The future of gender

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here are my thoughts when asked about the future of gender.

I think we’re at a really complex time in relation to that question. The future I would like to see – and there is some evidence of movement towards it – is one where:

  • Gender isn’t such a defining feature (i.e. we’re only interested in it when it’s actually relevant rather than being the first thing we ask or notice about someone);
  • There is a lot more flexibility in what we regard as being male/masculine or female/feminine – as well as realising that many people don’t fit well into either box;
  • There is an understanding that gender is fluid and can be – and is – expressed differently throughout life (e.g. think about how femininity is expressed by a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged woman and and old woman);
  • We get that gender is complexly biopsychosocial – it has all those elements running through it and woven together – so we stop asking about nature vs. nurture and start respecting people’s experience of their own gender as well as acknowledging just what a major part our social rules about gender roles have on people’s bodies and brains.

However, there seem to be constant pushbacks to more rigid and limited ideas of gender, where women and men are seen as being from different planets, and where masculinity and femninity are narrowly defined in specific ways and there is no room for anything between or beyond these two.

Of course, people do get something out of these ideas. It is hard to completely let those things go. For example, it is tough for a lot of men to recognise the things they gain from the power that they have in our current society and to work to shift that power even though it risks making things more difficult for themselves. Also it is tough for many women to let go of aspects of the current norms of femininity – like placing a great deal of importance on being attractive and desirable, or like the idea of being someone who needs protecting rather than being a protector.

I find it optimistic when we see thoughtful and critical conversations about these things happening in popular culture which recognise how complex it all is, like some the debates we’ve seen in the last couple of years around the songs by Robin Thicke, Mylie Cyrus, and Lily Allen.

At the same time it is still often taken for granted, in everyday ways, that there are two and only two genders, and that they are naturally – and rightly – different to each other. People make gendered decisions about their lives and generally don’t consider them from a gender perspective. I’d like to see awareness raised so people could at least realise that gender is a part of that – a part of what makes us find this thing pleasurable and that thing scary – for example in terms of our choices around work, relationships, hobbies, family, etc. Then we would be more empowered to challenge those messages, or at least to go along with them in a more mindful way.

Definitely less gendering (of things like toys, clothes, products, toilets, etc.) would be – to my mind – a good way forward in making that shift. I’d like to get to a point where people were seen as people first, and their gender (and other aspects of their identity) second. But we have a long way to go, and many external and internal forces which have an interest in keeping the status quo.


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