Every Body

“Every Body” is a moving, fascinating look at a too-often-ignored subset of the world’s population, filled with empathy and understanding but also a cool, analytical anger about what history has put them through. The subject is intersex people, the slightly-more-than one percent of individuals who were born with a condition that complicated the state’s ability to identify them with one of the only two options listed on hospital paperwork: female or male. 

As the movie explains, there are many variants of intersex people, born with atypical chromosomes or sex characteristics and not clearly male or female. There are those whose genitals were malformed or damaged by genetics or other external factors (including doctor’s mistakes, a scenario touched on in “Every Body”); those who might have ambiguous genitals or undescended testicles that are initially mistaken for ovaries; and those who might appear male on the outside but have female reproductive parts, or the reverse. Such individuals are usually assigned a gender at birth that doesn’t really reflect who they are in terms of body parts, and burdens them with the obligation to perform the assigned role for the rest of their lives no matter what they might personally want. However the individual ultimately chooses to identify can still be overruled by the state and by society as a whole (a dynamic that’s playing out every day for trans people). 

Medical professionals would usually advise parents of intersex children that they were better off raising their offspring as a “boy” or a “girl” to make things easier on the child and their family. Whose ease was really being prioritized, though? Not that of the children, who would then have to spend most of their youth, perhaps their whole lives, acting a part they didn’t wish to play for fear of being ostracized or persecuted. Not that of the parents, who had to constantly reinforce a kind of “cover story” handed to them by others and might decide to stop discussing it altogether, except in doctors’ offices, leaving the kids to grapple with the psychological fallout without allies. The doctors’ advice on gender assignment was usually paired with a recommendation of “corrective” surgery (often foisted on the too-stunned-to-think-clearly parents during recovery from childbirth) to remove any parts that didn’t serve the binary.

Three intersex activists anchor the movie while also serving as commentators, guides, and in some scenes, a kind of focus group, looking at archival material and older news stories and reacting. Alicia Roth Weigel is a lobbyist who often participates in high-profile protests and hearings on intersex issues and other issues affecting the wider LBGTQIA community; she also wrote a book of essays on the topic titled “Inverse Cowgirl.” River Gallo is a non-binary and queer actor and filmmaker who is the first openly intersex person to play an intersex character (in the 2019 short film “Ponyboi”). Sean Saifa is, per his description, an intersex man of color; he made headlines by going on the ABC News show “Nightline” and confronting the doctor who performed an unnecessary gonadectomy on him when he was thirteen. 

This latter story is, unfortunately, typical. Unnecessary surgery on intersex infants was once common. (The first hospital to publicly apologize for it did so in 2019, four years before the release of this movie.) Gallo was born without testicles and urged to have artificial ones implanted and undergo hormone therapy to appear more stereotypically masculine. Gallo functionally “passed” as a cisgender straight man at his suburban New Jersey high school with everyone except those closest to him, and didn’t begin to thrive until after embracing a more feminine look, speaking openly about being intersex, and pledging to try to play roles that reflected that identification. Weigel, a slim blonde white woman, says that as an activist in her home state, Texas, she was hit on by straight male lobbyists and politicians who had no idea she was also carrying an internalized set of nonfunctioning testes. After several years on dating sites, Weigel got tired of the anxiety of wondering how a partner might react when she finally described her physical reality and started putting “intersex” at the top of her page. That winnowed the applicant pool and made the experience less fraught.

Director Julie Cohen (“RBG”) and her editor Kelly Kendrick interweave the three main stories and troves of accompanying historical and medical facts with admirable economy and imagination. Stylistically this is one of the cleanest American documentaries of the year. A lot of information is packed into the movie’s brief running time, but “Every Body” never feels cluttered. Nor do the array of visual and graphic devices deployed by the filmmakers feel like they’ve been added to create artificial excitement or fool viewers into thinking this is entertainment that can be passively “enjoyed” rather than actively processed. 

The decision to tie everything into the experiences of Gallo, Seidel, and Weigel grounds the movie in simple and universal emotions, but the subjects’  expertise as communicators and mastery of facts ensures that nobody can accuse the film of basing arguments on “feelings.” These traumatized people have used their pain as fuel to make sure no one else has to endure what they did. 

Things get very dark and disturbing in the middle of the film, which focuses on how intersex people were perceived and treated by the medical establishment until recently. “Every Body” becomes a lesson in how editing can be a critical and analytical tool by cutting between archival footage of medical professionals stating false and psychologically damaging “facts” about intersex people and their bodies; the main subjects reacting as they watch the material; and childhood videos and still photos of the subjects, which remind us that they were burdened with certain instructions and expectations many years before puberty or sexual relationships would have started to take up mental real estate. Weigel speaks of how a doctor gave her a dildo to when she was barely pubescent and instructed her to use it to enlarge her vagina to get ready for the day she’d have sex with a man. A lot of the stories of intersex childhood are like this: you’re not the thing society wants you to be, so you have to be something else, and your wishes aren’t even acknowledged, much less prioritized.

The film is also a great example of how social criticism and irony can be conveyed just by pairing one piece of footage with another, or selecting a piece of music that complicates or comments upon what the film is showing you without being literal-minded or redundant. Too many documentaries are content with the low-hanging-fruit approach to editing and needle-drop song usage: for instance, a subject talks about an important event that occurred on a rainy day, and a director cuts to stock footage of rain scenes and plays “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” “Every Body” is smarter. It gets a lot of conceptual mileage, for instance, by gender-swapping songs that are typically associated with a male or female “narrator” (such as “Born to Run”), subtly reinforcing the universality of basic human experiences.

The opening credits sequence of “Every Body” is so perfectly realized in this regard that it feels like a movie unto itself. A joyous, jangly cover of “Be My Baby” plays over snippets of videos of gender reveal parties where clouds of blue or pink smoke are released in spectacular and sometimes violent ways (one parent releases the smoke by shooting a compound bow at a target; another fires a tripod-mounted sniper rifle). The point of this sequence is not to make fun of the parents. It’s to establish how much of a typical parent’s identity is invested in which of those boxes a doctor checks on a birth form. And it prepares viewers for the rest of the movie, which shows how the children spend their lives either contorting to fit into that box or fighting to escape. 

This review was filed from the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. “Every Body” will be in theaters on June 30th. 

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