What does it mean to be a woman? And, under what special circumstances could we, as a society, accept the idea that an outside entity has the right to decide who and what an individual human being is?
On the other hand: what is the nature of fairness? And, in the name of equality within a collective, is it conscionable to tamper with individuals at the level of biological identity?
In her documentary about human rights and women’s sports called Category: Woman (2022), Phyllis Ellis explores these questions through a threaded presentation of four related stories.
Due to eligibility regulations set by the International Amateur Athletics Association, four female athletes were banned from competing in sports, unless they agreed to undergo a surgical procedure that would lower their naturally elevated testosterone levels. The justification for this, from the perspective of the sports governing body that instituted it, was that this was necessary to level the playing field and ensure equal advantage for all women athletes.
However, through revealing the devastating effects these regulations had on the four athletes in question, Category: Woman unfolds not only as an investigation of gender and fairness, but also as a study of scrutiny itself — who is subjected to it, who is spared it, and why.
From the very beginning of this film, we are reminded explicitly that men are not hounded to “prove” their gender — or modify their biological makeup — in order to compete in sports. As Dr. Payoshni Mitra, an athlete’s rights activist, says: “When you are a man and you do exceptionally well, you become a Superman. When you are a woman and you do exceptionally well, you must be a man.”
At around the halfway mark of the film, too, we are shown that white female athletes are not regarded with the same castigating gaze as female athletes of color are. Unlike their black and brown female peers, white female athletes are more frequently allowed to enjoy their victories without enduring a gender inquisition.
In this way, then, Ellis identifies prejudice as the central motivator behind these imposed medical regulations, rather than a concern for fairness.
As a film that seeks to illuminate an unfortunately ever-relevant issue, Category: Woman is certainly an educational introduction to it. However, for a film that strives to highlight the importance of an intersectional approach to human rights advocacy, the absence of transphobia (discussed at least as a looming presence behind these discriminatory practices, along with sexism and racism) was felt here. In addition to this, the film also could have benefited from a tighter aesthetic presentation of material, as well as a more balanced treatment of both sides of the issue — no matter how morally repugnant one position may be over the other.
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