Medical Mysteries & Freaky Fables: A Critique of Intersex Representation on Television
Author: Phoebe Hart
Duration: 9′ 36”
Published: November 2023
Throughout history, people with intersex variations have been positioned somewhere between ‘prodigy literature and pornography, mythology and medical discourse’ (Gilbert 2000, 145). This video essay Medical Mysteries & Freaky Fables critiques screen-based representations of intersex people; individuals who have reproductive organs at variance with the genetic and/or hormonal sex, who comprise almost 2% of the human population. In this essay, I (as a filmmaker and academic with an intersex variation) discuss several contemporary stereotypes and then repurpose scenes from television series Friends, House, M.D., Masters of Sex, American Horror Story: Freak Show, Freaks and Geeks and others to challenge and transcend representations of people with intersex variations beyond mere voyeurism or abjection. Investigating representation on television (and now streaming) is important as it is a form which broadly influences audience perceptions of people with different bodies, around which there are myriad human rights issues.
When considering the representation of people with intersex variations on television, Julia Kristeva’s view of abjection, a psychological process which occurs during the creation of one’s ego and ‘borders between self and other’ (cited in McAfee 2004, 45), is relevant. Here, the initial step in a life-long process of abjection occurs at an early stage of childhood, when a child first ‘spits out’ what is dangerous to him or her: sour milk, faeces, or even ‘a mother’s engulfing embrace’ (46). Butler asserts that identification of a hetero-normative sense of self occurs by rejecting the ‘abject’ body that falls outside the limited classifications of ‘male’ and ‘female’ in the mind of the subject, where the body of a person with an intersex variation may dwell. Representations of people with intersex variations have changed as societal values and ethical standards have changed. While some may argue that the representations of yesteryear have been replaced by ‘politically correct’ versions, and in some cases non-shaming, non-stigmatising, non-objectifying social and romantic situations as ‘an everyday social type’ (Pullen 2014, 273).
Still, stereotypes persist, and over the last three decades, audiences have seen a range of exploitative portrayals of people with different bodies in film and television. Many films use revulsion, sympathy, or empathy to grant admission to hetero-normative audiences (Halberstam 2005, 77), and characters that openly display sexual or gendered difference often perish or are punished ‘in service of returning the narrative to the normal world’ (Clum in Pullen 2014, 274). Moreover, it could be argued that comparatively very little is seen or heard about the hermaphrodite at all; where once there was the ‘awe and horror’ of the highly visible carnival sideshow or medical treatise, the intersex body is now rendered absent by medical intervention and erasure (Grosz 1996, 60-61). As a population, intersex people continue to face stigma and the inequities of current legal and medical frameworks that impact negatively upon people including the non-consensual surgeries on intersexed infants and children.
Methods & Outcomes
As a person with an intersex variation, in some ways for me editing this essay was a form of recuperative surgery. My time spent in the edit suite was like finally taking the scalpel into my own hands, cutting and recutting along the lines of puckered scars, and reopening old wounds to correct the damage done. In the process, I developed a cutting-edge therapeutic technology that is stitching the disparate sectors of intersex lives back together again, attempting to unite us once more in spirit and flesh. In the re-editing of troubling representations, I use the brazen three-breasted ‘Desiree Dupree’ (Angela Bassett) of American Horror Story as a ‘Greek chorus’, reviving a carnival sideshow figure from yesteryear who comments on the moral issues presented in the contemporary (re)edited dramatic sequences, and expressing a violence and revengeful emotions appropriate in the mind of the intersex viewer. Whereas some characterisations of intersex people on television represent a surplus of femaleness, Desiree is complete monstrosity, made more so thanks to the imbroglio of her race, sexuality, sex and gender and a mash of concurrent stereotypes around black women and their sexualities (Hammonds 1996, 93-94). Dupree unashamedly and playfully prods at hierarchies of normalcy, whereby hetero-normative imperatives of sex, desire and gender are maintained by the psychological placement of self against ‘“incoherent” or “discontinuous” gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined’ (Butler 1990, 17).
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Gilbert, Ruth. 2000. “‘Strange notions’: Treatments of early modern hermaphrodites.” In Madness, disability and social exclusion: The archaeology and anthropology of ‘difference’, edited by Jane Hubert, 144-158. London: Routledge.
