Just another bearded lady: gender identity in the media

Right now the media has a thing for gender issues. Following the furore over the gender-neutral five year old, this week’s gender-shock is that four-year-old Zach Avery has been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder. The general feeling seems to be that it is disgraceful to pin a disorder label on a child so young and that it’s ridiculous to take a little boy to see a psychologist just because he likes wearing dresses.

Well, ye-es. But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Now, I am no fan of a ‘disorder’ label. I think we are very quick as a society to try and ‘explain’ non-normative behaviours by doling out titles and vaguely pinning them to other things we know about human psychology. I also think there’s a real danger in the desire to name and categorise everything. In psych this is largely to do with the fact that the most comprehensive diagnostic manual, the DSM-4 (soon to be updated to the DSM-5) is produced in the US where – to put it crudely – if your problem doesn’t have an official title, your insurance won’t pay. This is hugely problematic for plenty of reasons, not least the fact that every little quirk of personality now comes with its own syndrome. But that’s a whole other issue which I am loathe to get into for fear of regurgitating my undergraduate dissertation all over this blog post (and there’s really no need for that). In any case I digress.

In principle I agree that four is very young to be burdened with a ‘disorder’ label. But what has been glossed over is that fact that the parents only approached a child psychologist after Zach tried to mutilate his own genitals. Are you telling me that was an unnecessary step, an overreaction to normal childish pranks? It wasn’t about the dresses; it was about a deeply frustrated and unhappy child. And don’t try to tell me that’s the same as your child throwing a strop because you won’t let them go to school in a Buzz Lightyear costume because it’s not.

You also have to wonder whether any of these concerned parties stopped to think about the fact that the family might have sought professional help for themselves as well as their child; that they might have actually had the courage to admit they didn’t understand his behaviour and rather than just ignoring it and telling themselves “he’ll grow out of it”, they decided to engage with it.

Then there is the fact that not all disorders denote illness. It’s not necessarily about malfunction, it can simply be about identifying that what somebody says they are experiencing isn’t just precociousness or a phase but something real and important. Anyone who cares to do an ounce of research will very quickly discover that  Gender Identity Disorder (or Gender Dysphoria, as it is sometimes known) is not the result of your brain getting your gender ‘wrong’ but the discrepancy between the sex you’ve been ascribed and the one you know yourself to be.

Here is how the newspapers have explained it:

“Gender Identity Disorder [is] where the brain tells a person they are a different sex to their body.” (The Sun)

“Zach’s body is that of a boy, but in his brain he is a girl.” (The Mail)

“[Zach is] one of the youngest children in Britain to have the belief that they were born the wrong sex.” (The Telegraph)

And here is the definition according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic and statistical manual:

“A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.”

Rather than labelling the child as having something wrong with them, the diagnosis merely identifies this incongruence and acknowledges that they are experiencing something outside normative expectations. Really, when you look at like that, the ones who are doing the labelling are the media.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think that’s what the mainstream press is angry about. Actually I don’t think it’s angry at all, I think it’s a huge, great money-making machine that’s constantly on the lookout for the next big thing to get in a huff over. Because with huff come follow-up coverage and website hits and blogs and links and let’s be honest, no one ever made much dough out of sensitively and thoughtfully examining a subject from all its angles.

So right now the media is huffing about gender issues. But as usual it isn’t a real interest, it’s a fetish; they’re cashing in on the awesome power of the taboo, the latest ‘edgy’ thing they can roll out to make their readers squirm (and keep reading/buying/clicking). And here’s where they give themselves away because there’s nothing taboo about gender identity but the papers treat it like a freak show. Casual references to how if Zach’s parents had left him alone he might have grown up “perfectly normally” (The Mail) give away the true sentiments behind the glib reporting – fascination mixed with fear and revulsion. In the 19th century it was the bearded lady in 2012… well, the stories aren’t so very far removed are they?

It would all be fine if they meant it, if they were genuinely interested in communicating to their readers that there are more than two ways to be a person. But they’re not. It’s just voyeurism. You might say Teresa and Darren Avery are fuelling this by negotiating to sell their story but I’m reluctant to condemn them. Who knows, maybe they genuinely believe it will help raise awareness. Maybe they just really need the cash. Whichever it is, you can be sure the press aren’t remotely bothered.

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