Welcome back for another round of dissecting how popular entertainment perceives intersex individuals, and how closely these perceptions track reality.
Although I'll be looking at some medical shows in the future (like ER and House), I really liked discussing Juno previously was because it was something I hadn't heard others talking about before. In this vein, I want to discuss an episode from the totally heartwarming, cult classic television show, Freaks and Geeks.
This come-of-age, slice-of-life comedy-drama (um, holy hyphenation, Batman...I'm out of control) depicts two groups of outcast misfits, and their middle-/high-school trials and tribulations. I haven't seen the entire series, but from what I have seen, it's fantastic, and easy to see why it's both critically acclaimed and bemoaned for having been cancelled after the first season.
Imagine my delight, then, when my partner told me there was a Freaks and Geeks episode on intersex! I was really psyched.
Unfortunately, whatever hype may rightfully be attributed to this show ultimately can't be applied to Episode 17 - "The Little Things." (Or try here at Veoh, since you WMG won't authorize audio track on 2 of the 5 parts on YouTube. Freaking corporations. Be warned, though: my computer may now be acting weird after visiting Veoh. Just sayin'.)
This intersex portion of this episode focuses on Ken (Seth Rogen) talking to his girlfriend Amy, who he's been seen earlier in the episode being cute and cuddly with, and praising her awesomeness. In one scene, while Ken and Amy snuggle on Amy's bed, Ken discloses that he doesn't invite Amy to his house because he hates spending time there. As an example of how disconnected he his to his parents, he discloses that he was raised by a nanny and not so much by his parents. Amy states that she didn't know that, and is glad Ken told her.
Here's where the problems start. In return, Amy says she's got something to tell. She bolts straight-up and positions her body in confrontation-mode, making Ken promise he won't freak out. Ken is seemingly a bit confused. After all, what the hell could be such a crisis, right? (He actually says, "If you killed someone or somethin'...*trails into incoherent mumbling*.") Whatever Amy's doing, this is apparently how to scare the living daylights out of someone.
After a brief moment of denfensiveness, Amy states that at birth, she "had the potential to be male or female," being born with "both male and female parts." Ken deadpans, "Uh-huh..." looking like he already mentally checked out of the conversation that was set up to fail from the beginning. Amy states that her parents and the doctors decided to "make [her] a girl, and thank god, because that's who I am," and follows it with, "it's still a big part of my life, and [I] thought you should know."
Ken sure doesn't look like he's glad he knows, though. Actually, Ken looks like he's going to faint or hurl or implode from sheer discomfort. He tries to comfort the visibly-upset Amy with something eloquent like, "You know, it uh, er, uh, er, uh, you're- uh, er, - you're all girl now." (And repeating it later.) And then, as an apparent mood-lightening joke, "You know, if I were dating you when you were just born, things might be a little different because...uh...all that stuff, and *trails into incoherent mumbling again*," as well as, "I had my appendix out, so...uh, I've been there."
The next day in school, Ken can barely communicate with Amy about going to chemistry class and Salisbury steak before going in for an awkward, eye-wandering hug instead of a kiss before she trudges away, looking defeated. Later, they're sitting, not touching each other, on a wooden table outside, and Amy defensively calls him out. "You can't even look at me!" Ken counters with, "How am I supposed to act after ya tell me...somethin' like that?" and then, "I don't know what to do! There's nothin' I can do...I can't change it!" Amy asks him if he can "live with it," and Ken responds, "Live with what? It's over. You know, move on." Amy counters he doesn't get it, "...that no matter what the doctors did, there's always gonna be some part of [her] that's...*stops abruptly, like it's too horrific to go on." "...a guy?" Ken helpfully offers. Amy is none to pleased with this, but it gets Ken staring off in the distance, mulling over his suggestion.
In the next scene, at a sleepover with guy friends Nick (Jason Segel) and Daniel (James Franco), Ken states he's gonna break up with Amy, out of the blue. After making half-hearted excuses, he decides to disclose Amy's intersex to his buds - "...and not to tell anyone, EVER, okay?" After a pause, "Amy's not really a girl." After a well-placed, "Huh?", he explains she's "a girl, but she's- she's kinda part guy, too." Amazingly, this doesn't clear up his friends' confusion, so he offers that, "when she was born, she was carrying both the gun, AND the holster." Cut to James Franco's WTFBBQ face. Nick asks, also rather eloquently, "Well...uh, erm, uh, does she have, uh...the gun?" "NO!" Ken responds, as though keeping all her own body parts was a ridiculous notion. "The doctors...took care of it." Nick thinks it's cool, cause she's a girl now, but Daniel says, "I don't think it works that way. Ya better get rid of her." He says he might love her, though, to which Daniel responds, "Does that mean that you're gay?" Daniel says he was joking, but Nick now has doubt...is he gay for maybe loving Amy?
