Gender Mender: XXY is a cinematic exploration of intersexuality

14 Posted by - February 4, 2014 - Features, Reviews, Screen

From a purely organizational standpoint, there are plenty of reasons for the gender binary. The system delineates male and female characteristics as separate and static, ostensibly facilitating a natural and sustainable social order. It readily assigns roles and packages gender identity. It is convenient – when it works.

The problem with the system is that it bifurcates an institution with numerous variants. What should resemble a scale becomes more of a lineup. How many will be, are, wrongly condemned by this system each and every day?

For those who still feel that sex and gender are a scrambled egg, Lucía Puenzo’s 2007 film XXY is a work of transformative power. What happens when a third sex is introduced, one without accompanying gender cues? The whole film exists in a sort of gray area, one so uncharted that expectations, or rather predictions, are next to meaningless.

XXY tells the story of Alex Kraken (Inés Efron), a fifteen year-old living with an intersex condition in rural Uruguay. While she possesses both male and female sex organs, she has been raised as a girl, taking medication to suppress her more male characteristics. She is a very androgynous individual but still more typically male in her behaviour, which is listless and incredibly aggressive.

With puberty already underway, her mother Suli’s anxieties surrounding her child are at a height, especially when Alex stops taking her medication. Unbeknownst to both her husband Néstor (a marine biologist who cares for the region’s endangered sea turtles) and Alex, Suli has invited Ramiro, an old surgeon friend and his family, to stay with them for the purpose of convincing Alex to get the surgery that will physically affirm her as a woman.

The distress is understandable. Alex’s very sex is a scrambled egg. How then can her gender be defined? And what are Alex’s parents to expect of her future?

Being intersex is not as rare as its almost complete lack of representation might lead one to assume. According to the Intersex Society of North America, the condition occurs in one in every 1,500 births, making it a more common congenital disorder than cystic fibrosis. Given that many are still unfamiliar with the term intersex, this may be surprising.

Society has long had an uncomfortable relationship with hermaphroditic figures. The condition’s namesake Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, marks what is probably the first positive representation but these have since been few and far between.

Usually hermaphroditism only occurs in popular culture as something ethereal, alien, often monstrous. However, not all intersex people are hermaphroditic and indeed this is a term deemed dated by most of the community.

There are many forms of intersexuality. The overarching definition is merely a general term used to describe a variety of conditions in which a person is born with atypical reproductive or sexual anatomy. Perhaps intersex people are so feared in myth and culture because their condition is inherently subversive to a failing system.

As I have noted, XXY is something rare. It is one of the first media instances I have seen to portray the subject of intersexuality with such thoughtful sensitivity. Indeed, it is the first film that I have ever seen on the subject.

The story begins with Ramiro, his wife, and their teenage son Alvaro arriving in the Kraken’s bucolic island fishing village. Alvaro quickly makes the acquaintance of Alex who immediately proposes that the two of them have sex. He is alarmed by Alex’s forthrightness, and unnerved by it. What kind of girl acts this way?

In fact Alvaro and Alex are not too different. Both are young outcasts exploring their burgeoning sexuality and as Alex points out, their fathers are actually in the same line of work (well-meaning butchers is the gist of this). A mutual attraction develops between the two but it is not the only one that Alex is fostering.

She is also developing feelings for her friend Roberta, the daughter of one of Néstor’s co-workers. We glimpse this when Roberta gets in the shower with Alex and the two wash each other’s hair. It is one of the film’s most loaded scenes, in part because it is wordless.

Theirs is not a merely homosocial engagement. What it indicates is that Roberta is aware of Alex’s difference and that she is not disturbed by it. Her curiosity, however, does not appear to be medical. Alex’s gaze is likewise communicative of a queer discernment. The scene, carried through in a single take, is a disorienting one.

Alvaro’s attraction to Alex also complicates established notions of sexual orientation. As the film progresses, the idea is several times raised that Alvaro is gay. However, Alex is, to his initial comprehension, a girl. The eventual sexual encounter between the two – potentially the first for either – is just as confusing for him as it is to Alex, who may be gay herself.

This happens in a scene that it is interrupted by Néstor who is at first deeply distraught by what he witnesses. Alex is the penetrative partner here, something he or the audience had little way of anticipating. Thankfully though, he is able to keep his reaction idle, which is more than can be said for those of others close to Alex who have had similar revelations.


Vando, for instance, is her best friend and he spreads her secret at school after she has confided in him. Néstor desides to reach beyond his family network and after a restorative visit with Scherer, a formerly intersex individual now living as a man, he comes to view the event as Alex making the choice to shed her female branding.

Twice in the film’s second act, he refers to her as “my son.” It is not until she is sexually assaulted by the boys that Vando told her secret to that he realizes – as Alex does – that living falsely in one world is not a tenable reality. Not when Alex is straddling two.

Although set in Uruguay, XXY is Argentine produced, a country known to be the most progressive state on queer issues in all of Latin America. Of course, this was not always the case.

While Argentina remains surpassingly Catholic in its demographics, a rapid secularization of government has seen many developments in the expansion of LGBT rights, several of which directly affect those in the intersex community.

Most notably, a new national law now defines gender as “the inner and individual gender experience as each person feels it, which can coincide or not with gender assigned at birth time.” It is arguably the most progressive legislation of its kind anywhere in the world.

The Catholic Church has blocked many social reform bills in the past, which only underscores how swiftly the remarkable shift in public perception, the most important element of social change, has occurred. XXY certainly feels to have come at a historically opportune time, even though its fearless treatment of intersexuality is still, by any standard, exceptional.

