Ask Allie: Is Questioning Gender Real or Simply Trending?

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by Sarah Rutledge Fischer (she/they)

Dear Allie,

I feel like everywhere I turn someone is questioning their gender, exploring they/them pronouns, or changing their name. And not just celebrities. Half of my social group is going through some sort of gender exploration.

I really do want to be supportive of my friends. But there is a tiny little voice in the back of my mind asking whether gender exploration isn’t just the latest identity trend. Please don’t cancel me. Just help me understand—why does it feel like gender is trending?

Help!
A Masc Presenting She/Her

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Dear A Masc Presenting She/Her,

First of all, you are not canceled. Asking questions in a safe and appropriate forum
is an important part of growth, as long as you are sincere and open to changing your preconceptions. This context couldn’t be more appropriate. Let’s begin.

To start with, the little voice in your head isn’t completely wrong. Gender is trending. A trend is just movement over time in a general direction, and over the last few years, popular Western culture has been trending towards more widespread understanding of non-heteronormative gender identities. To quote a friend of mine, the real trend is that more people are willing to engage with gender as a non- binary concept.

So, as a culture we are becoming more comfortable with complex concepts of gender, but why does it feel like so many people are suddenly questioning their own gender? Well, there are surely many theories, but I think it is useful to look at the performative nature of gender and consider how the mass cultural experience of the global pandemic has affected that performance at an individual level. Whew. That was quite a mouthful. Let’s take it a step at a time.

The concept that gender is performative was first proposed by feminist scholar Judith Butler. According to Butler, a person’s gender is constructed through their repetitive performance of the gendered conventions of society. A person assigned female gender at birth will absorb decades of society’s messages about what presentations and behaviors are consistent with being female, and most will respond by performing those presentations and behaviors to some degree. That person’s female gender is not a fixed, internal absolute; it is more of an ongoing conversation between that person and the norms of their society as reinforced by the people around them.

Now, take a moment and place that concept of gender in the context of a pandemic—one which requires millions to remove themselves from public life, stay at home, and interact with others only at a distance or via video. If gender is performative, consider how this drastically minimizes the audience that receives the gender performance. Imagine a person who has spent a lifetime performing female gender for an audience of family members, classmates, teachers, friends, coworkers, casual acquaintances, and strangers. Imagine that they wake one day, and those people are no longer watching or reflecting back the gender norms. Suddenly their primary audience is only themselves, and it becomes much easier for their performance to change.

Perhaps you think that most people would not experience this kind of shift in gender performance, but an abundance of news stories on women abandoning their bras and makeup during the pandemic reveals how common it is. And for some people, the small shifts may have tapped into deeper questions about identity and presentation—questions that pandemic isolation gave them plenty of time to explore.

Now, there are surely other theories about why more and more people seem to be questioning their gender. And this explanation certainly won’t fit everyone’s experience. But it might allow you a little perspective and understanding.

It is unlikely that your friends just hopped onto some sort of gender shifting bandwagon. It is more likely that, as the noise of public life faded away, they realized that the performance they had been giving was not authentic. How lucky you are that they are trusting you with the one that is.

That should get you started.

Your friend,
Allie

To submit your own question, email Allie at Allie@focusmidsouth.com. Focus Mid-South reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.