RAISING GENDER CAPITAL
Written by: Larsen Zia Wenzel
Before a baby is born, the first information we receive and celebrate is the baby’s so-called “gender.” It is the first inkling that the mass of cells developing into a small human will, in fact, become a human. It is the first personification; the first opportunity to fantasize about what this baby might do, love, and experience. In the U.S., it is also the first target market a baby might fall into: blue for a baby boy, and pink for a baby girl. Despite the fact that many intersex babies do not even fall into the categories of “male” and “female,” we pretend these two categories are naturally binary, fixed in place, and prophecies for a baby’s future. As a non-binary person, I have attended a few gender reveal parties, and the joy felt by the parents is extremely contagious. With that joy, though, is an often deep and wordless grief for the nebulous now-gendered child.
It isn’t just at these celebrations that I feel on the margins. In a world divided into two constructs, being in between is often paired with the feeling of not existing. I was not born in the wrong body. I was born into a culture with the wrong notions about gender.
Earlier this month, I was with some other transgender friends in my apartment in Bushwick, all of us on the brink, in the midst, or beyond the concept of some kind of gender shift. We reflected on who we were taught to become. For me, it wasn’t quite as much my parents who pushed a rigid sense of girlhood on me, but the media and advertising that surrounded me and my peers. From Barbies to rom-coms, I was shown a very specific role of what a young girl should be, desire, and embody. Gender was not a choice, it was a compulsory destiny with rules. The way marketers spoke to me on the Disney Channel, from the aisles of Target, and in ballet classes at the YMCA was clear.
The instruction manual of gender didn’t just reinforce that I was a “girl”, but also communicated what kind of girl I needed to be in order to grow up to be the right kind of woman. This came with a slew of products that were marketed as necessary to girlhood or forbidden and out of reach in the land of the boys’ destiny.
While some trans children assert themselves loudly and early, most learn these rules early on and understand that the consequences of transgressing the boundaries of girl and boy often come with deep and terrifying social costs. It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned about trans people, and the history of third, fourth, and fifth genders all around the world. I started to see the ways in which I’ve never been fully pink, nor blue, and it was extremely freeing. But, unfortunately, this also meant my queerness and gender identity no longer fell into the narrative of most of society, including marketing campaigns. As an advertiser myself, nearly every trend report, brief, and analysis breaks our population into two.
The ways in which our world is split in two almost always negates the nuances within, between, and beyond two rigid categories: women and men, black and white, gay and straight. The number of young people identifying as non-binary is on the rise, and the most recent study showed that almost and about identify as trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or unsure of their gender identity. Yet even as Gen Z has been dubbed a “gender fluid generation,” marketers still often fail to investigate these nuances. While marketers may be more empowering to [white] women, they’re still gripping at binary genders, heteronormativity, and the pink/blue narative with white knuckles. Not only does this hurt all people—cisgender and transgender alike—but it reinforces the damaging narrative that non-binary people like me don’t exist.
A handful of small new brands are doing the work in ungendering their approach and language. For example, , a new fashion brand based in NYC with apparel in Nordstrom and other department stores, has a gender neutral sizing system, and actively makes clothes of all kinds for bodies of varied shapes and sizes. is a size-inclusive jewelry store that features people of all genders in all of their accessories. Both of these stores are queer-owned and relatively new to the market, but there are a few examples of bigger brands who have made strides in gender inclusivity and neutrality. While Calvin Klein hasn’t always executed their campaigns perfectly, they’ve had unisex scents for over 20 years and launched their iconic banded black, white, and grey cotton underwear in 1992, proving that desirability in underwear could look very similar in both the men’s and women’s section.
They currently feature many queer and trans people in their camapaigns, including non-binary actress and star of Pose, . And while Target is still very gendered in the adult’s and kid’s departments, they removed all gender based signage and organization in their toy aisles in 2015, opting instead to group toys by function. This is a huge stride in allowing all children the space to play and find toys that they like, even in a store that reinforces the binary in other ways. Most recently, Gillette made a advertisement which centered the trans community and featured a trans man named Samson learning to shave with his Dad for the first time. In what was deemed a “risky” ad, the social listening data indicated nearly 1.4 million views on Facebook in just 2 weeks, surrounding the ad.
Untangling the knots of the gender binary is going to take an unbelievable amount of time, people, education, and work. Even as I write this, I know that the brands who are doing this kind of work aren’t necessarily able to procure anti-discrimination policy, nor are they able to stop the forces that endanger trans people of color daily. Brands can, however, move the needle of what people think and see. Each of the companies that have represented trans people have actively stated that these supportive decisions have had either a positive or neutral impact on sales. If greater representation of trans people in media is shown to be beneficial to business and cultivate a positive impact on society at large, then hesitation to include trans individuals in marketing campaigns must come from a lack of knowledge: of the community, of alternative ways to express gender beyond the gender binary, of our own unconscious biases we have about trans people and communities.
As a non-binary person, even I find it difficult to combat the world that confines and attempts to define me. In my research, I still lean on statistical data that tells me in binary terms if our clients should cater messaging toward men or women. I know that it is not easy to change the ways we’ve been conditioned to think in. And yet, I believe that through education, insights, and the right amount of pressure in the right places, the data I use to inform my work and that of my agency can reflect more accurately the world we live in. When our insights and creative work are inclusive, trans people and other marginalized groups are a little more seen, a little more valued, and we signal to the world that all people are deserving of safety, respect, and joy.