behind accepting Barker’s extraordinary behaviour suggested that they were attentive, if profoundly uncritical, students of the personal, health and sexual education (PHSE) lessons at their schools. One victim put the refusal of her ‘boyfriend’ to remove his hat down to alopecia; the combination of social awkwardness and sexual forwardness implied sexual abuse.

It was difficult to escape the sense that Sayers – who was, by her own admission, not terribly bright – was being cruelly exploited by the programme makers. As a 15-year-old, she had undergone an undoubtedly traumatic experience – seriously assaulted by her first boyfriend, who was not even a boy – and, as was widely reported at the time of Barker’s conviction in March, had attempted suicide, feeling that her ‘life had been ruined’. Yet offering her side of the story at 18, with justice having been done, she came across as admirably bullish: embarrassed by her youthful naivety and desperation to be loved yet clear-eyed enough to see that she had been deeply unlucky in being tricked by a lover in circumstances so unusual that they made a Channel 4 documentary about it. She’s even got a new boyfriend – who she met through Facebook.

It was telling that they had to turn to her friends, who knew Barker in passing, to offer tearful testimonies of betrayal and commentary on growing up in the digital age. Bubbly and sweet Sayers clearly wanted to give her side of the story, dust herself off and get on with her life. The Girl Who Became Three Boys was a documentary which belonged in the gutter, but its star was looking beyond the clouds.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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