Bechdel Test Canon: XXY
Trigger warning for descriptions of bullying and sexual assault.
As we bring the second installment of this series to a close—the final post goes live on Monday—it occurs to me that I haven't been as transparent about the availability of my selections as I was last time.
Accessibility is no small issue with the second series, particularly since I don't use programs like BitTorrent or Karagarga. Criterion is releasing Věra Chtytilová's Daisies as part of a box on the Czech New Wave, but acquiring it can still be difficult. A friend loaned me his DVD while I was putting the first series together, ostensibly out of good will. The UW-Madison library system intervened so I could watch Julie Dash's Illusions and Agnès Varda's One Sings, The Other Doesn't. And I'm going to have to take a side trip to Chicago this weekend to watch Dee Rees' Pariah.
This doesn't even account for titles that didn't make it in to the collection. I borrowed Katarzyna Roslaniec's Mall Girls, but decided against including it for reasons I'll briefly outline in the final post. I didn't have the Region 2 DVD player and the 192 minutes required to watch Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating. I put in a request for Radha Bharadwaj's Closet Land with my local video store that as of now remains unfulfilled.
The second series also included a bit more independent and art house fare than the first one. This was unintentional and never meant as a value judgment. I don't think inaccessibility and obscurity determine a film's worth. Yet I was struck by a friend's intimation that, as a feminist media studies scholar, she was surprised by how unfamiliar she was with most of the films I chose. To me, this demonstrates a need for an intervention.
I'm unconvinced that this blog series is little more than a gesture. Beyond insisting that it's in the service of a larger feminist project, I have no control over others' decisions to absorb, circulate, denounce, skim, or ignore my writing. But a majority of these films were made by female writer-directors and a number of them worked independently. So I think it's important to first acknowledge and then take up their work. Ultimately, I write for the same reasons I teach: it's an act of faith. With any luck—bolstered by our insistence on institutional change and support of youth media production programs—we'll help more women and girls make movies. It won't be so rare, but it'll still be miraculous.
But save these few outlying exceptions, I watched most of these films on Netflix and streamed a number of them. This is how I saw Argentinean writer-director Lucía Puenzo's 2007 feature debut XXY. It's a touching coming-of-age film about Alex Kraken (an excellent Inés Efron), a 15-year-old intersex girl who decides to stop taking medication to suppress her masculine features. She recently relocated to a seaside village in Uruguay with marine biologist father Néstor (Ricardo Darín) and mother Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli) to avoid social stigma. Her mother invites family friends from Argentina to their new home with the intent to discuss a sex change operation, which Alex doesn't want.
As she starts exploring her sexuality, Alex also develops an attraction to Álvaro (Martin Piroyansky), which he reciprocates. Néstor catches the pair having anal sex, and is particularly caught off guard that his daughter is the penetrator. Later, a gaggle of local boys humiliate Alex by pinning her down and pulling off her clothes to look at her genitals. She and her family work through the trauma. Alex decides it doesn't matter if people know about her identity and again refuses to take her medication or undergo a sex change operation.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that the film is pessimistic about Alex's future. After all, she repeatedly and successfully insists upon her own agency. The film also includes a number of tender moments between Alex and Álvaro, Alex and Suli, and one illuminating exchange between Suli and Alvaro's mother (Carolina Peleritti). But XXY—perhaps misnamed, as Alex doesn't have Klinefelter's syndrome—makes no pretense about the difficult road ahead for her.
Some may note her parents' class mobility and balk at the idea that Alex's life as an intersex person will be as fraught with struggle as a poor or working-class intersex youth. They'd be right to challenge such assertions, as scholars like E.P. Johnson countered institutionalized queer studies as the province for white, middle-class queer identities with quare studies—an accented linguistic term used to call out queer studies' race and class baggage and privilege southern, black, working-class queer subjectivities.
Regardless of Alex's class positioning, I like XXY's commitment to her resistance and her family's tentative decision to honor it. If it isn't exactly a happy ending, it's at least an acknowledgment that her character will develop long after the credits roll. Sometimes that's the best we can hope for. Given the challenges young queers (and quares) face in articulating their evolving subjectivities and forging relationships with others, this hardly seems a small victory.
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