So he goes to the guidance counselor the next day, and telling that, "...there's a small - little - chance...I might be...gay?" The counselor responds that it's cool, but Ken suddenly becomes uncomfortable after learning that the guidance counselor himself is not gay, as he had assumed. (And we all know what ASSumptions do, amirite?) After a quick, "I think I better get goin'..." he indulges in listening to a bit of music before pulling out a super-secret-looking manilla envelope with two pornographic magazines - one featuring females, and one males. The scene ends with him staring from one cover to the other, looking confused as hell.
Later, Ken and Amy arrive to meet up with some friends, including Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Kim (Busy Philipps). Daniel casually says, "Hey, guys." Ken aggressively counters, "What's that supposed to mean...Daniel?" After pointedly staring from Daniel to Amy to Daniel again, Daniel holds up his hands, saying, "Ah, geez, Ken, I didn't mean it like that..." But Ken's not havin' it. He clocks Daniel, who falls off the fence or post or whatever he was sitting on, and his other friends yell at Ken for punching Dan. Amy, putting it together that Ken discussed their private conversation with others, says, "Oh, my god," and runs off, horrified. Ken runs off to catch up with Amy, while Lindsay and Kim stand there in shock that Daniel isn't going after Ken to beat the crap out of him. Ken taps on Amy's window, and apologizes for being an idiot, but now it's Amy that's not havin' it. She wipes away some tears, shuts her eyes, and ignores Ken, who stalks off dejectedly. On the way home, Daniel gives him a lift, indicating they're cool with one another.
The next day, Ken and his friend Lindsay's younger brother, Sam (John Francis Daly), run into one another in the bathroom. Sam is grumpy and nervous about breaking up with his girlfriend - a stuck-up, belitting, controlling jerk that everyone has been encouraging him to keep dating the entire episode because she's hot and popular (and he's not widely considered either of those things). Ken shares that he's thinking about breaking up with his girlfriend as well, since things are "...very, very complicated." Sam bemoans that he and his girlfriend have nothing in common, and he has no fun when he's with her. Ken can't empathize, because his girlfriend is cool, and he does have fun with her. "God, then, what's the problem?" a cranky Sam shoots off. Ken pauses, and eventually kind of smiles and says, "I don't know."
With his newfound enlightenment, Ken rushes to find Amy among the other band kids to see her before she plays tuba for President Bush. (...Just go with it.) He blurts out, "I'm sorry...and I don't care...I'm so sorry." And then they go in for a hug and kiss, while her tuba bashes him in the head. (Karma! Yesssssssss)
In short, this entire episode is a shitshow for a whole bunch of reasons.
1) Intersex isn't some horrible, awful thing that requires you to terrify your conversation partner before discussing it. A lot of how people react to what you say is how you present it. Prefacing an otherwise really boring, mundane conversation with a scare-your-pants-off tactic somehow makes even what you packed for lunch today somewhat sinister. If you discuss talking about your healthy, normal intersex body without shame attached to it, your companion will be much more likely to have a positive, productive conversation about intersex with you. Conversely, if you present it like it's something to be ashamed about, they're probably going to internalize that view. This is a far cry from saying that it is easy to talk about intersex; there ARE certain things that are difficult to talk about, and it can be really great to be open enough to say, "Some of the things I want to discuss are difficult for me to do so, but it's important to me to do so, and I trust and value you enough as a friend to have this conversation with you." But authentically and candidly voicing your negative feelings surrounding some lived experiences is really different than generating P!A!N!I!C! regarding something that truly isn't an emergency - medical, socio-cultural, or otherwise.
2) Amy really poorly explained intersex. I can't blame Ken for being super-confused regarding what intersex is throughout the entire episode. If intersex were explained properly - as a biological way of being (and not a medical condition) that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. - then Ken may have been able to act appropriately with accurate information in hand. It's painful to see him go to his guidance counselor and initiate awkward conversations with friends wondering if he's gay or if Amy's "really" female, but if this is seriously how intersex was described to you, would you have reacted so differently? I'm unsure that I would have.
3) Amy says she's born with "male and female parts." Since intersex is essentialized by genitals, the viewer likely assumes she means both a penis and vagina at once. This is echoed in no uncertain terms later by Ken, asserting that Amy is packing both "gun and holster." There are lots of biological traits that we designate "male" or "female," and many of these aren't external genitalia, including body hair distrubution, breast development, nipple development, hormone types, hormone levels, bone structure, musculature, internal sex organs, and chromosomes. Amy could've been talking about ANY of these traits, but the focus is on the genitals. It appears that the writers didn't do enough (any?) research to truly understand what intersex is.
