The films Mrs. Goundo's Daughter, Absolutely Safe, and She's a Boy I Knew raise questions of autonomy, bodily integrity, and the difficulty of resisting prevailing cultural paradigms. All would work well in an introductory women's and gender studies class or in upper-division classes on women's health, ethics, or law.
Mrs. Goundo's Daughter (60 min.) follows the life of Mrs. Goundo, a young immigrant woman from Mali, negotiating her new life in Philadelphia where she is caught between worlds. Its honesty about the loneliness that accompanies immigration is striking. And it is the best film I have seen on the subject of female genital cutting (FGC), presenting different sides of this controversial issue starkly and sensitively. Mrs. Goundo sorely misses her native country and would love to return to Mali, where she lived a life filled with community ceremonies, weddings, and endless family get-togethers. "They have everything," she laments. But she cannot ever go back home, not even for a visit. And even if she could return, such a trip would likely bring undesirable consequences.
Mrs. Goundo's parents brought her to Philadelphia when she was fifteen years old, and her immigration status has never been settled. Seven years and three children later, she fears being sent back to Mali where her only daughter would most certainly be circumcised. Mrs. Goundo herself had been circumcised as a child, as had every girl she knew, and she knows that her parents would ensure that her daughter, Djenabou, would also be subjected to the procedure. Indeed, 85 percent of all girls in Mali have genital surgery, usually excision, which removes the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora and labia majora. Without it, it is feared, young women will never marry. In order to spare Djenabou from this fate, Mrs. Goundo needs political asylum in the United States, a legal status granted to only 10-20 percent of applicants.
The film is richly complicated in its exploration of Malian women's feelings about circumcision. "No one wants her daughter to be excised," one woman living in the United States admitted, but it does not seem possible to overcome the force of tradition. Through Mrs. Goundo, we begin to feel the precarious position of being an undocumented immigrant, needing asylum, experiencing and fearing FGC, and the difficult decisions these situations provoke a mother to make for her daughter. Throughout the film viewers glimpse changes occurring within the culture, as Malian anti-FGC activists try to convince parents of the dangers of circumcision and encourage them to abandon the rite. Mrs. Goundo's Daughter would thus be a strong addition to classes in law, immigration, human rights, women's rights, and globalization.1
Under what circumstances do we make decisions about our bodies?2 Absolutely Safe (83 min.) explores the question of breast implant safety. Some women get implants after mastectomies due to breast cancer; others choose implants just because they want larger breasts. Breast implants are big business: breast augmentation procedures have increased approximately 40 percent in the last ten years, making them the most common invasive cosmetic surgery for women. Watching this film should make all women think twice about such surgery. Implants can rupture, spilling out silicone all over the body and causing chronic fatigue, lupus, heat sensitivity, breast discharge, and scleroderma. The filmmaker interviewed women, including her own mother, who have experienced implant ruptures and their dangerous consequences, including the disconcerting confusion and frustration resulting from failure to immediately detect the cause. Symptoms gradually faded once the implants were removed (watching a surgeon lift the ruptured, gooey gel out of a woman's body is especially disturbing), and many women voiced particular relief that their illnesses were not "all in their heads." This testimony powerfully challenges manufacturers' claims of safety.
Amid interviews with affected women and physicians and footage of FDA hearings about implant safety in 2005 and 2006, Absolutely Safe follows the trajectories of two women: one who wants her implants removed and one who is eager to get them inserted. The former got her implants years ago when she worked as a topless dancer. Now she wants her original body back before she starts to get sick. Her doctor is one of the few surgeons willing to admit that implants are not safe; he candidly acknowledges three problems: they rupture, they get harder, and they make women physically ill.
In contrast, the young woman who wants augmentation has always been obsessed with breasts, she says, and will not feel happy about her body until she has larger ones, despite the concerns of her fearful husband, who opposes surgery. Very happy after surgery, she says she feels like "more of a woman." Yet she admits that if she had it to do over, she might have looked more closely into the procedure's safety. I could not help but think: "Too bad she could not have seen this film in advance."
She's a Boy I Knew documents the transsexual filmmaker Gwen Haworth's life story and the relationships that evolve as Steven becomes Gwen. Gwen has vaginoplasty, breast surgery, and facial feminization surgery (nose job and chin reduction), but these procedures are almost incidental to the film. In this regard, this movie is unlike most others about transsexual transitions, and ultimately it is more satisfying and engaging, particularly for students who might know someone going through this process. Viewers learn of Gwen's struggles over the years she was forced to hide what she believed to be her true essence. All the time Gwen was kept inside and hidden under the assumption and hope that those feelings of discomfort would just go away. But they did not.
The film focuses on the family members and friends introduced to Gwen as she slowly emerges. Since Steven had buried Gwen for so long, the announcement came as a shock, especially to her siblings and parents. Gwen's mother and father were honest about their feelings: devastated at first, they nonetheless were determined to keep the lines of communication open with their new daughter. Neither wanted to forget the past with Steven, and the film emphasizes this by incorporating old family movie footage showing a "normal" family with "normal" gender roles.
Gwen lets her family take its time, and after several years everyone seems to have become comfortable. They call her by her new name, Gwen; they use female pronouns; and sometimes even "she" slips into discussions of days gone by. Initial worries about Gwen's health, how her body will react to hormones and surgeries, begin to fade, and they grow closer than ever now that Gwen feels truly at ease being herself. Despite some pain along the way, particularly her broken marriage as Steven, Gwen chronicles her transition in a thoughtful, compelling, and uplifting movie.3
) is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England
(Cornell University Press, 1997). She is associate professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon.
1 In conjunction with this film instructors might assign readings from Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robinson, eds., Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
2 See, e.g., Kathy Davis, Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery (New York: Routledge, 1994).
3 Texts that could usefully accompany this film are Jennifer Finney Boylan, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders (New York: Broadway, 2003) and Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, eds., The Transgender Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006).