Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Gender 101

Students come back to school more and less gendered all the time

School is nearly back in session and as I await the next crop of 18-22 year olds to arrive in my Sociology of Gender course, I am struck by the fact that gender is, to put it in technical terms, a red-hot mess.

We live at a time where the gender binary is so pronounced and so clear that everything from diapers to diet soda is gendered. Have you seen the new Dr. Pepper 10 commercials with the "manliest man of mankind"? These ads reassure men who drink feminized diet soda that it won't turn them into sissies by featuring a mountain man chewing on trees and canoeing with a bear. And who can forget the Dockers' "Wear the Pants" project that encouraged men to be "men again”; because "there are questions our genderless society has no answers for." Of course these ads are tongue and cheek, as are many of the ads meant to gender a product, but the fear that shopping on the wrong side of the gender aisle will fundamentally change you is nearly palpable.

At the same time that our consumer culture seems more gendered than ever, we also live in a world where trans and gender queer possibilities are more visible than ever. This summer's must-see-TV “Orange is the New Black” features transgender character Sophia Burset played by transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox. Some of my students will use pronouns other than he or she in order to subvert the gender binary; others will have changed the gender assigned to them at birth.. How can the gender binary be both stronger, more black and white than ever and simultaneously crumbling?

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Over at Slate Libby Copeland argues that the increase in gendering everything is the result of "gender contamination" as the gender hierarchy slowly starts to reorganize itself. Quoting professor Jill Avery, who studies gendered marketing, Copeland suggests that 

 “As gender lines are blurring, we need our things to send clearer signals,” 

But I’m not so sure gender lines are blurring. A strict gender binary hardly seems to have landed in the dustbin of history. Look around. We have very young girls wearing high heels on their elementary school playgrounds and young boys creating preschool drama by wearing the “wrong” gendered Halloween costumes. We have religious leaders insisting that gender nonconforming children be punished. Everything we buy from tee shirts to deodorant to automobiles is “masculine” or “feminine.”

Whatever is happening to gender, it's not clear that it's getting more flexible and blurry. The idea that our notions of gender will just "progress" to a more complex, more realistic and more humane system as time goes on is a nice fantasy, one that goes along with the idea that people become less racist over time or science will only make life better. But the progress narrative is a myth. Things have a way of getting better and worse, moving in multiple directions simultaneously and thus neither forward nor back. It might be, as many commentators argue, that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in how we imagine and perform gender. But revolutions have a way of bringing out the reactionaries among us and so whether our gender will become more fixed and inflexible or more blurred and open remains to be seen.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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