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Thursday 29 July 2010, by Judy Harris

XXY weaves together three landscapes: the fluidity of the ocean, the violence of the scientist’s laboratory and the arid determinacy of life on dry land. Fifteen year old Alex, who so far has been subsumed by neither a male nor female gendered identity, is marooned on the shore. For writer/director Lucia Puenzo this is where things are forced into a fixed shape.

XXY (in my opinion grossly mistitled -the film has been criticised as misrepresenting Klinefelter’s syndrome and actually resists the scientific reductionism the title implies) is a stunningly subtle depiction of the struggle to remain nameless. Puenzo inhabits the borders of a system in which to perform with least resistance you need a signifier more conclusive than ‘Alex’.

XXY produces an atmosphere which is both distant and infeasible, only making more marked the stifling tyranny of social performance. Within a landscape which is indicative of vast possibility, subjects are demanded to provide an account of themselves that will make them easier to apprehend. Alex- are you male or female? Do you want to slice carrots in the kitchen with your mother or slice turtles in the lab with your father?

In distinction to their child, Kraken and Suli inhabit predictably gendered roles. Suli, Alex’s mother, performs her distress gently and quietly, while Kraken’s rage periodically erupts from beneath his brooding resentment. The ambiguity of Alex’s body is less of an affront for Kraken, “from the moment she was born she was perfect” he affirms. Alex’s crotch becomes the niche in which the males of the species affirm their masculinity; fearless in the face of the unknown, they become captivated by it, sometimes wanting to colonise it for themselves. “Leave her alone, she’s too much for you” Vando, Alex’s maybe boyfriend brags.

When Alex stops imbibing the hormones that produce the pronoun ‘she’, the family understand the forthcoming implications as a process of ‘masculinisation’. As the struggle to accept Alex’s decision to neither take the hormones nor inhabit either a ‘male’ or ‘female’ gender Puenzo subtly pushes Alex’s mother offscreen, depicting her as incapable of enduring such ambiguity. Kraken’s masculinity is the bulwark which can survive such an assault. He occupies a gender with enough strength to withstand the crumbling of the binarious infrastructure.

Both aesthetically and epistemologically XXY captures the beauty and terror of ambiguity, yet stops short of rejoicing in it. Possibly what’s most compelling is Puenzo’s ambiguous relationship to ambiguity itself. Just like Alex, XXY never declares itself either way. Is it a subtle attack on the constraints of gender or merely a wistful attempt at triangulation? Whilst certain social assumptions are profoundly thrown into question, the primacy of gender and sexuality never are. The identity of a self which is not the site of lust and sexual consumption and which does not define itself as lacking, is never explored. In this aspect the film betrays it’s subtle yet radically imaginative potential.

The underwater opening sequence of XXY prompted me to explore the world of ambiguous amphibians. In doing so I encountered the following questions: ‘What is the sex of my fish?’,‘What issues do mermaids pose for men?’ and ‘If the Little Mermaid influenced people attitudes to sexuality, then how come more people aren’t sexually attracted to fish?’ Exactly.

Dir: Lucía Puenzo, 2007

Forum posts

  • Hello Judy! This is an interesting review, though I’m a little puzzled by aspects of it. I understand that ambiguity can be hard in a society or a language that speaks about gender in an overly polarised way - I think almost everybody falls foul of the ’normal’ identities to some extent. What I’m unsure about is what you hold up as an alternative. An end to all forms of gender and sexual classifications? Sometimes I think that would be good thing - but then I realise just how unhelpfully utopian that is. Categorisation is the only way that language can function. As talking monkeys, we seek to understand this baffling and ever changing universe by dividing it up into discrete chunks which we can give words. And while that may be problematic, there’s no point in fighting it because it enables us to think in the first place.

    Dawkins (don’t roll your eyes!) has suggested that the tendency to think in binaries - to be a dualist - might well be evolutionarily hard-wired. Fight or flight. Stay or leave. Friend or enemy. In the millions of years spent as hunter gatherers in the Palaeolithic, snap decision making would have saved us from potentially dangerous or wasteful ratiocination. Of course we’re capable of a more nuanced understanding - its just difficult!

    In light of all that, to be honest I think its inevitable that the terms ’man’ and ’woman’ / ’male’ and ’female’ will exist in any culture because it is - barring rare instances - a useful distinction. Its about simple communication, not domination. Problems only arise when *description* tips into *prescription*. I’m happy that the term ’man’ is a useful approximate description for me, but when it means that I’m prescribed a certain masculine identity that I fall short of things become problematic. I hated rugby at school. I preferred female friends. That sort of thing. As regards XXY’s Alex... well perhaps neither ’man’ or ’woman’ does suit. And that sucks. But categorisation is here to stay, I think, so either society needs to get its head round the fact that ’man’ and ’woman’ just words - useful approximates - OR the individual can create their own category which they feel better suits them and affords them some power or understanding. Given that people will put you in a box, better to have some say in the box’s shape, I reckon.

    Incidentally, as regards the innate tendency toward dualism, I’m very aware of my own propensity to view these sorts of arguments in binary terms. In my lazy brain, ’science = good’, ’postmodernism = incoherent resentment-fuelled gibberish’. It’s a tendency I’m doing my best to resist, I hope you realise! But I can’t deny its influence. I hope you can sympathise. From the casual anti-scientific sentiments expressed in this review (’violence of the laboratory’ indeed...) I suspect your inner binary probably reads something like ’postmodernism = right-on liberal-minded critique of oppressive societal myths’, ’science = reductionist tool of the status quo’. I’m sure like me you’re quite capable of moving beyond that - and regularly do - but its the tendency to stay within it that perpetuates the ’science wars’ stalemate as a whole.

  • I would like to watch a film attempt to discuss amphibian sexuality. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like Torchwood tried it out. Anything goes as for as the leather clad five are concerned, alien, man, woman, transgender, a bit of both, as long as it moves it fits in within the realm of sexual possibility. There was a man-blowfish once vaguely reminiscent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, maybe they’ll develop some sort of romantic storyline involving him and a surviving crew member.
  • I agreed with the review until.... "Puenzo subtly pushes Alex’s mother offscreen, depicting her as incapable of enduring such ambiguity. Kraken’s masculinity is the bulwark which can survive such an assault."

    Um, what? Women are too fragile to endure gender ambiguity? In my experience it’s usually the opposite, men are much more touchy about masculinity and afraid of gender confusion.

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