The Thing About Gender

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[Written By: Emma Lees]

In the April of 2017, Caitlyn Jenner gave an interview with Diane Sawyer in which she discussed her transition from a male to a female. People all over the world seemed fixated upon the fact Bruce had once been a wealthy, successful, inspirational man, an Olympic athlete. Suddenly, it seemed the act of a gender reassignment surgery had stripped her of the right to be held in such high regard. The interview was memorable and one statement in particular still sticks with me: ‘I’m not stuck in anybody’s body, I hate that phrase. I’m just me.’ This is everything – everything that is wrong with our notions of gender identification.

Hitting the nail on its ambiguous head, she points out that a person’s relationship with their gender is far more complex than a simple man-or-woman preference, and to not identify completely with one isn’t to say you identify completely with the other. Masculinity and femininity aren’t as simple as emulating a female fashion sense or winning an Olympic gold. If you were to have a male body and feel different to other men you know, it would perhaps not equate to feeling like a woman. If a young girl happens to excel in athletic activities and enjoy playing in the mud, is it necessary to identify these aspects of her as tomboy behaviour and not just a part of a personality? If you’re a woman who feels no desire to be co-dependent upon another person, why are you associated with traits such as ‘strong’ or ‘independent’, and not just ‘Claire’ or ‘Helen’? We use our safety nets of tolerance instead of acceptance to make sense of people who don’t fit into either understanding of gender, subconsciously but willingly giving up and shrugging off the best, worst and most defining aspects of ourselves onto one of these two genders every day. He’s ‘sensitive’. She’s ‘promiscuous’.

In the past decade, there’s no denying society is losing rigidity, and we now find ourselves in a compassionate international debate on transsexuality and gender restrictions. RuPaul Charles (the world’s most infamous drag queen) has been credited with bringing drag into the mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show began in 2006 and has grown in popularity ever since, connecting with viewers for its unblinking demonstration of grace, theatre, and character. The drag queens compete in a number of challenges to prove their ‘charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent’, qualities which have truly far more positive reinforcements than the content of shows like Love Island or Ex on the Beach.

RuPaul is not the only drag queen to use reality television as a soapbox. Courtney Act – an Australian drag queen famed for her appearance on Australian Idol – also won Celebrity Big Brother in 2017. Courtney Act/Shane Jenek has been open about his struggles with gender identity, eventually identifying the Courtney Act-persona as an extension of himself. All of this pop culture presence has finally given drag queens the opportunity to be represented by numerous personalities speaking their own truth. For example, Celebrity Big Brother gave Courtney Act a popular world stage on which to dispel the common misconception that drag has any weight to how someone might conduct themselves in everyday life, or retain any relevance to a person’s sexuality. Courtney’s calm and concise explanations of what gender meant to her captivated viewers and gained her millions of fans, making her somewhat of an advocate for the world of drag along the way – a world consisting of men who simply enjoy the ritual of creating characters through dress and makeup, of men who just like the idea of shamelessly indulging in their own notion of beauty, glamour, and fun.

This catalysed a motion of questioning where a person can stand on the spectrum of gender and sexuality, and the idea that the two may be far less related than our current popular culture would have us believe is gaining traction. The idea of modesty and sexuality being dependant on one another is also being challenged – it’s been a long-held belief that women should be ‘proper’ in order to have any right to dignity and self-respect. The evolution of the Internet and the increased accessibility to travel has made it possible for anyone to share the life they lead with others, and as a result of this, the ideas and expectations we hold in our conscience are being met with conversations rather than accusations, superstitions or worst of all – silence. This can only mean growth.

The notion of releasing a persons’ sexuality from their gender and identity is beginning to trickle down from higher places in the media too. In the words of Jenny Boylan (author of the ‘Falcon Quinn’-series, a professor at Barnard College, political activist, and first openly transgender co-chair of GLAAD’s National Board of Directors) ‘Your sexuality and your gender are two totally different things’. And we all remember when in 2014, Emma Watson delivered a moving speech, launching UN’s HeForShe campaign: ‘it is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are.’ Ruby Rose has also made comments on her personal gender fluidity to the press, being quoted as saying: ‘I’m not a guy; I don’t really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. So, I’m somewhere in the middle…’ And it isn’t just women. Jaden Smith has also taken to using his social media accounts to turn attention towards genderless clothing – Will Smith is known for his archetypal flirtatious masculinity in roles such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Hitch so this public display from Jaden is not without nerve.

These controversial posts will reach nearly every single person with a smartphone when news and gossip websites consequently write up articles about Jaden’s choice to share on social media. In turn, it will raise some questions for his followers to chew over. Mainly, when did skirts and dresses become exclusively female clothes? Or why is it that trouser suits revolutionised women and gave them a freedom of choice, yet no such fashion movement opposing the traditional clothes available to men ever really took off? Marketing strategies followed this line of questioning with adverts like the Always #LikeAGirl campaign. The adverts featured people of various ages and genders being asked to ‘throw/fight/hit/run like a girl’, and at this direction they would affect an overly fussy and incompetent demeanour. It had an immediate impact by making people consciously address when they first began to believe that to do something ‘like a girl’ required an inferior style of action, and how nonsensical that is.

Never before has gender been discussed with such fervour in the media. The thought that gender has the possibility to become something dynamic in our time, and how differently the idea and meaning of gender could be held in the public consciousness ten years from now, is something to get excited about. Personally, I struggled with the uncomfortable fact that most people take a grotesque interest or disliking to any person who will not comply with the standard settings. The wait for attitudes to develop and an understanding to root itself in the likes of a small town has been a palpably long time coming. These days, acceptance isn’t something I have to travel to a city to experience. It’s truly galvanising to see people who were once treated as outcasts for their attributes apparently not coinciding with their sex now being fawned over for their style, courage, wit, integrity – unique genderless traits all along.


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