Hot Docs

Category: Woman Review – What Is Female?

Hot Docs 2022

4 mins read

Category: Woman
Dir: Phyllis Ellis
(Canada, 80 min)
Programme: Persister (World Premiere)


What is a female? Who decides? For decades, international sports federations have been wrestling with this question. As recounted in Category: Woman, directed by Phyllis Ellis (Toxic Beauty) until this century, female was conflated with femininity and those athletes who were lesbian-looking and too good at their specialty came under scrutiny and demands for gender verification.

Up to 1966, so distressed were Olympic authorities by their fears that they actually demanded that athletes parade in the nude so that male “experts” could make their gender assessments.

But the emergence of the great 800-metre specialist Castor Semenya at the beginning of this century changed the conversation. When hormone tests revealed that she had high levels of testosterone, called hypoandrogenism, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) tried to prevent her from competing. Since then, she has fought for her right to be herself and to continue as a racer. I am who I am, she has insisted. I am a woman.

Other women, most of them Black and Brown–none European or American–have been similarly harassed. In one of the most egregious cases, when Ugandan Annette Negesa’s testosterone tested into male levels, she could race only if she underwent a clitorectomy, which has nothing to do with testosterone but everything to do with what it means to be female in parts of Africa.

Dutee Chand of India took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) which ruled that there was not enough evidence to support the IAAF’s regulations. The IAAF fought back with new and highly questionable science, reinstating the rules. Castor Semenya took the case back to the CAS who upheld the IAAF’s standards. She, Chand and other targeted female athletes, continue to fight for their rights and have been supported by the extraordinary human rights activist Payoshni Mitra, who figures prominently in the film. On the other hand, you will not be impressed with the smug IAAF head and former Olympic champion Sebastian Coe.

Experts make clear that under no other circumstances are athletes, male or female, banned from competition because of their bodies’ natural conditions, whether it’s a swimmer’s wingspan–hello Michael Phelps–or a basketball or volleyball player’s height, both of which offer a competitive edge.

The treatment to lower testosterone is invasive and deleterious to athletes’ health. Outing their high levels is a violation of their privacy and their human rights with serious impacts on their social standing and financial health. The science measuring testosterone levels is sketchy.

And more to the point, testosterone levels do not qualify as a gender test.

Currently, controversy swirls over trans women’s rights to participate as women in international athletics, an issue not covered in Category: Woman. But it is definitely the next frontier and merits a separate rigorous documentary.

As it is, this doc’s subjects are passionate advocates, its story is infuriating and it has an undeniable power of its own.

Category: Woman premiered at Hot Docs 2022.

Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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