Tom Daley
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Regarding National Geographic's Trans Doc: Reductive Comes to Mind

Gender Revolution

The new National Geographic documentary Gender Revolution has been described as a groundbreaking must-see for everyone. The screening at Ithaca College reflected that, with people from multiple generations in attendance. The lecture hall was filled with those seeking an education about a new topic, those chasing down extra credit points for class, and those seeking the representation they’ve been desperately missing.

Before I begin, let me acknowledge the lens through which I view the world. I am a white, cisgender, gay, masculine-presenting woman. Although I watched the film critically, I will acknowledge that there were a number of problems that I did not become aware of until the discussion following the screening. This is why beginning a dialogue is essential for any progress.

As a communications student, I am extremely aware of the ways in which the media industry currently works. I understand that the intended audience for this film was not queer and gender-nonconforming people, but rather it was meant for cisgender people who are trying to take the first step in educating themselves.

When the discussion following the film began, another communications student in the room defended the film. His argument was that in order to make money, the production staff needed to make decisions when creating the film that would keep the intended audience interested rather than properly educated. He claimed, “We can’t change the way that the industry works.”

I want to challenge that idea. I refuse to let our media makers continue to be complacent with the “way things are,” because it’s not acceptable to teach people that only some lives are worthy of tolerance or acceptance. If we take everything we see for fact without questioning the viewpoint from which it is being presented because it is coming from a reputable source, we will continue to perpetuate institutionalized discrimination and oppression.

It has become apparent to media makers that audiences are interested in learning more about gender and — for being at what the media has called the “transgender tipping point” — it is the responsibility of those in the position of creating media to present a wide variety of stories that reflect the diversity in our country and around the world. At this time in our country and the world, it is essential that we hold others accountable for using their massive platform to perpetuate selective acceptance.

In making this film, the National Geographic team probably felt as though they were making a radical move talking about gender. For many of its viewers, it was a radical subject, diverging from what they’ve always known. But in their “radical” move to discuss gender, they continued to present the gender-deviant people in the film as they often have been in the media: as an oddity or a strange phenomenon.

Of the stories presented in the film, the majority were white trans women who identified within the gender binary and were wealthy enough to afford gender-affirmation surgery. There was little discussion of trans masculinity, an aspect that seemed to perpetuate society's pervasive male gaze. The producers insist that they are displaying the idea of gender as a spectrum, but they seem to focus on telling stories only of those who identify within the gender binaries.

By excluding the stories of those who are not privileged enough to have surgery, those who do not “pass” as cisgender or live in a state that have laws protecting their basic human rights, we are not “shedding light on the countless untold stories of struggle, understanding, ignorance, and love” that National Geographic has claimed in the movie's synopsis. We can’t claim we are making progress if we are not making progress for everyone.

I want to say that everyone should see the movie to start the conversation about gender, but the thought of sending a narrow-minded person to watch this film for information about gender variance makes me cringe.

The documentary stages the connection between intersex and transgender as a roadmap; that if a person is born intersex, they are likely to identify with the gender opposite of which they were raised. There are plenty of intersex people who are not transgender and plenty of transgender people who were not born intersex, but the timeline in which the film presented the information is likely to give an uncritical audience this impression.

The idea of gender is shown as something that you can get right. It leads at the idea that you can figure it out and then it’s set forever, when in reality we are all faced with decisions to make about gender every day. Whether cisgender, transgender, nonbinary or somewhere else on the spectrum, we all make a decision each day based on societal norms on how we will present ourselves in the public sphere.

What the film failed to portray was humanizing stories about trans and gender-nonconforming people that didn’t revolve around the biology, the surgery, and the issues that are getting mainstream media recognition. The film quickly glazed over the fact that 2016 was the deadliest year for trans people, failing to emphasize that trans women of color were the most targeted group. Homelessness and suicide rates were mentioned once but hardly discussed. There was no discussion of the gender dysphoria that so many nonconforming people have struggled with.

If a diverse group of people from across the spectrum of gender had made this film, it would have been educational about all people because they would have made sure everyone was represented. But this was a film made by cis people for cis people. They tried to use biological science to find causation for gender variance and although none of the studies have shown clear scientific evidence, they suggested that one day we may be able to conduct a blood test to find out if one’s biological sex matches with their gender identity.

They have completely missed the point that gender is a social construct created by humans to categorize people into boxes.

Do better, NatGeo.

JULIA WILLIAMSON is a student at Ithaca College and a former editorial intern for The Advocate.

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