Sunday, September 13, 2009

Intersexuality and Same-Sex Marriage

In the last year, proponents of same-sex marriage have launched a slew of pop initiatives in opposition to California's Proposition 8. Everything from American Apparel tees to star-studded FunnyorDie videos have been used in an effort to increase public support for gay rights. After all that, though, the biggest boon to the same-sex marriage campaign could be a South African track star.

Last week the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that gender tests conducted on Caster Semenya--the South African middle distance runner who rose to prominence by winning the 800 meters at last month's World Championships--showed that the 18-year-old has a chromosomal abnormality that caused her body to develop without a womb or ovaries, instead she has internal testes that produce testosterone.

The Guardian reported last week that Semenya is receiving trauma counseling.

The developing story of Semenya's intersexuality brings to light how complicated the issue of gender identity really is. In a recent essay for The New York Times, Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, writes, "The fact is, sex is messy." Dreger recounts the story of a boy named Matthew who lead a "male-typical" life and had a long-term girlfriend only to find, at the age of 19, that he had ovaries and a uterus. According to the Intersex Society of North America, roughly 1% of all live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity.

If the border between male and female is ultimately tenuous then maybe it would behoove proponents of same-sex marriage to make a more pragmatic, more scientific argument. If Caster Semenya were a U.S. citizen, would it be illegal for her to marry a man?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Oscar Nominees Get Preferential Treatment

When the final ballots for the 2009 Oscars land in the mailboxes of Academy members this winter, voters will not only have more to choose from, they'll also have more choices to make. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced this week that in addition to expanding the Best Picture category to 10 films, they have also decided to institute a new voting process--one that has gained favor with San Francisco residents, Georgetown University students, and Arizona Senator John McCain.

This year, the winner of the Best Picture Award will be decided by preferential voting (also known as instant runoff voting, or IRV for electoral nerds). Preferential voting is a system in which voters rank the candidates--in Oscar's case, from 1 to 10--and the votes are considered through an advancing process in which the candidates receiving the fewest number of first place votes are eliminated and the remainder of their ballot votes go to the more popular candidates. This process continues until one candidate has achieved the majority. (This is different from other popular ranking polls, such as the AP college football poll, because the positions are not weighted by points, rather the larger number of top votes that a candidate receives serves to simply keep them in competition during the "instant runoff" process).

The first recorded use of the preferential voting system in a government election was in 1893 for colonial offices in Queensland, Australia. Since then, preferential voting has gained many proponents but not widespread use. Probably the most notable use of preferential voting in the United States is in San Francisco where, in 2004, the elections for city offices began using the system.

Although the decision to go IRV has been met with some harsh criticism from Hollywood insiders, the system really goes hand-in-hand with a larger field of candidates: the last time that the Academy had 10 candidates for Best Picture, in 1943, preferential voting was used ("Casablanca" won). The system protects against an increased number of candidates simply becoming a bunch of spoilers.

The new voting system should give the Academy Awards a much-needed jolt of popular enthusiasm by inviting both accomplished blockbusters ("Dark Knight" comes to mind) and art house films ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days") to the Best Picture party. By diversifying the field of contenders and requiring an extensive analysis of the titles by the voters, the new process promotes greater viewer interaction and interest ("what's your top 10...?").

I especially like what a commenter on David Poland's movie blog suggested for the telecast: "They need to treat the nominees as a top 10 list and not 'nominees.' Then, structure the broadcast around the top 10 like American Idol and gradually count down the vote tabs from #10 to #1 throughout the program to create suspense."