I wasn’t sure, at first, if I was going to watch Orville. None of the trailers demonstrated the balance they would need to strike if the show was to carry forward the themes of Star Trek’s optimism and thoughtfulness as well as McFarlane brand humor. In fact, that signature humor animated much of my hesitation, as Mcfarlane was known not so much for lacking wit as nuance and the issues Star Trek has used its science fiction conceits to feature often required a lot of nuance. Star Trek, especially the Original Series was both brave and at times clumsy in its handling the controversies of its day. Could a strong parody be made? That wasn’t Galaxy Quest?
My friends started watching the show first and soon, though I only expected scant updates on social media, they sent me a discreet nudge, in text form, to watch for the third episode. “This week’s Orville is a scifi allegory about unwilling and unnecessary surgeries on infants”. My friend, knowing that I am Intersex and underwent non consentual sex-assignment as a infant, thought that I should perhaps see it. Intrigued, though still hesitantly anticipating jokes on the subject with Family Guy’s level of finesse, I started from episode one.
Episode one wasn’t very compelling, the Star Trek brand Scientifically Enlightened Utopia was attempted, and many of the tropes of Trek were well featured. The jokes were a little off, but I didn’t experience any hard no’s, so I kept going. Episode two was better, jokes based on taking some science fiction conceits to their logical yet ridiculous conclusions, female characters were made more conventionally attractive, and the part of the show I felt was dragging the most, the Male and Female lead’s overly dramatic relationship, was actually beaten into a more human shape. Then, in the final minutes, the egg the monosexed all-masculine-species “Big Black Military Officer” alien’s egg hatches. And the child of Bortus and Klyden, of a species comprised entirely of men, is female.
I already could tell this was going to hit a lot closer to home than my friend’s texts specified. Episode three, the one he tipped me off to, was absolutely going to be about a baby whose sex is rejected by her society. I could the story coming because it was a metaphor for lives like mine. Having a personal stake in this depiction, I expected to be disappointed, as I had not seen anything from McFarlane that would suggest otherwise. When it comes to gender and culture, the more mainstream a cultural piece is, such as Family Guy, the more likely it will push ideas on gender that have mass appeal, defending against progressive developments. Family Guy has tried to reach for more and has often settled for much less. Cheap transgender jokes rang across my memory as I watched the third episode.
In the end, I was blown away by how much this metaphor got right. And not only was the metaphor apt, but the enthusiasm the characters showed for the ethical protection of the child from the surgery. Beyond this point, spoilers abound. Please see the episode, it’s worth watching.
Intersexuality isn’t the Struggle, the Struggle Arises From Society Forcing Conformity
Orville never made a mention of intersexuality, or humanity’s gender diversity, but I don’t find that they needed to to talk about the struggle facing intersexuals. In making the Society in question Male and the sex that is controversial Female, Orville cut into the heart of sexist hierarchy that informs our own conformity to binary gender roles. The child is not seen by the fictional society as female, but as a disabled male. Femininity is not considered valuable, females are not considered legitimate people by the society and surgical conversion is the gatekeeper to that legitimacy. The show uses Sexism, laid upon a male/female dichotomy but with a pattern that fits present day transphobia, and intersex rejection, to its very bones.
In my own life, my parents were directed by my doctors to control and guide my behavior toward masculinity. Similar advice is given by many surgeons and doctors, based on the now disproven theory that children can be pressured into internalizing a gender identity. Sometimes the doctors use the legal limitations of birth certificates, these documents only accept notation of a male or female baby, so the doctors argue that surgery is the only path to legal recognition for the baby. My own birth certificate is signed three days after my birth, representing the time it took to convince my parents to assign a male/female sex to me. Other times, the threat of social alienation is rationalized by proponents of the surgery, just as happened in the Episode.
