Category Archives: Bodies and Genders

Response to Taboo: The Third Sex (or: Ugggh, NatGeo, why you gotta be like that?)

First blooog post! I had writers block for a bit—well, it was more being too psyched out to write. Daunting is the blog, where you pour the things from your brain out to a world full of strangers. But I shall try!

This post was assigned for my WS 201 class! The theme of today’s lesson was in the category of “Bodies and Genders”. For part of the class, we watched a national geographic show called Taboo, episode “The Third Sex”.

See what I did here. This embedding took like 20 minutes, so you better appreciate it. Also, it’ll help you understand what I’m talking about in the rest of the post, so that’s a plus.

If you want to watch the video without ads, it’s also available here.

First of all, this show was simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. First for the fascinating bits (so I don’t seem like a giant negative Nancy—it’s a personal flaw, I’m working on it).

The episode covered three cultures and their additional genders. It started with the hijras of India (individuals that are neither men nor women) participating in an important ceremony for their god, and ended with a segment on a “sworn virgin” of rural Albania (they are women that take on the social roles of men after taking a vow of chastity). The middle culture, the Bugis of Indonesia, was the most complex. In their culture, there are five genders, male and female, bissu (individuals that are both male and female), calabai (individuals born male that live in feminine social and sexual roles), and calalai (individuals born female that live in social and sexual male roles).

The Bugis ideas were the most interesting to me. One of the points made in the video is that when someone wanted a fertility blessing, they’d go to a bissu because the blessing came from a person with both masculine and feminine energy. As far as spiritual logic, that seems pretty solid. It was also interesting that their society seemed to perceive the five sexes as normal and universal—quite a contrast to how most of the program’s Western viewers likely think.

Now for some of the infuriating bits.

While watching the segment on hijras, it was very hard not to consider the idea that western influence likely affected social acceptance of the gender. The program mentions that there was a time when hijras were so respected that they earned their living dancing at weddings and attending births. Now, being a hijra “means becoming a social outcast”, reliant on begging or prostitution to make a living. Western values have altered many societies in some pretty big ways, and I am almost certain this is one of those ways (though I’m open to any insight on the topic, just leave a comment!).

The whole program kind of feels like Ripley’s Believe it or Not. You know what I mean: the music meant to kind of freak you out a little, the constant recycling of footage you just saw, like, 10 minutes ago, and the alternatingly ominous/debasing narrator (“this man dresses as a woman so he can marry his goood”/”an unusual beauty pageant”).

Now, I know I shouldn’t expect high-quality documentaries from National Geographic. I’m pretty sure their most popular series right now are about gold mining and doomsday prepping, oh, and what I’ve heard is a super racist show called American Gypsies (and I’m sure there are aliens somewhere, like its cousin The History Channel). I digress. My point is, it was just a little upsetting to learn about such interesting and potentially healthier ideas of gender in such an awful medium.

I’d like to close with a question to anyone reading this blog. When an interviewee is speaking a language other than that of the intended audience for the interviewer, how is the person that voice over the interpretation of the interviewee chosen? If the interviewee is male, is the interpreter usually male? What about female/female?

I ask because every person in these additional genders that was interviewed required a voice over interpretation for English speakers to understand.
Hijras were voiced over by English females (the married man participating in the ceremony of the hijras’ god was voiced by an English male), the bissu was voiced by an English male, the calabai and calalai by English woman, and the sworn virgin by a woman.

If the choice of who speaks as a representation of these individuals is arbitrary (and perhaps it is not, that is why I am asking), then the arrangement of which western gender narrated the speech of the additional gendered people, is very interesting.

PS: I’ll be updating the Home page soon with a little about me. Stick around!