Category: Woman ★★★★ – Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2023

Category: Woman ★★★★ – Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2023

Category: Woman is a powerful and vital viewing, shedding light on the urgent issue regarding the humiliating discrimination female athletes are having to endure just to compete in the sport they love.

When international sports governing bodies rule that “identified” female athletes must medically alter their bodies, four champion runners fight back against racism, policing of women’s bodies, and the violation of their human rights.

The worst aspect of Category: Woman is how clueless the IAAF appears throughout this. They have dug themselves into a hole, and the only way out they can see is to dig further. These women have naturally higher testosterone levels than normal for their gender. How is that their fault? They cannot be blamed for how their body grew and should certainly not be limited and run out of athletics.

This also highlights the cursed nature that athletics has found itself in. Within hockey, for example, a study found that women who took oral contraception had lower testosterone than those on the pill. In fact, those on the pill were found to have, on average, 35% higher concentration. Another study of 693 male and female athletes found that over 15% of males had a lower testosterone level than what the IOC would deem sufficient and that 13.7% of women had high levels, though they were not performing at the absolute best in their sport. So if male athletes can perform well with lower testosterone levels and women with higher levels perform just as well if not worse for the majority of the time, what is the reasoning behind the IAAF’s decisions?

Writer/director Phyllis Ellis breaks down the failures of the IAAF and other athletic authorities extremely well in Category: Woman. Even going back to Helen Stephens (an athlete who participated in the 1936 Olympics), who, just because she was faster by a distance that her competitors was being shamed and accused of being a man. To the point were she was physically checked to see if this was the case. The open sexism of that time can even be heard in the commentary of a clip of a relay race where the commentator states that we can tell that these girls are women because they cried at the finish line… A great time the 30s, it seems…

Ellis then takes us through a timeline that the IAAF and IOC would probably love not to exist. In this timeline we see how, frankly disgusting these authorities were to female athletes as they get “inspected for their gender” throughout the 20th Century. In 1966/67, all women athletes had to have naked inspections, and a form of femininity testing continued for decades. Can you imagine the furor if someone went to the Women’s Premier League and deemed that necessary now? It wouldn’t happen in other sports, so why are athletic organisations letting it happen under their watch? Women like Castor Semenya were just made to be genetically perfect for their sport. They are generational talents and should be lauded instead of scrutinised and hurried out of the sport like some villain.

Make no mistake, the IAAF and other athletic authorities rightfully do not come out of Category: Woman well. Instead of seeing their own errs and course correcting in some manner, they dispute and worst of all, they lean into their incorrect decisions again and again. There is burying their heads into the sand and backing themselves into a corner and then there is this, is their only resort left to ditch those in power to get any semblence of respect back? For some athletes it is far too late, the trauma has been done and by doing what they the authorities have done, they have decimated careers. Another terrible blackspot on a sport already riddled with them.

The only issue with Category: Woman is that it is far too short, there is so much to delve into here that you could add an extra hour, and people would happily watch it. Ellis has chosen a fascinating and important subject to talk about; it is really a massive shame that she didn’t give us more to devour; at this truncated length, we get mere glimpses of what these current athletes are going through and a hurried look at the history of how women have been treated in athletics. By having that extra length, we could spend more valuable time with athletes such as Ugandan Annet Negesa, who was told she had to have surgery to be allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympics, not just any surgery, but a clitoridectomy, which is an utterly barbaric resort to enable a woman to compete.

This is all before we get to the fact that the women being targeted in these cases are non-white and not from a European heritage. There is a distinct racial feel to the allegations in modern times. In earlier decades, the focus was on any of the women who performed too well, which in most cases were female athletes in a majority white field. In recent decades women from other parts of the world have come to the fore in athletics and somehow they are the ones being tarred with this new humiliating brush. Again this is something that Ellis could easily go deeper with in the documentary, but instead compacts it into what we get here.

As it is said early on in Category: Woman, “When you are a man and do exceptionally well, you become Superman. When you’re a woman and do exceptionally well, you must be a man.” Enough shamefully said, a vital jumping-off point for audiences into this topic.


Book in person tickets for Category:Woman (17th March) and digital pass tickets from here

All films at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival are screening at the Barbican, and available from 20-26 March to stream from the festival website.

Coverage from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2023


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