Raising the Visibility of Gender-nonconformists: A review of “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric”
The National Geographic film Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric is a narrative report from an on-going but seemingly somewhat successful revolution. And yet, within weeks of its debut, Trump’s Office of Civil Rights has rolled back federal support for the legal protections of transgender youth in schools. What could better signify the on-going culture war in 21st Century America?
This 90-minute film couldn’t be more timely. I wish I could require every member of Trump’s cabinet had to watch it and then write an essay on experiences of those who do not fit easily into a gender binary. But that is not to be. Instead, I will write a short review and discuss the possibilities for this film’s use in sociology classrooms. Katie Couric begins the film talking about her childhood, when everything was “so simple.” Girls wore pink, boys wore blue. Boys played with trucks, girls played with dolls. Born in 1957, she grew up in a world with only two kinds of people, boys and girls, and every aspect of society was organized to be sure they lived very different kinds of lives. Then, she explains, things began to change. Mary Tyler Moore was Couric’s role model and the catalyst that fueled her career in journalism. Almost emulating the TV character she looked up to, Couric was a young woman building a successful career in journalism breaking gender barriers along the way. Couric explains that when she was young, the revolution was about changing gender “roles” and now it is about gender itself. Perhaps true, and indeed, I also argue in my forthcoming book Where Will the Millennials Take Us: Transforming the Gender Structure the fourth wave of feminism should be a movement beyond gender. And yet, this documentary is really less about a gender revolution than it is about acknowledging the wide range of gender identities that exist in today’s society. It is about raising trans and intersex visibility with the hope to reduce discrimination against trans and intersex people.
Most of the film involves Couric’s interviews with people who do not fit into a simple sex or gender binary, their parents (and in one case, their adult child), and experts on the topic. Each intersex and transgender person interviewed, from four year old Ellie to senior citizen Kate Rohr, illustrated the drive and need to live authentically according to their inner selves, and not the external body that nature had provided them. Anyone watching the film will see Couric learn a whole new vocabulary: cisgender, pangender, bigender, non-binary, and more. She learns that “transtrender” is a slur and not a new identity, and that gender fluid means that identity changes by day or week or over time, and that questioning and changing one’s identity from time to time is also legitimate. As Sam Killermann, the author of the “genderbread person” meme tells Couric, in any Gender 101 course, you will learn that “gender is who you go to bed as, sexual orientation is who you go to bed with.”
Biological theories for gender identity are offered throughout the film, usually focused on the determinative effects of atypical quantities of testosterone, and estrogen in utero, although one expert, endocrinologist Dr. Joshua Safer, does suggest that transgender people may one day be identifiable by the shape of their hypothalamus. During Couric’s journey, the audience is introduced to the tale of John Money’s failed experiment to prove nurture over nature with the Reimer twins. We see a clip of David Reimer, the twin boy who lost his penis in a circumcision accident and was reared as a girl but returned to being a man as a teenager once he was told the truth. Reimer hopes no one else will have to suffer as he did and his words are amplified when we are told of his subsequent suicide. This is followed directly by an expert who explains a “landmark” study with a sample size of sixteen that shows that two-third of these genetic boys born without penises and raised as girls, with surgically constructed vaginas, chose to return to their genetic sex when told the truth as teenagers. While a third remained girls, the study ended and so we are left wondering about their choice. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this study’s design, it surely provides good evidence that surgeries should not be imposed on children until they are capable of determining their own gender identity. Indeed, we then meet baby Rosie, whose 21st Century parents refused surgery to cosmetically fix her intersex trait. Sociologist and intersex activist Georgiann Davis is interviewed and argues convincingly that unnecessary surgery to force intersex children into the sex binary is a violation of their human rights. Unfortunately, Professor Davis’ appearance is the only appearance of any sociology or sociologist throughout the entire film.
In a film designed to educate and inspire the audience, every family we meet is loving and supportive of their transgender member. The majority of the film focuses mostly on the experiences of transgender people and their families and also somewhat on intersex people, but issues of civil rights are not entirely ignored. We get to meet Gavin Grimm, the incredibly articulate young man whose fight to use the bathroom of his identity at his high school is on its way to the Supreme Court. The clips of the schoolboard meeting where adults called him a freak, and cheered on each other’s rudeness is heartbreaking. His calm adult-like response is powerful. But the narrative always remains positive. When we learn, briefly, that many transgender people of color are poor, unemployed and targets of violence, our attention is quickly shifted to the California fast food company, El Pollo Loco, and a transwoman who is committed to hiring other transwomen to work in the franchises she owns.
