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‘Gender Revolution’ Review: Katie Couric Means Well, But Her Transgender Doc Is Pure Befuddled Mom

Scientific studies and high production values aren't enough to overcome this documentary's tabloid talk-show sensibilities.

Katie Couric in “The Gender Revolution”


Back in August of 2015, a month after Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair under the headline, “Call Me Caitlyn,” humor site Clickhole published a listicle titled: “8 Moms Doing Their Best With The Transgender Movement.” Stock photos of smiling, mom-aged women featured captions like, “Donna bought the Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover and read almost the whole interview without sighing. She even left it out on the coffee table for over a week and didn’t put it away when guests came over!”

Now we have “Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric,” a National Geographic documentary co-produced by World of Wonder. Had Couric been the ninth mom on Clickhole list, her caption might have read: “Katie produced a documentary about gender identity and didn’t ask about anyone’s private parts once! But she did ask one woman about her ‘old name’ hours before her gender confirmation surgery. Can’t win ’em all!”

READ MORE: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Protests: Why We Should Listen to Trans Activists Criticizing The Milestone Film — Editorial

Here, Couric tackles the transgender movement, a topic she approaches with a storied past: On her now-defunct CBS daytime talk show, “Katie,” the former “Today Show” host came under fire for a 2014 interview with transgender model Carmen Carrera. Couric asked Carrera pointedly about the details of her transition, including questions about her “private parts,” and referred to Carrera as a man multiple times when referring to her past.

Carrera actually shushed Couric, before directing the conversation back to her career. When “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox joined the women onstage, less flustered and more accustomed to mainstream media attention, she quickly shut down Couric: “The preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people,” she said, listing harrowing statistics about disproportionately higher unemployment, suicide, and homicide rates among trans people, especially trans women of color. Said Cox, “By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination.”

READ MORE: ‘Growing Up Coy’ Review: Transgender Rights Documentary Humanizes the Bathroom Debate

Maybe that’s what inspired Couric to make this two-hour documentary. Perhaps she was emboldened by Cox’s pardon six months later, when she reappeared on “Katie” to commend Couric “for really being teachable.” However, even from the opening lines of “Gender Revolution,” it seems that Couric’s blinkered perspective remains unchanged.

“It used to be so simple,” rings Couric’s voice in the opening shots. “You were a boy, or you were a girl. Girls wore pink, boys wore blue. Girls played with dolls, boys played with trucks. Girls played house, boys played sports. But that was then…” A content warning plays: “This broadcast delivers a frank discussion of gender and sex. Viewer discretion is advised.” (This doc may have broken new ground by creating a viewer warning that’s offensive in its own right.)

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: 10 Reasons Why This Year’s Festival Is Essential for Queer Cinema

As she travels the country to interview intersex folks, scientists, psychologists, activists, doctors, and young people, Couric often chooses to play the fool. “It’s all happening so fast,” she says to one interviewee. “For some people, it’s too much to handle.” Throughout the film, Couric summons “people” who have questions, a tactic often used by mainstream media to justify asking ignorant or invasive questions. By way of accounting for her bewilderment, she says, “It’s all a lot to wrap your head around, you know?”

No amount of befuddled-mom apologies can make up for Couric asking a woman what her “old name” was, hours before her long-awaited gender confirmation surgery. Even more bizarre is Couric uses the moment to show off her knowledge of a somewhat obscure term, “deadnaming,” which is the act of referring to a trans person as their birth name. Another time, she misgenders a 12-year-old trans girl when referring to her in the past. We know, it’s a lot to wrap your head around.

Couric’s intended audience is clear: She made this movie for other nice white ladies like herself, who don’t really get what’s going on with all this gender stuff. Her naive-mom persona is grating at best, disrespectful and dangerous at worst. Though it tries to dress itself up with scientific studies and high production values, “The Gender Revolution” treats trans people the same way tabloid talk shows have for years: As an oddity, a confusion, a phenomenon to be explained. It may be a useful educational tool for kids in red states to show their parents, but it certainly missed the revolution.

Grade: D+

“The Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric” premiered February 6 on the National Geographic Channel

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