Gender – the new youth tribe?
Gender identity is the new black. No other recent movement has spiralled as quickly as that which questions ideas around gender and to the confusion of parents, more and more young people are ‘coming out’ as Gender Fluid, Genderqueer, or any one of the numerous new trans identities. Of course, questioning gender is no bad thing. As socially constructed ‘norms’ imposed upon the sexes, the idea that girls like pink, glitter and fairies while boys like blue, dinosaurs and construction toys, is both regressive and inaccurate. However, as a means of subtle oppression, it has been startlingly successful, to the point where it is widely considered to be innate.
Breaking down these ideas is necessary to promote equality and acceptance of those who want to live differently. Boys who want to wear dresses and make up and girls who want to reject femininity really shouldn’t be considered problematic, yet they are. Increasingly rigid ideas about gender roles have contributed hugely to this explosion of alternative gender expression happening now. These new identities are gathered under the umbrella term Transgender. Most people think of transgender as referring to transsexuals, (i.e. people who have chosen to live as the opposite sex). Recently the term has expanded to include genderqueer and non-binary identities. With social media sites such as Tumblr and Reddit rabidly promoting non-binary gender, it is easy to see why these ideas have spread so quickly. For youngsters, frequently searching for something with which to identify, the idea that their internal confusion about gender can be validated, is seductive. Add in social contagion, and the basis for a new youth movement is in place.
Gender rebellion is attractive to a new generation of young people, because arguably, they have very little else left to rebel against. You can chart youth culture very clearly from the 1950’s onwards. Since Rock n roll gave way to sixties counter culture, new youth movements have sprung up every decade. Mods, Punks, New Romantics, Goths and Casuals. The Nineties gave us raves and grunge and even the noughties brought doe eyed emos, hiding behind floppy fringes. I was a Goth. My youthful rebellion involved dying my hair a virulent blue black, investing in a pair of crimpers and Doc Martens and a determination to marry Robert Smith of the Cure.
I spent hours telling anyone who’d listen, that Thatcher was rubbish. I moaned about the ‘Casuals’ up at our local shopping centre, flocked in their uniform of burgundy Farah trousers and waffle cardigans. This, of course, ignored the fact that my black clothes, eyeliner and furiously backcombed hair was as much of a uniform as theirs. But really, that was the point. I had found my tribe in the same way that they had found theirs. Just like generations of kids before us. It is absolutely vital that teenagers have this opportunity to rebel. It is an important part of their psycho-social development and one that it is necessary to traverse. In order for them to emerge as adults, they need to carve out an identity away from their parents.
It has always been a rite of passage to ally yourself to a movement in order to tell the world who you are, and this has mostly taken place via music or politics. However, over the last ten years, this has changed, swept aside by the unstoppable rise of capitalism and neo-liberalism. Young people are far less likely now to rail against politics, as parties become homogenised in their support of market forces. Politicians are no longer in charge; corporations are the new gods. As a result, youth culture as a political force barely seems to exist. Young people are unlikely to push back against the corporations, as they provide them with their smartphones, tablets, gaming apps and social media. Apple and Sony and Samsung produce the technology that they use to communicate. They can’t even turn to music to rebel, because music has been commodified beyond recognition.
We are all special
The likes of Simon Cowell have taken music, packaged it up and sold it back to kids as an aspirational choice. You too, can become famous in fifteen minutes by selling your souls to SyCo! Appear on the X-Factor or (insert reality TV show of your choice) and achieve your dreams of fame and validation immediately! Young people watch TOWIE, Geordie Shore and Made in Chelsea, watching beautiful young people, not that different from themselves, living a glamorous life, with very little effort. This has happened in line with the neo-liberal assertion that we are all ‘special’. In our consumerist society, we are all ‘worth it’ and our dreams can come true if we make enough effort (and buy enough products). It’s a lie, of course. But teenagers are often too young and inexperienced to realise it.
If you have no strong music culture, no modern-day Thatcher to rail against and nothing to fight for, how do you assert your individuality? How do you tell the world that you are different? It’s simple. You go to the only place left. Yourself. You look inwards and turn your psyche into the new canvas for rebellion. It is no coincidence that, at the point where capitalism and neo-liberalism have finally collided, scores of young people have flocked to the new Trans umbrella to find shelter. Brighton and Hove City Council have issued a Trans* Inclusion Toolkit, to its schools. The booklet, produced in conjunction with the Allsorts Youth Project, aims to provide guidance to teachers, who may need to support gender questioning pupils. The booklet defines trans as an ‘umbrella term’ which includes among other definitions, ‘those who have a gender identity which we do not yet have words to describe’.
Young people now have an endless canvas to decide who they are on any given day with such an open definition of gender. When I look back at my own teen rebellion, the fights with my parents, my insistence that they were wrong about everything and just didn’t understand, I shudder. I feel for the kids labelling themselves as genderqueer or non-binary, crowding under the trans umbrella. They seem unaware that, truth be told, the majority of people feel exactly the same way. They believe that a brave new path is being set towards understanding and acceptance. Instead, they are reinforcing rather than smashing gender norms. More gender related boxes are being built to sit in, along with more categories of consumer to be targeted. In their attempt to rebel, they are tightening the damaging noose of gender ever more closely around their necks.
I love Sherlock Holmes, weight training, horror movies and vintage dresses. I wanted to be James Bond and live in the TARDIS when I was young. Am I gender non-binary too? No. I am simply me. An adult human female with no particular feeling of internal gender; something I share with everyone I have asked. Everything now needs a label, for without one, you, as a consumer, cannot be targeted. This is key to the support the movement garners from advertisers and the media. The Telegraph reported in 2014 that there are now 71 gender options available to Facebook users. A custom button allows users to further define exciting new genders. Facebook has worked with UK groups Press for Change and Gendered Intelligence, to add 21 new identities to the 50 that are already available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook are using this information to further tailor adverts to individual users.
In the midst of all this rather questionable corporate concern, there are a small core of genuine transgender youth suffering hugely with gender dysphoria. They deserve all the support possible as they navigate a path to happiness and self-acceptance. This, however, is made ever more difficult by the expanding web of new gender identities emerging daily. Inventing your own gender as a means of self-validation may be fun, but does no favours to those who are genuinely experiencing the hell of dysphoria. Such distractions ultimately serve no-one. Meanwhile, circle upon circle of confused and disenfranchised young people are looking for a way to fit in. Looking for somewhere to call home. And if you can invent a new gender identity or 71, you can join their tribe.