What rang true to my experience the most clearly from the episode was that the problem with having a gender or sex that is not acceptable to society is not one’s gender/sex, but society. The show makes it clear that the baby is a viable and healthy organism in every way, needing no medical intervention to survive. The show also humanizes the parent’s desire for a baby that conforms; it was incredibly poignant to write the mate, Klyden, to have been born female as well, molded by internalized shame into an avenue for the very same oppressive conformity that shaped his life. The show never wavers on the ethical position it sets as protagonistic: that the child has the right to decide its gender expression, that having a gender outside of society’s approval is a healthy identity, and that the baby deserves acceptance for whoever they are.
In opposition, the Society is depicted as overly homogenous, unwilling to compromise, arrogant, suffering, and benefiting from its own false impressions. It is never explicitly said, though it is made evident, that the belief in the rarity of female birth (once every 75 years) is an underestimate cushioned by the comforting invisibility of conversion surgery. That society is also shown as malleable, though unable to change overnight. The main character alien, Bortus, changes his reactionary views when shown the more accepting side of human culture (as long as it appeals to his values of utilitarianism, that piece of culture is the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer claymation special, after all). The conflict of the human’s initial rejection of the surgery is intensified when he too refuses to allow surgery on his child. It is only when confronting his mate with this story that his mate reveals to have been converted as an infant from female. The mate, Klyden, reveals that a medical scan taught him that he was born female, and in keeping with the intersex metaphor, Klyden’s parents and doctors never told him. And even as we can connect with both the hope in Bortus’ mind and the fear in his mate’s, Bortus accuses Klyden of lying to him by not admitting his origins when they were discovered, an emotional slap in the face multiple intersex people have dealt with when coming out to their partners. This nuance is hidden within the mundanity of a seemingly monolithic society. When the show’s adventures take us to their own planet for a tribunal on the matter, the society’s perpetuation of this conflict through oppressive conformity is on full display.
The Issue is that Children Have the Right to Body Autonomy
When defending their society’s practices, the alien Counsel quizzes the ship’s doctor on the human practice of circumcision. The doctor tries to draw a distinction between the two practices, but can’t completely, only describing the effect gender identity has on one’s life. The reason she struggles is because both infant circumcision and infant sex assignment surgeries are performed before the child can exercise informed consent over changes to their body. As infant circumcision activists assert, no non-medically necessary surgery on infants can be consensual.
Consider the fictional example of the hermitted Female discovered to be her people’s greatest writer. Among Intersexuals stories like hers, in which the parents chose to raise their child as they are, are rare and awe-inspiring, able to shake us to our core. This parental acceptance narrative is glorified in Intersex media, such as movies like XXY or Manga like IS, echoing against a shared experience. These stories center on the Intersexual’s choice, their will to be who they choose, instead of chosen for them.
Even a teenager, with limited legal ability to consent, has a far greater ability to grasp and choose these bodily changes than an infant ever could or is asked to do. And as the Doctor in the episode points out, sex assignment surgery affects the person’s entire life. This is because the surgery attempts to physically manipulate one of the least tangible aspects of the human condition: identity. As researchers discovered and my family found out after I changed my pronouns, you can’t sew gender into a person. In fact, the very attempt to physicalize the ineffability of identity often leaves a lasting impression on the child that they are not accepted…and fundamentally unacceptable.
Instead of Saving Children from Shame, Conforming Surgery Leaves the Child with Lasting Shame
As I have written in this blog before, my gender assignment surgeries left me struggling with shame for most of my life. Many Intersexuals and studies report that conforming medical/surgical practices overwhelmingly employ secrecy, believing that if the child is never informed they were intersex, the gender assignment is more likely to suceeed. These practices assume that the child will never have any clues to ask about and further uninformed medical treatment will never result in a reveal. This practice was used on me; my surgeries were barely described to me and, like many Intersexuals, I only found out the truth later in life. This secrecy is present in the Alien culture as well, demonstrated by Klyden’s late knowledge of his feminine origin and the overwhelming misconception in his culture that such cases occur only once in seven decades.