4) Amy expresses relief that her parents "made the right choice" in assigning her female, and performing genital mutilation surgery to feminize her external genitalia. How would the episode look if Amy was NOT happy about the choice that her parents made - whether or not she felt female in terms of sex or gender? The issue of right to consent to medical procedures that are not for health benefits is not discussed. While Amy might be happy she was assigned female, this episode does not address the fact that Amy could've been just as happy had surgery not been performed at all, and she'd been given the agency to decide what was done to her own body when she was able to consent - thus allowing HER to make the right choice for HERSELF. Additionally, none of the very common after-effects of genital mutilation surgery were discussed - in Amy's probable case of clitoral surgery, painful/lack of sexual sensation (including orgasm), severe scarring, trauma from multiple surgeries, etc.
5) Amy states that intersex is a "big part of [her] life," but doesn't explicate upon this. Why is it a big part of her life? This would've been a great opportunity to discuss the physical and psycho-emotional trauma intersex individuals commonly experience as a result of their experiences with the medical-industrial complex, through the sum of her own lived experiences. But she doesn't do this. If something is such a big part of her life, why wouldn't she expand upon this to help Ken (and us viewers!) understand why?
6) Ken states twice that Amy's "all girl now." Amy is all girl as long as she says she's all girl - whether or not she received genital mutilation surgery. Medical "treatment" doesn't legitimize one's sex and gender identities. Amy is who she says she is, and that should be taken seriously, at face value, because no one can know who Amy is except Amy herself. Period.
7) Ken states that "things might be a little different because...uh...all that stuff," indicating that he would be reluctant at best to date Amy if genital mutilation surgery hadn't been performed on her. Having undergone surgery without consent doesn't make one more eligible date.
8) Ken lightheartedly compares intersex genital mutilation surgery as akin to getting one's appendix out. This normalizes the view that intersex is a medical condition in need of fixing, and that medical "treatment" serves to "fix" the problem of being intersex. Not cool.
9) Apparently, it's so shaming to learn that someone is intersex that it is perfectly acceptable to not want to look them in the eye or touch them after being told "...something like that." It could totally be catching, right?! Great job, Ken.
10) Ken tells Amy to "move on" from her lived experiences because "it's over." This implies that because Amy underwent genital mutilation surgery, her ordeals being intersex are over! YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY! While well-intentioned, telling Amy to just get the eff over it invalidates her lived experiences, and erases both her past and identity as an intersex individual. Ultimately, it is a move toward erasure of intersex individuals in general - removing the freaks from all the good, "normal" people out there that were fortunate enough not to be born as weirdos. This also indicates that once medical "treatment" is performed, the intersex individual is "fixed," and thus doesn't really have to think about intersex ever again if they don't want to, because it's a non-issue. However, intersex individuals - whether or not they identify as intersex - often deal with the aftermath of the trauma they underwent during treatment, in their family lives, etc for the rest of their lives.
11) Amy clearly isn't out regarding her intersex, so Ken had no right to disclose Amy's intersex status to others without consulting her first.
12) Daniel's urging to "get rid of her" when Ken discloses Amy's intersex status indicates that they're something wrong with intersex individuals, and a desire to date them is misplaced, inappropriate, and kind of creepy and weird. This definitely overlaps with queer-phobia ("OMG KEN YOU CAN'T DATE SOMEONE WHO'S KIND OF A BOY THEN UR GAY WTF LOLZ") as well as trans-phobia (since Amy's now-perceived sex and gender indentities don't match up in Daniel's mind with Amy's stated sex and gender identities). This whole scene is really pathetic in how generally -phobic it is.
13) Who keeps their porn in a manilla envelope? (Seriously.)
14) More conflation of sex and gender variables occurs when Ken assumes his guidance counselor is gay based on...what, exactly? How he acts? dresses? What? *Kennnnn...?!*
15) Ken's overreaction at Daniel's use of the plural, "guys" when addressing Ken and Amy reinforces the fact that no matter how Amy identifies herself, she'll always kind of be a guy or something anyway. By virtue of Amy being intersex, Ken's incorrect notions have priority over Amy's professed identities.
16) Don't go in for a passionate kiss when your head is close to heavy metal things, dumbass. Really?
The one great thing about the intersex portion of this episode is that Ken comes around to the realization that Amy fucking rocks, and neither her sex and gender identities or her intersex lived experiences are going to change that. He loves Amy for the person she is, and throwing away his great relationship isn't worth it just because her body form is less typical. But, this heartwarming ending is simply too little, too late; a few seconds of smooching amidst shiny things doesn't make up for an entire episode's worth of ignorance.
Intersex people aren't freaks. You'd think a show called Freaks and Geeks would've gotten that, right?