Plumes of pink smoke. Explosions of blue. Expectant parents laughing, screaming, fainting, shooting arrows or even guns. The new documentary “Every Body” opens with footage of the often absurd practice of elaborate “gender reveals.”
But by the end of this illuminating film, we’re forced to confront something much deeper and more insidious: society’s need to divide humans into a binary system, and the sometimes disastrous results for those born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that isn't neatly “male” or “female.”
The term “intersex” is one many are unfamiliar with (“whatever THAT is,” scoffs a certain former Fox News pundit in an early news clip). Hopefully, director Julie Cohen's sensitive and graceful work — deftly weaving hope and some joy, too, into its sobering lesson — will help change that.
Cohen, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated “RBG” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, chooses to tell her story through three main subjects who are now proudly open about their bodies and lives, despite childhoods shrouded in confusion, secrecy and often pain — especially from medically unnecessary corrective surgeries.
The filmmakers, citing experts, say up to 1.7% of the population is born with some intersex traits. One such person is Alicia Roth Weigel, a political consultant and activist in Austin, Texas. Roth Weigel, blonde and blue-eyed, notes she used to absolutely clean up in the online dating world — but that was before she came out publicly as intersex.
She tells us she was born with XY chromosomes — the typical genetic makeup of a male — and with a vagina, but no ovaries. Rather, she had testes, which were surgically removed when she was a child. “That’s a castration,” she says bluntly.
And although Roth Weigel shares photos depicting a happy youth surrounded by friends, she describes a painful side to her young life, carrying around tampons to give the impression that she, too, menstruated, or being instructed by doctors to use painful means to create a vaginal canal, alone in her room, as a child — a situation so secret, even her brother didn't know.
As for Sean Saifa Wall, he shows us birth documents where his gender is classified “ambiguous,” then crossed out and assigned “female.” Born with a mix of male and female characteristics, he, like Weigel Roth, underwent a gonadectomy, and was treated as a girl even though he always felt like a boy.
Then there is River Gallo, a nonbinary artist and actor who at age 12 underwent surgery to implant prosthetic testes. Gallo, who uses they/them pronouns, describes telling an early girlfriend in college that they had had testicular cancer, rather than explaining the real reason she wouldn't get pregnant.
These conversations are instructive but also uplifting, showing three people who've found satisfaction and purpose in their activism, which is aimed at preventing invasive surgery on children too young to decide for themselves. (A slogan, at rallies: “Unless I say, scalpels away.”)
The disturbing middle section of the film focuses on the late John Money, a sexologist at Johns Hopkins University who essentially posited that gender was determined by social conditioning, meaning one could raise a child to be a different gender than genetics dictated.
His influence was profound in the field, and also in the life of David Reimer, subject of what became known as the John/Joan case. One of a pair of twin boys, he was maimed during a botched circumcision. Reimer’s mother consulted with Money and decided to raise him as a girl, named Brenda.
In a story told in archival news clips, we learn how David was miserable as a girl, ripping off his dress, and reclaimed his male gender later through painful surgery, eventually marrying a woman and going public to spare others the same fate. He tragically ended his life at 38.
Reimer’s mother appears in clips, devastated that she hurt her son by forcing him to be female. Although he was not intersex, Reimer's story resonates deeply for the subjects of Cohen's film, who say their own parents were merely doing what they thought best. Cohen captures a particularly moving scene between Gallo and their mother, weeping as they embrace. Still, Gallo quips: "I don't think she’ll ever get my pronouns right.”
Near the end, harking back to those early scenes of gender reveals, it’s especially striking to hear one intersex activist express the wish that they'll someday see expectant parents erect a sign in their yard that's not pink or blue — but rather yellow.
And, that they will merely announce: “It’s a baby.”
“Every Body,” a Focus Features release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some language and graphic nude images.” Running time: 92 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.