Dismissing the taboo: Gender, identity and inequality

XXY is the assured and stunning debut from Argentinean writer and director Lucía Puenzo. XXY tackles an unusual and intriguing subject matter — intersexuality, which is not often explored in creative art forms, or even spoken about openly in society.

Alex lives with her parents, whose reaction to her indeterminate gender has been to exile the family to a small island community. As Alex comes of age her parents feel it is time for her to choose a gender. When Alex’s mother invites some old friends from Argentina to visit, Alex meets their son; Alvaro and they begin to explore their blossoming sexuality together.

Puenzo found the inspiration for XXY after reading a short story called Cinismo from the Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio. “From the moment I read that story, the sexual awakening of a young girl who has what doctors call genital ambiguity — I couldn’t get it out of my head. I began to write with that image in my head: the body of a young person with both sexes in the same body. I was especially interested in the dilemma of inevitable choice: not only having to choose between being a man or a woman, but also between that binary decision and intersex as an identity and not as a place of mere passage.” There is a stark difference between the way Alex and Alvaro and their parents deal with Alex’s situation. “While the parents are trying to solve the dilemma of what to do, the real drama is happening to their children, who are discovering by their actions what their parents are trying to solve with mountain of words.”

Although XXY has a medical perspective on Alex’s situation, Puenzo has created a deeply compelling personal story revolving around Alex, her relationships and the meaning of desire. “My interest when I wrote this film was, above all, the relationship between Alex and Alvaro. I didn’t want my film to become a medical case, a clinical case, almost a documentary.”

One aspect of XXY, which is particularly intriguing, is the question it raises about what is regarded as “normal” and “acceptable” in terms of people’s identities within society and subsequently raising an array of universal questions for the viewer. “From all the experiences that define this complex theme that we call intersexuality in Argentina, one is especially painful: It’s not the corporal differences nor the well-intentioned brutality with which medicine and law have treated children born with genital ambiguity in the last years, and the irreversible consequences these surgeries have on their bodies and their lives. When I began to write XXY I was surprised to see there are almost no stories on this subject, there’s a strange cultural silence over it. If the subject is explored it’s in the language of testimony, of medical diagnosis, but with almost no fictions, as if the subject would be a taboo for any kind of poetry and fiction around it, as it was in ancient times.”

XXY has already received various accolades, including winning the Cannes International Critics Week Grand Prize. The universal nature of the themes explored appeal to global audiences. “In Argentina and Italy, and other countries where the film has been already released, it created a debate on what seems almost impossible in our societies: an intersex body that has not been mutilated, and not only survives but demands the opportunity to be desired… Who decides, after all, that there are only two ways to be human?” Puenzo continues, “Perlongher, one of my favourite poets, used to say: ‘We do not want respect, we want to be desired.’ The search for an identity (not only sexual) is vital in the life of everybody.”

The appeal of XXY lies in its subtle exploration of an issue that is still regarded as taboo. “I’ve always enjoyed literature and cinema that raises questions more than that which gives answers. Finishing a book or going out of the cinema with the head full of questions is good enough for me. If I have to give an answer I would say XXY speaks about freedom of choice, identity and desire. But the truth is I prefer to let everybody see whatever they want to see in the film.”

XXY was released by Peccadillo Pictures and was showing nationwide from 9 May 2008. www.peccadillopictures.com

Shona Fairweather