Grosz, Elizabeth. 1996. “Intolerable ambiguity: Freaks as/at the limit.” In Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body, edited by Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York and London: New York University Press.
Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York & London: New York University Press.
Hammonds, Evelynn M. 1996. “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence.” In Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, edited by M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 93-104. Routledge.
McAfee, Noelle. 2004. Julia Kristeva. Edited by Robert Eaglestone, Routledge Critical Thinkers. New York and London: Routledge.
Pullen, Christopher. 2014. “Self-reflexive Screenwriting and LGBT Identity: Framing and Indirectly Reading the Self.” In Screenwriters and Screenwriting: Putting Practice into Context, edited by Craig Betty, 271-287. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
American Horror Story. (2014). R. Murphy and B. Falchuk, FX.
Faking It. (2014). C. Covington & N. Niguel, MTV.
Freaks & Geeks. (2000). P. Feig, NBC.
Friends. (2001) D. Crane and M. Kauffman, NBC.
Grey’s Anatomy. (2006). S. Rhimes, ABC.
House M.D. (2006). D. Shore, Fox.
Masters of Sex. (2014). T. Maier and M. Ashford, Showtime.
Will & Grace. (2017). D. Kohan & M. Mutchnick, NBC.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
Reviewer’s note: the following review refers to a previous draft of the video, which has since been revised following the review; the main notes raised in this review are thus no longer relevant, and I am very happy to see the revised version of Hart’s video published here. The original review appears here in the interests of transparency, and may also be of interest for those interested in the process of videographic creation and peer-review.
Hart’s video essay explores televisual representations of intersex people; this is a fascinating, underexplored and important subject to tackle – all the more so considering the author’s intimate personal relationship with it. The televisual case studies are well chosen and compellingly addressed, the video is well made, in terms of both editing and voiceover delivery, and the supporting statement is coherent and persuasive. Furthermore, this sort of analysis is a welcome addition to the criminally-underdeveloped field of academic videographic engagement with works of television.
I find myself conflicted as I write this review; for the reasons above, I would like to recommend its publication. However, as a piece of videographic scholarship, I feel that the potential of this video essay is not as developed as I would like it to be – and as I believe it is capable of being. I find the end result to be lacking, and therefore would not recommend publication in its current form; I would, however, strongly encourage a revised resubmission that will address the issues detailed below – and very much hope to see such a version eventually published!
The video is chiefly comprised of two sections: the first, a more open and “poetic” section, without voiceover narration; the second, a more straightforward, explanatory and voiceover-driven section. Combining these two different approaches in one video is a legitimate structural/aesthetic choice, which can produce interesting results. In its current form, however, it leads to a couple of issues that hinder the video’s potential. The first is redundancy: there are many clips that are repeated in both sections of the video; repetition can be useful and have added value in itself, of course, but I find the repetition in this case to be far too substantial and unwarranted. Furthermore, many of these clips are completely legible and coherent on their own, as they appear in the first section of the video. Their repetition, accompanied by detailed explanatory voiceover, thus seems superfluous, as though the viewers are being explained something they’ve already understood on their own. This redundancy extends to the intro text of the video and to the supporting statement as well – as some context information is repeated twice or even three times in total.
Another issue created by the structure of the video is that the “best” comes first; I find the first section to be its most powerful, original, and creative element, and the second section, while its points are interesting and well made, simply pales in comparison. It is far more straightforward and expositional/information-based. The video thus “peaks” early, which makes for a somewhat unsatisfying viewing.
I can see three possible directions for this video, in a revised version that will address these issues. The first – my least favourite one – is to remove the first section and make it as a more developed version of the second section: a fully explanatory, voiceover-based video essay. This would take care of both issues detailed above, but would also be removing the best part of it! The second – perhaps my personal favourite – is to remove the second section and make it as a more developed version of the first section: a fully poetic, non-explanatory video essay. This option would relegate all or most of the contextual information to the supporting statement, and while it is certainly more challenging as a videographic approach, I believe the result has the potential to be more rewarding. The third option is the middle ground: keeping both sections, but re-editing both to minimize redundancy, and placing the poetic section last rather than first. This would seem to be the option closest to the current shape of the video, and would make sure to preserve the advantages of both approaches. In this case I’d recommend beginning with a very brief intro (without voiceover) followed by the explanatory section, and concluding with the poetic section.
