The last few weeks have been interesting. First up, I was bored and channel surfing and I came across the ABC’s Hungry Beast at the beginning of a report of cosmetic surgery on female genitals. This is apparently becoming popular in Australia. It’s performed by plastic surgeons on women who think their genitals need a bit of a tidy. As I come from the generation who thought it revolutionary to crouch over the mirror and have a look, I was immediately engrossed in this report. I thought it might tell me how far we’d come.
How do you actually know your genitals need tidying, I wondered idly, as my revolution didn’t consist of a wide-scale comparative survey of loads of others. And this is where it really got scary.
The soft porn industry in Australia is allowed to publish images of female genitalia. However, these images may not be too explicit. You can’t show too many bits. So the photographs are airbrushed, with the result that the women in these magazines are portrayed as having genitals that are more likely to belong to a pre-pubescent girl.
In a wonderful example of a Baudrillardian nightmare in which the virtual not the actual has come to define what is “normal”, I learned that women and oftentimes their partners are taking these airbrushed models as guides to the way women’s genitals should be. The mature genitalia with their wrinkly bits and pieces are now perceived as imperfect. We can, and some think we should, get our genitals surgically deconstructed and reconstructed to look like we looked when we were ten.
The processing of photographs was described by porn industry air brushers as altering the appearance of the “vagina.” This confused me greatly for a while, being as the vagina is the inside bit. It seemed even more frightening than slicing up external bits. But to my relief the reporter explained that the industry prefers to use the term “vagina” rather than the term “labia,” due no doubt to some bizarre desire not to offend by being explicit.
I then watched in anguished disbelief as we were taken into the operating rooms of a plastic surgeon who was in the process of injecting anaesthetic into the genital area of an attractive young woman. After a bit of chat, and then getting down to some business we couldn’t see as he was filmed with his back to the camera, the surgeon emerged triumphant from his flurry under the blue sheets, holding aloft a piece of bloodied skin that immediately put me in mind of Van Gogh’s severed ear. It was, in fact, a good-sized chunk of one of the young woman’s labium.
Barely recovered from this, I next encountered the appalling treatment of Norrie by the New South Wales government. Norrie was registered as male at birth. Norrie began hormone treatment at 23 and then had surgery to become a woman. Norrie has since stopped taking hormones and identifies as neither sex. Norrie had become the first person in the state to be legally recognised as without gender.
When I heard this news, I was delighted. This is a great step forward for our society, I thought. At last we have matured enough to acknowledge difference, and to free ourselves from the cultural brainwashing that would have us imprisoned for life in limiting binary gender categories, and their at times crushing roles.
People like Norrie are, in my view, heroic vanguards of the better world that is there for us if we can only liberate ourselves from these entirely constructed (frequently by religions, then supported by the State) concepts of what is “normal” and what is “natural”.
But my pleasure was short lived. In a disgraceful turnaround, Norrie was stripped by the NSW government of the right to be legally recognised as genderless on the grounds of some obscure twaddle dragged out of some obscure twaddle book, specifically for the purpose of calming the fears of red-necked twaddlers everywhere who couldn’t get their heads around Norrie’s circumstances and just wanted it all stopped. The NSW government capitulated to these fear-ridden, angst-ridden, deeply threatened voters, and stopped it.
One step forward. Ten steps back. Norrie has vowed to fight on.
Finally, J.M. Coetzee, who is one of my favourite authors and who is currently reading his novel Youth on ABC Radio National’s Book Show. I will state right now that it is not acceptable for the views of narrators and characters in a novel to be attributed by the reader to the novel’s author.
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