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HBO’s LGBT History: Middle Sexes (2005)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at the surprisingly touching, inclusive and politically relevant Rosie O’Donnell documentary All Aboard! (it seems not a lot of you were as enthused as I was). This week we change gears by looking at perhaps the most boring HBO LGBT entry yet, Middle Sexes - Redefining He and She, a documentary on gender variance that is as entertaining as those educational tapes you’d be forced to watch in high school when your teacher couldn’t be bothered lecturing.

It’s disappointing given its exhaustive approach to the material and the many opportunities it offers in engaging narratives and insightful conversations about those living outside of the gender binary.

Middle Sexes - Redefining He and She (2005) (YouTube)
Directed by: Antony Thomas

If sexual diversity is natural, why is it so threatening?”

Oh that the doc could have taken up this question with the inquisitiveness of most of its talking heads. [More...

James & Addams; by far the most eloquent and welcome subjects in the entire doc

Trans women like Andrea James and Calpernia Addams early on and Thai trans women later on constantly steer the film into thrilling places only for the film's dull narration to return us to treatises on genetics and biology.

Indeed, Gore Vidal's narration makes the entire doc sound like an Attenborough piece on gender variance. Yes, that’s how removed the film wants us to feel from its charismatic subjects. In its exhaustiveness, Middle Sexes becomes a textbook, with its different chapters (on transexuals and intersex individuals in the USA, Hijra in South-East Asia, Kathoey in Thailand) gesturing towards vast histories, cultural contexts and personal stories, but rarely spending enough time on each to really get at anything more profound than lines like:

“Rainbows of diversity within rainbows within rainbows...whatever the surface appearance, sexuality is as individual as the human face.”

And yes, you’ll also note that while the doc is clearly focused on gender variance, it implausibly ends up lumping such variance within ‘sexuality.’ It is not the only misstep in an otherwise well-intentioned film that feels ahead of its time and yet feels already impossibly dated. Thus, the scene where five Thai Kathoey (trans women in Thailand) are asked to number and point the various operations they’ve had feels rather obtrusive and offensive from a 2015 vantage point where we’re constantly being reminded that these intrusions depend on the assumption that the privacy of trans individuals is non-existent when it comes to their bodies. (But perhaps that speaks more to the documentary framework which demands its subjects forgo privacy to discuss such issues.)

“We have to respect [sexual diversity] because it’s nature" we're told over and over again.

If Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” could have come out sooner it would have easily played over the film’s final credits. I praised Rosie’s documentary last week for inadvertently becoming a rather touching portrait of LGBT families even though it never clearly aimed to do so; Middle Sexes, in trying to be both encyclopaedic and personal, ends up failing as compelling cinema and helpful only if you’re looking for a way to pad your college paper on “gender variance around the world” without wanting to look at Wikipedia. My antipathy clearly stems from my allergic reactions to wholehearted and uncriticall invocations of biology to plead for tolerance and acceptance (an issue that plenty of Thomas's subjects actively avoid but which his panel of experts return to again andagain), but I'm curious if anyone has seen it and has thoughts on these facile "it's all biology! why would you discriminate if it's all genetic"-type arguments.

Fun Awards Fact: While Thomas’ documentary only got two award citations (one being a nomination as Best Documentary at the GLAAD awards) I was drawn by its other one: Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards. I know we sometimes bemoan the sheer amount of Emmy categories (and its various factions) but I’m so happy there’s a category that rewards research! Especially in docs like these where research is clearly their biggest asset. 

(Bonus fact: Elizabeth Klinck, who was singled out for her work here, also worked with Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell, one of my favorite movies released this decade).

Next Week: It seems forever and a day since we got to talk about great actressing (last we did so we were discussing Meryl and, before her, Jessica Lange), so Bernard and Doris, starring Susan Sarandon as a wealthy heiress and Ralph Fiennes as her gay butler, couldn’t come at a better time!

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Reader Comments (3)

Manuel , that's Ralph not Joe in Bernard and Doris... ;-)

September 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul, Curse these Fiennes! I always get them mixed up even though there's absolutely no reason why I should except in that I keep wishing Joseph had a better career! [And yes, I wrote "Ralph" there before realizing my mistake... AGAIN!]

September 16, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

I totally missed the All Aboard! post!!! Gavin Creel is the cutest.

I haven't seen Middle Sexes so I'm going right to Youtube.

September 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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