What We Learned From J.Law’s “Hermaphrodite” Joke

Did you know the term is highly offensive? Neither did we. Here’s why

Jennifer Lawrence
(Photo: Keystone Press)

Jennifer Lawrence has taken her photo-hacking in stride, fiercely fighting for her right to privacy. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she calls out those who feel entitled to peep into her private life, comparing their actions to sex offenders perpetrating a sex crime.

But her quip that the photo-hacking could “have been worse. At least I’m not a hermaphrodite. I could have been outed, ‘Jennifer Lawrence hermaphrodite’,” falls flat.

It’s pretty clear the actress is just making a sophomoric joke, and jokes by their very nature aren’t supposed to be PC—if they were they’d be called campaign speeches instead. But at the same time, the actress may not be aware of the implications of using the term hermaphrodite, which is considered derogatory in LGBTQ circles.

To be fair, most people probably aren’t aware of that fact (full disclosure: I wasn’t).

“Hermaphrodite is no longer politically correct,” says Stephen Hartley, president and director of PFLAG Canada, tells me. Instead, it’s an old term that has quite a few negative connotations, adds Donna Turner, communications coordinator for Rainbow Health Ontario.

The Intersex Society of North America explains why on its website.

“The mythological term “hermaphrodite” implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility.”

“Intersex” is considered the more appropriate terminology used to describe a person born with a difference between their external genitals and their internal anatomy. In fact, intersex doesn’t just clearly define one circumstance but represents something of an “umbrella term used to describe a person whose biological sex characteristics don’t fit traditional definitions of male or female.”

Lawrence can be forgiven for failing to use the preferred terminology, says Hartley: “It’s hard to be politically correct all the time.” He likens the changing pace of the culture—not to mention the vocabulary–surrounding sexuality and gender to “shooting rapids.”

That’s made trickier by the fact that language preferences can change from region to region, says Hartley, who adds that some people are reclaiming the term hermaphrodite ironically.

Hartley, who identifies as a gay man, says that he, too, has made his share of mis-quips along the way, especially when it comes to the evolving vocabulary of LGBTQ. “I call it, ‘LGBTQ dot, dot, dot,’ because it’s an A-Z community,” he quips.

Once taken to task for using some outmoded terminology within his own community, he apologized and said “excuse me, I’m human.”

Fallible human beings with good intentions—that’s possibly the most inclusive descriptor of them all.

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