This is a quality Puenzo does not allow us to forget. The island village the Kraken’s inhabit reflects society’s isolation of intersex people whether well-meaning or not (the last thing Alex’s parents want is for any harm to come to their child). They have relocated from Buenos Aires so that Alex may grow up more privately but soon learn that cultural anxiety about gender is pervasive and not just restricted to urban centers.

“We came here to stop hearing every idiot’s opinion,” Suli says when Alvaro’s mother attempts to goad her into agreeing to surgery. She knows that Alex is tired of being prodded at for the sake of medical curiosity, but she is also weary of constant relocation. Decisive action on her gender is just another form of this.

XXY is filled with sumptuous imagery. The sublime nature of the island that surrounds Alex (most notably in the film’s opening sequence) speaks to her condition, which is, though an abnormality, natural. She is often framed with her father’s live-in sea creatures, popularly the gender-fluid clownfish. The family name Kraken is another not-too-subtle nod to this marine motif.

One scene in particular shows it best though: Alex is floating in an inlet wearing only her underwear. The image is so tranquil that it evokes an almost pre-birth stage in her development. She lingers here until she is interrupted by Alvaro who rudely drags her back to into a world where the human creations of gender and judgment are realities.

As mentioned, the drama of XXY exists in a dubiously gray area, which is reflected in Puenzo’s choice of palette. Tints are cool and melancholy which creates a foreboding cinematic landscape. The approach is subdued and yet highly dramatic – a dormant energy charges every frame. Certain shots like Suli distractedly cutting carrots are abrasive, but have their place in the narrative.

Because dialogue is so minimal in the film, many characters’ emotions must be expressed visually. It also follows an interesting pattern in terms of cogency. For example, when Alex says to Alvaro pre-revelation that she pities her parents because they are waiting all the time, Alvaro does not ask why. He asks another question instead.

The film’s editing follows a similar pattern. Cuts are not made in the favour of diegesis but of mood, which results in a somewhat disjointed narrative structure albeit one that always flows emotionally. Put simply, nothing comes bundled in XXY. It is to the viewer to sort out the pieces that Puenzo is supplying.

Is the film successful in portraying intersexuality in a new and insightful way? There can be no doubt. However, this is not something that it establishes through its central character. This is something done by Alex’s parents, particularly Suli, who mirrors the audience as she is thrust into a difficult situation she could have in no way prepared for.

Alex is off-putting, and it goes without saying that few will identify with her. Her character is fiercely cautious, to the point she lets no one in, including us, the viewer. This criticism is uncommon, but perhaps XXY should have been longer. At only 91 minutes, it lacked the screen-time required to create nuance in a protagonist that needed it.

It is not to say that Efron is in any way deficient in her performance. She has an extremely challenging role and for the most part, she triumphs. Her body is repeatedly scrutinized throughout the film. At one point she is shown scrutinizing it herself (as we can only imagine she has done countless times before).

She must at once portray timidity and self-absorption. She is successful. However, virtually nothing is revealed of her life in Argentina, and she is rarely seen outside of her inner circle. Similarly the discourse on her condition is frustratingly fragmented. Alex never discusses it at any length with Alvaro or her parents, which is only undercut by the fact that we are never shown the critical exchange she has with Vando.

Her journal provides us with a rare interior mirror. It contains crudely drawn images of mutant-like creatures with ambiguous and frightening genitalia, clearly indicative of Alex’s tormented psyche regarding her condition. We glimpse her vulnerability here and in a way it is eerily prophetic of her sexual assault.

Also problematic is the film’s assumption that the whole of its audience is readily familiar with intersexuality. Little is explained in the way of Alex’s diagnosis and what we are given perpetuates the negative stereotype that intersex people are simple hermaphrodites.

There is a level of redemption to this. Puenzo must be commended for her refusal to show Alex in the full flesh. Such a shot would clearly be exploitation and alienating for much of the intersex community in which variation abounds.

In lieu, one of the film’s final shots dwells on Alvaro’s reaction to this image of Alex, which communicates to us clemency, even (dare I say it) empathy. Despite this, Alex is never fleshed out in the way she needs to be.

From her father’s book Alex dully reads: “In all vertebrates, including the human being, the female sex is dominant in an evolutionary and embryological sense.” This is one of several hints the film offers that Alex may be making the decision to reject her womanhood permanently. Between Scherer and her already masculine comportment, it certainly seems like a distinct possibility.

But the film’s greater realization, and Alex’s, is that gender actually is not the pressing decision that it first seems to be. Alex is like one of her father’s sea turtles. Try though he may, there is little he can do to protect them while too allowing them to be free.

In the end Néstor learns that, one day, he has to let the turtle go. “Until you can choose,” as he puts it. It is Alex, however, who cinches the film’s most vital message when she says, “What if there isn’t a decision to make?”

Evidently, this is a new concept for Néstor just as it surely is for many. Here we are also able to see the significance of what her parents have done for her. As Anne Tamar-Mattis notes, she has the right to choose because her parents have not taken this away.

XXY is an invaluable teaching tool for anyone with an essentialist view on sex and gender even without didacticism. Puenzo never lectures. She avoids the egregious exploitation of her subject matter, which is in itself an accomplishment, and she proves that it is not always wise to eschew poetics for politics.

XXY posits that intersex can be its own identity. Alex’s sex is not something that needs fixing, and by proxy there is nothing in disrepair about her gender. Decidedly, the real scrambled egg is gender and anxiety. What will fit, what will work, and so on and so forth. Since gender has been traditionally viewed as an extension of sex, it cannot exist in and of itself. In problematizing an age-old social institution, XXY is able to offer a remedy.

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