Although the documentary is heavily U.S. focused, we are introduced to cultures around the world where people who do not fit into a gender binary are far more accepted then in the Western world. For example, in Samoa, there are people born male who grow up “in the manner of a woman” and look feminine. They are referred to as fa’afafine and our allegedly fully integrated into society and play an important role in their family of origin. Similarly there is a third sex in India, and in Mexico. A Talmudic scholar informs us that there are six genders in classical Jewish texts, although this is certainly not something I was ever taught in Hebrew school.
The final scene is a conversation between one of the earliest Americans to undergo gender affirmation surgery, Renee Richards, and Hari Nef, a transwoman who is a model, actress, and activist. A generation gap emerges quickly. Richards endorses a gender binary. She was a male, and now she is a female. She thinks boys should wear blue, and girls should wear pink. She even uses pink golf tees. She justifies the gender binary by reference to chromosomes and argues that binary is the reality of human life. Nef agrees that we live in a binary world but thinks that itself is the problem. In colorful language, Nef argues that “gender is a fetish” and that the “world has a hard on” for the binary, for man/woman pink/blue. She wants a “gender chill” future were we “chill out about the freaking gender thing.” Renee Richards admits that this conversation is an education for her, but maintains that such a gender chill world is a utopia that will never exist. And we are back again, to the question that Couric raised at the beginning: Just where is the gender revolution now? Have we left behind the need to fight for gender equality between women and men? Is the gender revolution about ending discrimination against transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people, affirming everyone’s right to identify their own gender? Or is it, as Hari Nef argues, about moving beyond gender itself? Couric doesn’t attempt any answers, but she ends the film by suggesting that we live in a brave new world that will take some time getting used to.
The film is a natural choice in sociology courses covering concepts like discrimination, stigma, social change, identity, and social movements. Of course, the relentless positive narrative showcasing supportive parents, doctors, and families will need to be balanced with whatever realpolitik is happening at the moment. The film will spark great conversations in courses on gender, but here while the terrain is even more relevant, it is also more pedagogically challenging. In my view, sociology of gender courses should, and usually do, include some attention to the social construction of gender and also to how gender inequality is embedded in social organization beyond individual identities. The meta-message in the film is that femininity and masculinity are gender, that everyone should have the freedom to be the gender of their identity, and that atypical quantities of testosterone and estrogen in utero are the explanation for the existence of a gender spectrum. These are not the meta-messages that are usually thematic in sociology courses.
Couric’s version of the gender revolution is the acceptance of nature’s diversity in humankind. This is a great goal, and one which I wholeheartedly endorse. But I also challenge my sociological colleagues to use this film to spark hard conversations in gender courses. Once we affirm everyone’s right to identify their own gender, what then? Doesn’t gender remain a social structure that legitimates inequality? We socialize boys and girls differently: boys are expected to be athletic and excel in science, girls at the arts and humanities. Women are expected to shoulder primary responsibility for caretaking, men are often not seen as valuable family members if they are not breadwinners and employed in stable jobs. In interviews with millennials for my new book, most are confused about the norms and expectations attached to gender in the 21st Century but all of them know that gender structures exist and shape their lives. Sociologist Kathleen Gerson’s research suggests that while most young, heterosexual people today want to share family and economic labor with partners, women would rather go it alone then become economic dependents while the men would settle for wives who fall back into more traditional wifely roles if equality proves too tough. As sociologist Paula England has argued, the gender revolution has indeed stalled. This film is an important educational tool to teach about the diversity of gender identity, and the civil rights of those who cross the gender binary, and those who reject it entirely. And yet, it challenges us as sociologists to engage our students with a more theoretically complex conversation about gender as a social structure that legitimates inequality.
You can watch clips and read selections from the National Geographic special issue on gender here: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/gender-revolution-a-journey-with-katie-couric/
Barbara J. Risman is in the sociology department at University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Where Will the Millennials Take Us: Transforming the Gender Structure? She is also President of the Board of the Council on Contemporary Families.