Gender Revolution: A National Geographic Documentary

The Office of LGBTQ Services and the Women’s and Gender Resource Center sponsored a screening of the recent National Geographic documentary, Gender Revolution, followed by a discussion facilitated by Political Science Professor Kathleen Marchetti on Thursday, March 23. The film was released last year, along with an issue of the magazine that focused on gender. I think the film does some work that is concurrent with mine and other advocates in educating others about gender and sexuality, but its simplicity of content and delivery brought up concerns for me as someone interested in a journalism career. It forced me to return to a familiar line of thought: how do we effectively introduce people to a more nuanced understanding of sexuality and identity without prioritizing the comfort of those who have never had their identity or sexuality questioned?

Couric’s delivery and method of discourse in this film is simultaneously commendable and problematic. She approaches a wide body of people who are intersex, transgender, allies, and activists in a very open way that is different from her manner as a news anchor. Throughout the film, she repeatedly acknowledges her ignorance, mistakes, and uncertainty about terms she is attempting to use. On one level, I like this as a method of creating empathy with an audience that feels lost in a general desire to accept but no concept of how to approach such an action. While I think that strategy has value, something that others pointed out in discussion is Couric’s manner of asking questions. Simply put, they are leading. Though I very clearly understand the necessity of brevity and making sure your audience can understand the ideas of an interview, it is irritating to be left wondering what certain interviewees might have said if asked what their opinions were rather than to confirm or deny Couric’s understanding.

The issues the film focuses on are also two-sided. There is a significant portion about the experience of intersex individuals, which was noticed by many in the room as different from the usual approach to discussions of gender. Few people know about these individuals’ struggle with non-consensual surgery as children, which is often followed by isolation and denial of information. I appreciated seeing affected persons who seek closure alongside young people growing up with parents who have chosen not to interfere with their child’s gender identification. That is so important for the audience I think the film targets, specifically one which doesn’t see examples of healthy approaches to parenting a child who doesn’t fit the binary.

Leaving the event and automatically attempting to evaluate it as a plus or minus in the effort to create understanding, I realized the fallacy of this exercise. While we are always working to create a foolproof method for cultivating understanding and unity, there simply isn’t one. While that is sometimes hard to face, especially when I hear people I love share their experiences with harassment and macroaggressions that continue with what seems like equal vehemence, it doesn’t mean no improvement is happening. Even though there are people who will refuse to open themselves past their bubble or violently reject that which they do not understand, there are opportunities to make incremental changes to this. They are usually not dramatic, and I think most of the time we don’t even see them come to fruition. Nevertheless, the efforts, including this film and its faults, are valuable. People will see this. Some of them will want to learn more, and others will simply know a bit more than they did and understand their ignorance was not uncommon. It’s certainly not ideal, but what is? Instead of focusing on the film’s failings, I hope that others will watch it and do one better. That’s an official challenge, by the way.

See for clips from the film, and go to Landis House to view the copy housed there and seek more information.

Written by Margot McCrillis ’18