Is It a Boy or a Girl?

by Susan Glen


Good Gender, Bad Gender

Aah, dichotomies. Wrong vs. Right, White vs. Black, Good Courtney vs. Bad Courtney, Boy vs. Girl. Despite the fact that all these ideas depend on their “opposite” for their very meanings (after all, Good Courtney wouldn’t be “good” if we didn’t have memories of her slapping up flight attendants and flipping off Madonna to remind us that she is no longer Bad Courtney), most of us can’t seem to rationalize beyond this pesky gender thing. Most of us can get that white and black are just two points on a continuum, but we can’t seem to get that male and female are on their own continuum, not the only two options, just two different points.

And so what about intersexuality, cases in which people are born with ambiguous genitals that can’t be clearly defined as male or female? What happens when a doctor can’t tell if what she is looking at is an enlarged clitoris or a under-developed penis? This isn’t a Jerry Springer-ready “man trapped in a woman’s body”—it’s a man and a woman’s body. And in a system—patriarchy—where so much depends upon gender identifications, how do we reconcile a body that refuses to be gendered? Intersexuality challenges more than just a few binary gender definitions.

Is It a Boy or a Girl?

Regular airtime: 25 February 2001, 2am EST and 10pm EST

(Discovery Channel)

Given all this, the Discovery Channel’s documentary on intersexed people, Is It a Boy or a Girl?, would seem to be groundbreaking simply because it’s been made. And in some ways, it is.

Is It a Boy or a Girl? does a bang-up job of explaining the biological origins of various kinds of intersexuality, as well as the medical community’s party line stance on the necessity for early surgical cosmetic “correction.” To this end, it includes interviews with parents of intersexed children, and most importantly, it allows intersexed adults to speak for themselves, articulating in sometimes heartbreaking detail the hardships of living in a multi- or non-gendered body within a society that relies so heavily on singularly-gendered cues. So far, so good.

But there are also significant problems with Is It a Boy or a Girl?. The most glaring and disturbing of these is the way in which the program, while ostensibly seeking to replace the silence surrounding intersexuality with information, treats intersexuality with a profound sense of shame. Dr. Kenneth I. Glassberg, Professor of Urology, is introduced to the viewer while showing slides of intersexed children to a room full of bewildered, amazed, and clearly voyeuristic medical students. We see the students’ stunned reactions without getting to see for ourselves what the fuss is all about. Dr. Glassberg is describing the trauma of the parents of intersexed children if early “corrective” surgery is not performed before the infants are 18 months old, but all we see are blurry photos from across a darkened room.

In this and other ways, the program keeps the physical manifestations of intersexuality a dirty little secret. Rather than showing one clear photo of ambiguous genitals, it offers DNA models and 3D computer grids of such genitals, more elaborate that a USA Today map of American voting patterns. And when Dr. Glassberg asks, in all seriousness, how the parents are to explain their children’s gender to the babysitter, you have to wonder if he isn’t the one who needs corrective surgery of some kind.

More secrecy comes in the interviews. “Tina” and “Rick,” parents of an intersexed child, are the focus of much of the program, but their images are blurred throughout. The name of their child has been changed, and all we know about her is that she is being raised as a girl. Again, Is It a Boy or a Girl? perpetuates the idea that intersexuality is shameful and should be hidden. Certainly one can understand these parents wanting to protect the privacy of their child. But if this program is correct in stating that intersexed births occur at a rate of nearly one out of every 2,000 births (over 65,000, worldwide, per year), perhaps the makers could have found a couple who aren’t ashamed of their child.

Is It a Boy or a Girl? does visit a small village in the Dominican Republic, where a “genetic defect” has made the children more prone to intersexuality (one man has 10 children, 4 of whom are intersexed), and therefore, intersexuality itself is far more accepted. We see a young man named Alberto, a hermaphrodite who was initially raised as a girl but later realized a male identity. Alberto’s parents don’t seem to have a problem with any of this, and his mother is clearly proud of her son and his gendered decisions. All fine and good, except that Alberto is portrayed as the typical Exotic Other. We see him riding a donkey, walking muddy streets, chopping tall grasses with a machete—the only thing missing is a jungle hunt scene. To the Discovery Channel’s audience (likely white, middle-class cable-watchers), Alberto couldn’t be any less baseball and apple pie if he tried. We might understand why Alberto and his parents say that they knew Alberto couldn’t have been a girl because he didn’t like to wear dresses and wanted short hair, but it’s hard to forgive the Discovery Channel for treating this man as less a subject of a serious documentary and more a sideshow attraction at a circus. By choosing as their one and only example of an intersexed child who is truly accepted by his peers a man living in the proverbial exotic land far, far away, the filmmakers have normalized the intolerance of intersexed people here. It’s as if this film is reminding us that we aren’t expected to understand intersexuality, or accept it, or even tolerate it, since here in the good ole’ U.S. of A., we can just “fix” it.

In the end, then, Is It a Boy or a Girl? is a bit schizophrenic. On one hand, it is clearly sympathetic to the intersexed people who have suffered dozens of (unnecessary) surgical procedures, violent emotional mistreatment, and had all possibility of a “normal” sex life stripped from them before they were old enough to even know what sex was. By allowing Howard Devore, an intersexed sex therapist and clinical psychologist, and Cheryl Chase, a well-known intersexed activist, solid airtime, the program does a service for the intersexed community. But the documentary also does a disservice, in that it not only shrouds intersexuality in continuing mystery, but also never has Dr. Glassberg answer the charges leveled against the medical profession from intersexed people themselves. The film presents two very different narratives—the medical profession claims that cosmetic surgery is a social necessity; and intersex activists claim this same surgery to be a cruel butchering of their natural bodies—and never asks one to acknowledge the other.

This might be a sign of “unbiased” filmmaking, letting the viewer draw her own conclusions from the facts, but I don’t think so. It seems to me more likely that while the program is comfortable presenting the cold, hard medical facts of intersexuality, it is less comfortable pressing the ethical issues surrounding the genital mutilation performed on tens of thousands of infants each year, surgeries designed not for the comfort or health of children themselves, but for the comfort of the adults around them. It’s as though the film recognizes the rights of intersexed people to tell their stories, but it won’t go so far as to validate those stories by challenging medical spokespersons.

This might be because Is It a Boy or a Girl? is part of the Discovery Channel’s series on health and alternative medicine, but it’s a little like leaving a quarter for a tip—more insulting than not leaving a tip at all. And so, while this film could present some radical and revolutionary ideas, it doesn’t: it could suggest that some people are both male and female, or neither male nor female; that the binary gender system is flawed and counterproductive; that the idea of forcing gendered conformity is unhealthy, naive, and antediluvian; that intersexuality is perhaps a more refined, sophisticated set of genders. Now these ideas would fuck up a binary or two. But we don’t get them here.

And so once again, we’re left with Good Courtney vs. Bad Courtney.

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//Mixed media