Every Body is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Every Body, the new documentary from Julie Cohen (RBG), opens with a montage of "gender-reveal" videos, those elaborate stunts in which people discover or announce the expected gender of their impending child through explosions of pink or blue smoke. Couples detonate various things, shoot various things, and, in at least one instance, ride a rampaging bull to unleash puffs of color-coded expectation and predetermination.
(That these stunts are so often violent seems odd—unless we're willing to think about the role strict binary gender expectations play in our society. Then it starts to make more sense.)
I don't know if gender-reveal parties are a uniquely American form of collective cultural madness. (I suspect they are, but attempting to Google it just led to countless "101 Fun Ideas for Your Gender Reveal Party" articles, which depressed me.) But certainly our society—like every society where power differentials exist, which is pretty much all of them—is obsessed with, and heavily invested in, the binary concept of gender. It's the first box, the first descriptive, the first either/or designation that begins to shape a person's identity and destiny before they're anything more than a distant dream. When someone announces they're pregnant—or even thinking about getting pregnant—the process of boxing the child into a place and role begins. What are you having? Do you know what you're having? Are you going to find out what you're having? What do you want to have?
And certainly, if it hasn't happened before, the question is asked, and the answer is sought, the moment a person enters the world and begins breathing air instead of fluid. Is it a boy or a girl? And even in our slowly enlightening age, it is still the rare doctor or parent who will provide the only sensible answer: Maybe, but there are other options, too. Let's just wait a few years and ask them.
Every Body is focused on the subject of intersex: an umbrella term for those born with a wide range of natural variations (anatomical, biological, hormonal, chromosomal) that do not fit typical binary notions of gender identity. It is a topic grossly under-discussed, and a population—1.7 percent of all people, according to the documentary—grossly underrepresented.
Through this insightful, informative exploration—allowing three intersex Americans to tell their own stories—the film also speaks to our larger moment of reckoning with gender identity and bodily autonomy, at a time when there is organized conservative push-back to hard-fought progress. And it is to the film's credit that though it discusses serious problems and exposes real horrors, it is the rare "issue film" that is genuinely joyous and celebratory, and treats its courageous participants as empowered subjects, not victimized objects.
Every Body features three individuals, whose stories are both all very different and infuriatingly the same. Sean Saifa Wall is a Black intersex and transgender activist, a public health researcher, and co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project. Some of the most poignant scenes in the film are of Saifa going through his medical records, where the gender on his birth certificate was initially marked as "ambiguous," but later scratched out and changed to "female." (Similarly, what was originally described as a "small phallus" was later edited to be called a "large clitoris.") The medical community had decided he was female, and set about to mutilate his body to confirm that determination, subjecting him to a gonadectomy when he was 13. "When they removed my testicles they changed the course of my life," Saifa says. "I did not consent to that."
Political consultant, intersex activist, and author Alicia Roth Weigel is a White woman who had lived most of her life without telling anyone that, though she was born with an outward vagina, she was also born with XY chromosomes—which is to say, genotypically male—no uterus or ovaries, and internal testes. (She talks about wanting to tell all the conservative men who hit on her that she was "born with balls.") Alicia "comes out" to the Texas legislature and Austin city council, testifying first against a transphobic so-called "bathroom bill," then in favor of a bill condemning medically unnecessary surgery on intersex infants. (It is Alicia who draws the lines most clearly connecting intersex issues and transgender issues, and the damaging hypocrisy of conservative attempts to force everyone into their narrow definitions of "normal." Most proposed bans on gender-affirming care, she points out, feature "intersex exceptions," meaning they want to deny surgery and hormones for trans children while forcing the exact same interventions on intersex children.)
And River Gallo, the child of undocumented El Salvadoran parents, was assigned "male" at birth despite the absence of testes, and forced to undergo surgery at the age of 12 to insert prosthetics. Now an award-winning filmmaker, actor, model, and intersex activist, River identifies as nonbinary and transfem. (A loving scene between River and their mother late in the film underlines the hard-fought acceptance and understanding of intersex issues, even within families: River' mother still calls them "he." “I don’t think she’ll ever get my pronouns right,” River says, with affection and resignation.)
These are the documentary's heroes, and they're delightful company in a world overflowing with villains. Certainly, conservative hate-peddlers like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson come in for well deserved fuck-yous along the way. But the real monster Every Body exposes is the medical community, personified in a prominent sex researcher named Dr. John Money, who helped establish the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic in 1965.
Money popularized his pet theory that it was possible (and desirable) to "fix" non-confirming gender traits through early surgery and forced culturalization, most famously through the case of a man named David Reimer. Reimer was not intersex, but his penis was accidentally severed during cauterization of his circumcision as an infant. Money—seeing the perfect opportunity to test his theories, as David was one of two twin boys–convinced the boy's parents that the best thing to do would be to further castrate David and raise the child as a girl, "Brenda," without ever telling him the truth. For decades "Brenda" was literally touted as the text-book example of the success of Money's theories, but Every Body explains—in heartbreaking fashion—how the true story of David Reimer (who committed suicide in 2004) in fact proves just how disastrous and dangerous Money's theories were.
There are no simple solutions, but that's just the point: gender identity is individual and incredibly complicated, and absolutely impossible to reduce to genetics, biology, or physical characteristics. And just because someone is different—on a spectrum of identity that is not binary but infinite—does not mean they need to be "fixed." ("I wish they'd just waited and asked me," is a common theme expressed by Every Body's protagonists.) Throughout the film we hear infuriating stories of medical arrogance, and of parents who made the understandable but ultimately damaging choice to trust what their doctors told them: lock the child into a gender, "fix" the "problem," and never tell anyone—even the child—about it. All three participants in Every Body make the point that their journeys have been almost entirely self-guided: there is so little information available, and so little discussion, and in most cases they were not even given important facts about their own medical histories—let alone a say in shaping them—until very late in life.
Which is one of the reasons why Every Body is so important, and so empowering, despite its many stories of injustice and sorrow. Every Body makes it clear that there is still so much work to be done, and so much awareness to raise, and so much hate and ignorance to combat. But it also celebrates the fact that Saifa, Alicia, and River have emerged from their long struggles as the people they were meant to be. You can feel not just their relief but their tangible joy in openly discussing their stories, sharing their experiences, and finding community and cooperative action with other people who understand.
It's both a recommendation of Cohen's film, and an appreciation of its approach, to say that the movie ends with dancing. It's further proof of how happy and powerful and amazing people can be, if you just let them be the people they've always known they were.