Recent developments in social media, film, and fashion are shaking up traditional views of gender. Here’s why thinking in absolutes about male and female is obsolete.
No question. If your eyes have been open in the last few years, you know that change has come to the traditionally held views of gender and sex as either male or female.
Everywhere you look or watch or read, there are examples of characters that don’t fit the simplistic mold. Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner of Olympic and Kardashian fame, recently revealed her new identify (#CallMeCaitlyn) on the cover of Vanity Fair and basically broke the Internet in the process with as many as 11,000 tweets about her new name per minute at the peak. She also gained over a million followers in four hours.
The front-runner of the Ultimate Guy Contest, vying to be a cover model for Men’s Health Magazine, is currently trans man Aydian Dowling of Oregon. He leads the pack as of this writing with almost 61,000 votes. On the Emmy-winning Netflix original show Orange is the New Black, character Sophie Burset (played by Laverne Cox) is a trans woman sent to prison for credit-card fraud.
Over on the Amazon series Transparent is the story of an LA family discovering that their father Mort is transgender. Actor Jeffrey Tambor recently won a Golden Globe for his performance.
In November 2015, Hollywood releases The Danish Girl, starring Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sexual reassignment surgery.
And, back in 2014, Facebook added more than 50 gender options for people who don’t identify as male or female. Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, told the Huffington Post that the Facebook addition was “a huge step forward for transgender, gender nonconforming and gender queer people… as the internet is an essential source of resources, support, and community for LGBT youth.”
Defining sex and gender
The earliest mention of transsexuals dates back to the Romans: Elagabalus, who was the Roman Emperor from 218 to 222, was apparently trans.
Today’s theoretical foundation of gender and sexuality, though, is based on the works of Candace West and Don Zimmerman from the University of California Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, who, in the 1980s, considered three terms: sex, sex category, and gender.
According to West and Zimmerman, sex is a socially agreed upon biological criteria, such as genitals or reproductive organs. Sex category on the other hand is established by outside identifiable displays, such as hair, looks, clothes, and the like.
Gender, the researchers posit, is individually determined and means the way a person acts based on one’s chosen sex category. West and Zimmermann call this “doing” gender and thereby lay the foundations for today’s understanding of gender performance (acting male or female).
But, as the Institute for the Future recently stated, gender is no longer a category assigned at birth but a vast landscape for personal identity. The Institute predicts that legislation will soon have to figure out a way to give transgender people equal rights; companies such as Facebook will concentrate even more on gender diversity; and policies will become more gender-neutral and trans-friendly.
All of this will lead to an expansion of the binary gender definition toward an understanding of a broader gender spectrum.
Diego Sanchez, director of policy at Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) National, states that what he perceives as progress in the acceptance of gender spectrum is largely generational. Traditional views are fading as society ages and a new generation comes into power, he says.
Le Dernier Cri
Gender ambiguity is nothing new to the fashion industry, which has had a long-lasting tradition of playing with gender roles. Yves Saint Laurent, for example, introduced the tuxedo suit for women in 1966.
Fashion not only made “cross-dressing” acceptable, it also also sends men down the womenswear runway (Chanel, Gucci and Proenza Schouler) and vice versa (Givenchy, Giorgio Armani, Saint Laurent). Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, was quoted by Vogue as saying that the choice to dress male models in womenswear was “a pure recording of something that is happening around us: a strong affirmation of freedom, beyond cataloging and labeling.”
Australian Model Andreja Pejic, a Bosnian-war refugee who underwent gender-confirmation surgery owes her success to her uniqueness.
Transgender isn’t easy, even if more accepted
Although the discussion around transgender is opening up in the public, life as a transgender person is still far from easy. It is socially still broadly not accepted, in fact, which often leads people to hiding their identity and resulting psychological trauma.
Recent statistics have shown that the suicide rate for trans or gender non-conforming people is around 41 percent, which is alarmingly high.
Vincent Paolo Villano, Director of Communications at The National Center of Transgender Equality, says that parents as well as teachers and administrators at the school level should listen to the children who try to assert their gender identity. These authority figures, he says, should have policies in place to make sure that transgender students are given the space to be who they are.
History has shown that change in social conventions is slow and painful. Think of women’s rights and racial equality.
Acceptance of transgender and nonconforming gender identity will likely also follow this path, with incremental visibility and legitimacy in the public realm. But we can see it happening right in front of our eyes in film, fashion, and social media. Just like Bruce Jenner’s transformation to Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair and across the Internet.
If you’d like to keep the conversation about gender going, join the discussion in June 2015, when swissnex San Francisco brings artists and academics together under the umbrella (X)change, a micro-festival of performance, film, and critical analysis on gender.