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Reaction to screening…

2009 February 2
by Michelle Bennett

Having just watched the Discovery Channel documentary/show, “Is it a boy or a girl?” I am coming to some realizations about how the film was done, and the meaning behind some of the decisions the producers/director/writer, etc. had made. For example, we first meet Cheryl Chase, who speaks out about the pain she and her family experienced after her gender assignment in infancy. What was notable about the first few scenes with Cheryl was that, outside of the shots where she was being interviewed, she was pictured alongside animals; first a parrot and then a horse. I found this odd because I expected to see her alongside family members or friends, maybe a spouse or significant other. But I believe the juxtaposition between Cheryl and her pets really highlights an important point: she has been through so much emotional and psychological torment because of her gender assignment and its subsequent numerous surgeries. These surgeries occurred because for statistical purposes,(one interviewee on the video said that gender categorization and assignment is necessary because “our culture demands it.”)¬†and perhaps just for the sake of comfort and understanding, she could not have existed as a hermaphrodite, holding the identity of both male and female. The process of “feminizing” her genitalia was painful and in many ways ostracized her. Many of the intersexed people on the program reiterated the fact that their condition ostracized them from social circles: they couldn’t undress in front of others in the school locker room, they were constantly in and out of hospitals, etc. So the fact that Cheryl has been identified by her connection with her pets (at least to me) aptly shows her isolation from a lot of people because of her condition as an intersexed individual.

The treatment of the parents of Katrina, an intersexed baby, also interested me. Their identities were concealed, (“We’ll call them ___ and ___” instead of saying “This is ___ and ___”) and whenever they were filmed, the camera was out of focus so as to conceal their identity further. It occurred to me that usually people who want to hide their identity in television interviews and such do it because either 1) people would hurt them if they found out their identity, or 2) they feel guilty about something. I won’t really address option #1 because I’m not sure how to work it out, but option #2 interests me. It’s obvious that they’ve done nothing wrong by having an intersexed baby, but perhaps they feel regret or remorse for having put Katrina through gender assignment surgeries.

However, if we read deeper into the context of intersexed individuals and how they’re dealt with in certain pieces of popular culture, it perhaps could reveal more about attitudes surrounding hermaphrodites and individuals with ambiguous genitalia. One of the strongest pieces of popular culture dealing with this topic in my mind is the book, Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. In this book, Eugenides traces the ancestry of a hermaphrodite, Calliope, to her grandparents, who were actually brother and sister. This anecdote reminds me of my earlier conceptions of hermaphrodites, that they were usually products of incest, and often connoted transgression for this reason. The video didn’t really address this assumption, which leads me to believe that it isn’t founded in fact. However, myths and misconceptions are often much more powerful than the facts that could quell them. Perhaps the parents of Katrina were wary of revealing their identities on the program for fear of being associated with the assumptions related to intersexed people. After seeing the video, I’m more aware than ever of the immense psychological, emotional, and physical horrors that intersexed people have to combat to deal with their conditions, surgically or not, but I wonder if preconceived notions about hermaphrodites constitute one of the sources of shame and discomfort when it comes to dealing with others and their uninformed assumptions about these individuals.

2 Responses
  1. Alexandra Funk permalink
    February 2, 2009

    I also have already watched the video, but interpreted the decision Katrina’s parents made to hide their identities very differently. I think the option #1 is a much more viable reason for why they choose to have their faces blurred and I honestly think they feel they did the right thing by having the surgeries done on Katrina. (Not saying I agree, but that’s another story.) They made it very clear that they want Katrina to have a “normal” childhood and life. Of course they wouldn’t want people to know she is intersexed. Whether we like it or not there is a stigma placed on intersexed people. They know that and I believe they are trying to protect Katrina from the judgment of the often close-minded society we live in. Whether these efforts will do more harm than good…that’s the tough part.

    Hope this helps you with option 1!

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  1. “where’s the love for intersex?” | Gender and Technology Spring 2009

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