Building on the fascinating parallel between recuperative surgery and the process of editing, as suggested by the author in the supporting statement, it is not lost on me that my suggestions above reflect a somewhat similar tension in videographic approaches: the video was “born” with both explanatory and poetic parts, and my suggestions are to decide for it which of these parts should be cut out of it in order to enable its stable identity as one or the other; or, alternately, to retain both parts and allow it to grow to its full potential… in which case, option three might be the most appropriate in this case, regardless of my own personal preference for option two.
Besides this main issue of structure and videographic approach, I have some additional notes on the specific sections of the video. Whereas the previous issues are ones that I feel need to be addressed in order to make the video fit for publication, these next notes are not as critical – but I would still recommend considering them, as I believe the video could benefit from addressing these issues as well.
The poetic section, as I wrote previously, is the most interesting part of the video – and I believe this section could be further developed; in particular, there are two fascinating ideas mentioned in the supporting statement, which I feel are underdeveloped in its current form, and I would love to see fleshed out more. The first is the association of editing and recuperative surgery, as mentioned before, and the “therapeutic” quality of the editing process. I cannot stress enough just how insightful and generative this parallel is – but in the video’s current form, this idea is only expressed in the supporting statement, and I would love to see it expressed in some form in the editing itself (not explicitly stated in voiceover, but implicitly conveyed in the poetic montage to a stronger degree). The second is the decision to use the character of Desiree Dupree as a “Greek chorus” of sorts – another inspired choice, but one not present enough in the video itself, only evident briefly and toward the end of the poetic section; again, I would love to see the character employed in this way more prominently throughout this section.
The explanatory section of the video ends with the following statement: “This essay challenges how intersex characters may be presented and read, and encourages television producers to work with intersex people when crafting intersex characters for the screen.” While the video covers the representations in its chosen case-studies very eloquently, I am less sure about the “challenge”: that is, how well it manages to suggest possible alternatives, beyond critiquing existing representations and their shortcomings. I would encourage developing this aspect of the video – and the voiceover narration – further, to have a more accurate description of what the video does and does not do in practice. On that note – perhaps the “challenge” is in fact realized more fully by the poetic section? In which case, placing that section after the voiceover ends can be a fitting choice, in this regard as well. As for the suggestion that producers work with intersex people: unless I’m mistaken, this aspect was not addressed when discussing the chosen case-studies; were these all developed without the involvement of intersex people? Whether they all were or not – this should be explicitly addressed in the voiceover, in order to set up such a statement at the end of the voiceover section.
Lastly, there are eight series listed in the credits; five of those are presented explicitly and examined more-or-less in detail. The other three are never addressed clearly, with short clips spread out here and there – which seems out of place. My suggestion would be to either remove those series entirely and only focus on the five primary case studies; or to address these series more explicitly, mentioning them by name, like the other series, even without going into more detailed analysis; this could easily be done as part the intro to the video (thus establishing a wider body of texts relevant to the topic), for example.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The video essay explores an original topic – that of the representation of intersex people in US popular film and television. It reveals the ways in which they are positioned as ‘problems’ to be solved in narratives, as victims because of their ambiguous sex or the butt of mocking humour as in the episode of Friends where the Jennifer Aniston character is made fun of by her circle by being supposed to be intersex. In this regard, the essay builds on the analysis of the stereotyping of sexual and gender differences which have been examined extensively in relation to queer and women’s representation but hardly at all in relation to this other oppressed minority. The essay is thus revealing in bringing to the fore a relatively neglected issue.
The compilation of clips from a fascinating range of material highlights the troubling of gendered identities posed by the intersex person but also the ways in which such representations can work to either confirm the ‘freaky’ status of intersex people and/or question ideologies of gender. At times the author’s argument is a little unclear as the commentary suggests that all the clips featured tend to demean the intersex characters without giving enough sense of how the narratives about them unfold in the different genres included and may allow for contradictory responses across a story, both empathetic and negative. So more attention to the question of form and representation would strengthen the analysis.
The opening montage of clips which are then repeated with commentary in the second half of the video is slightly repetitive but could be read as potentially allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about the material selected in the first instance and having a cumulative effect in underlining aspects of the characterization.
The written statement draws effectively on gender theory to analyse how intersexuality has been conceptualized although there is a lack of reference to other film /video essay work which might have informed the approach to the medium.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.