Changing The Game

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Changing The Game
"Barnett excels at capturing nuances of expression and action." | Photo: Chris Westlund

If there's one thing that defines the 'transgender debate' of the last few years it's that most people don't have much clue about the issues involved. And why should they? If they're not trans themselves and don't know any openly trans people then it can be difficult to connect with the experience emotionally, and the science involved is complex, going some way beyond what's taught in high school. Given this, many try to avoid getting drawn into it and settle for a simple live and let live approach. One area where this seems harder to do, however, is sports. Can it ever be fair for someone born with a masculine body to compete against women? Where adults are concerned, that gets us into complicated dialogues about hormones, skeletal structure, muscle mass and whether or not sport can ever be fair anyway (after all, some people grow taller than others, etc.). This documentary focuses on an ostensibly simpler question: how should we determine which category someone competes in in school sports?

This has been a hot topic in the US recently, with attention focused on a small number of individual athletes, several of whom are featured here. There's young skier Sarah Rose Huckman, whose determination not to accept being excluded led her to take action in court. There's track star Andraya Yearwood, who has argued that she cannot afford the hormone treatment that would feminise her body and that requiring it discriminates against low income students. And there's Mack Beggs who, because his state refuses to recognise his transition, is forced to wrestle against girls - then booed when he beats them. Director Michael Barnett sets out to explore the issues whilst giving these young people, plus their coaches and teachers and families and friends, the opportunity to tell their stories.

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If you've followed this subject in the media, there's a lot here that will already be familiar to you, but Barnett does two important things. Firstly, he reminds us that it's an issue which affects real human beings. Secondly, he poses this question: what is school sport for? A gym teacher comments that winning and losing are important for motivation but that he sees his primary role as teaching life lessons through the medium of sport. Building confidence, repairing damaged self-esteem, acquiring discipline and learning how to commit to a set of goals - all these things are important to shaping the future lives of those involved.

Potentially overshadowing this, however, is another concern. In the US, success in sports can be a passport to further education. this puts a disturbing amount of pressure on young people to begin with (and deserves a lot more critical attention than it currently receives), and it makes people particularly sensitive to potential unfairness. We are introduced to one of Mack's competitors, who worries that because of his participation in her sport, she will find it much harder to get a scholarship. She doesn't blame him but, rather, the administrators who won't let him compete in the male competition where she feels he clearly belongs. Watching her work out will inspire any young female athlete, but it's tough for her to overcome the advantage conferred by testosterone. The thing is, Mack also needs a scholarship, so arguing that he should drop out (or, as one adult shockingly suggests, that he should shoot himself in the head), still means somebody is being denied a fair chance.

Barnett is cautious about including much overt transphobia in the film. We see assorted people arguing for discrimination in a way that seems more reasonable, though clearly disconnected from the reality on the ground. One woman starts shouting from the sidelines at one of Sarah's events, her face contorted in hate, repeating a much simplified take on biology as if it were a religious text. No argument is brought to bear against this. Instead, the camera simply moves to Sarah's face, showing us the impact of being on the receiving end of this kind of thing. It is not clear if the woman realises that Sarah, small and feminine as she is, is one of the people she objects to.

Notions of femininity and masculinity have never been one size fits all. Sarah's mother talks about how she never felt like much of a girly girl and how connecting with Sarah's experience has moved her more in that direction. Mack's grandmother discusses her grief at the loss of the little girl she thought she knew, and her gradual realisation that the said girl was a product of her own imagination - a salutary point which will resonate with any parent who thinks about what they expected their child would be like and what actually emerged. "She's just a normal teenage boy," says Mack's grandfather, who seems to recognise his gender instinctively but still struggles with the details. These scenes are brief, however; there are plenty of other films dealing with what it means to be trans, and Barnett is more interested in how everybody's different experiences can fit together more successfully.

The kids really come alive in scenes where we see them enjoying their sports, whether solo or in competition, practising, winning or losing. Mack also engages with his girlfriend's passion for horse riding. Here the focus on social obligation recedes and they are able to enjoy the simple pleasure of pushing their bodies to the limit. Each has a supportive friend group and there's a sense that the young people, regardless of gender history, just want to get on with their lives and don't understand why adults have to make it difficult. Barnett excels at capturing nuances of expression and action, telling their side of the story with little need for words. Perhaps these issues don't need to be complicated at all.

Reviewed on: 29 May 2021
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Transgender high school athletes from across the US compete at the top of their fields, while also challenging the boundaries and perceptions of fairness and discrimination.

Director: Michael Barnett

Writer: Michael Barnett, Michelle Mahaffie

Year: 2019

Country: US


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