Consider Klyden’s adamance that continuing the practice used on him is the only way to save their child from shame. He believes his surgery saved him from that shame, but that shame still influences him, so much so that he is afraid of the society judgment of their daughter; he is ashamed of her. And why would Klyden doubt that society will reject his child, when he has the surgical scars to prove it? Sex assignment surgery, instead of saving us from society’s shame, etches its persuasive power into our bodies. This can lead intersexuals to the conclusion, as it did to me, that we are naturally profane, and needed external acceptance. The vast majority of sex-assigned intersexuals I have spoken to about their experience report struggling with shame their entire lives, whether they identify with their given gender or not. The studies I have linked to will support this generalization, and The Orville depicts the legacy of shame inherent in these surgeries.
For Most Intersexuals, the Show’s Ending is a Tragic Reality
Some whom I spoke to about the show, as well as multiple online venues, have criticized the ending as unnecessarily pessimistic. The society’s judicial process rules that there isn’t sufficient evidence to withhold the surgery and the daughter is reintroduced to Bortus and Klyden after the procedure as their son. It’s is a crushing refutation of the crew’s support and optimism, and I understand why it leaves viewers drained. But if a single person who is not Intersex, nor knows anyone who is Intersex, feels that leaden weight descend through their abdomen, in a moment of moral connection between that surgery and a feeling of injustice, I am glad.
For me and the vast majority of people like me, our stories go the way of this fictional child. No one was able to speak up for us, no one came to our aid. We, who aren’t named at first because it wouldn’t be appropriate, we have to live with the repercussions of this decision. For those of us whose medical procedures were kept from us or too gently explained, there is often horrified discovery, as with Klyden. If we can get mental health and support networks amongst loved ones, both of which I am blessed to have, there can be healthier perspectives than Klyden’s conclusions. Like Bortus felt, we can learn to love our lost selves as well as the self spelled out on cards dealt to us on the surgical table. But knowing that it will happen again, that it happens often to others, over and over. It’s hard to sit with that, to accept it. We can do more than hope for better for future children.
The people who make those decisions, the parents ultimately, and the doctors and surgeons who have and continue to practice sex assignment on intersex children, usually have no first hand experience with Intersexuality. They are the primary people Intersexuals who want to make future surgeries less likely need to convince. However, we can’t know which couples will produce Intersex children, who are often the product of recessive genes or genetic mutation. The doctor’s are easier to identify, but harder to convince. The gap between personal experience and educated expertise can be a wide gulf to cross. United States Surgeon Generals and the United Nations have both implored doctors to stop the practice. We have a difficult road ahead, to convince others but, as Maya Angelou said ” ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ If that’s the case, the Episode entitled About a Girl is likely to leave an impact on the four million people who watched it.
This is What Science Fiction is Meant to Do
And why shouldn’t it. Seth MacFarlane has made no ambiguity about the basis of this show in Star Trek’s philosophy, social commentary, and optimism. While Star Trek offered multiple episodes to comment on the controversies of its day, it is not unique in that practice. Science Fiction has a legacy of helping ease its audience over moral hurdles toward Social Justice, manifesting in Verne’s Commentary on British Imperialism, Orwell’s warnings on Totalitarianism, The Twilight Zone’s rebuttal of paranoia, or The Matrix’s hints toward Transgender acceptance. The Orville’s focus on non-consenting gender assignment surgeries connects it with the very genre it lampoons and makes a strong case for the love the showrunners have for the source material.
I said before that, if a person who would not otherwise know the Intersex experience felt an emotional drop when the show connected the surgery to injustice, I was glad. As I’ve said, I believe in the power of Science Fiction to change minds by warming hearts. This episode said more about Intersex erasure than almost any other episode of fictional television ever, and it did it all under the radar of prejudice’s filter. By not mentioning intersexuality and only mentioning transgender as a way to describe the surgery as inappropriate for a baby, the show goes a long way toward embedding its emotional impact into an otherwise hostile audience.
But more than that, the characterization of the support for the child on the show is unexpected and appreciated. The crew is enthusiastic in their support of the baby’s rights. To see these characters, these compassionate representations of humanity, fight for this child and believer in her self-determination, I can feel that support. And while Seth McFarlane is a problematic creator at best, his support for people like me speaks well of his intentions for The Orville.