Boys want to be superheroes, girls want to be princesses. Boys play sports, girls play house. Boys love trucks and guns, girls love dolls and art. It’s no secret that American society has a rigid gender binary, one that valorizes masculinity and looks down upon femininity, one that rewards those who fit neatly into that binary and terrorizes those who don’t adhere to it, and one that reinforces the existing social, political, and economic power structures.
From a young age, Americans are inundated with regressive ideas of gender roles. A study done by Common Sense Media found that “media reinforce the idea that masculine traits and behaviors are more valued than feminine traits and behaviors,” and that “media promote the notion that girls should be concerned about their appearance and should treat their bodies as sexual objects for others’ consumption.” Alongside the media, the retail industry also embraces this strict gender binary for children. They market toys based on rigid ideas of gender, so much so that toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago.
From early on, seemingly neutral things like toys and TV shows place every aspect of our world into two narrow categories—masculine and feminine—and those categories are constantly communicated to us. Even as we grow into adulthood, we continue to receive messages about gender identity that affirm the biased notions we developed in childhood. Corporations market various products, from clothing to personal hygiene, based on gender; countless movies and TV shows are steeped with traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity; and social media props up the strict gender binary, with many influencers striving to present the traditional image of manhood and womanhood.
This messaging has a tangible effect on our collective attitudes. According to a Pew Research study, “traits related to strength and ambition are especially valued for men in society and… compassion, kindness and responsibility are particularly valued for women.” Those who invert society’s expectations of gender identity face serious consequences. Men who are compassionate and express a wide range of emotions are seen as weak, women who are ambitious and confident are seen as aggressive, and people who reject the gender binary outright are berated, rejected, and dismissed by society.
Because they are so entrenched, our conceptions of gender have come to exert incredible influence on our political and economic institutions. Though more women are serving in our current Congress than any other one before it, they are still vastly underrepresented. The story is the same across the country’s governing bodies. According to Represent Women, women only make up 30 percent of statewide elected executives, 31 percent of state legislative seats, and 23 percent of mayors in cities with populations over 30,000, despite being 51 percent of the U.S. population. And we have yet to have a woman president. Corporate representation is a similar story. Women remain underrepresented in senior management positions, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, pushing women out of the workforce in massive numbers for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, in both political and economic institutions, non-binary people remain in fear of coming out, at least in part because the U.S. court system has failed to affirm their rights.
The result of this underrepresentation: political and economic gender discrimination. States’ abortion restrictions have reached record levels this year, the gender pay gap persists, and powerful men continue to sexually assault women without consequence. Non-binary folks face oppressive workplace policies, rampant healthcare discrimination, and disproportionate amounts of violence. The harm of our cultural ideas about gender extends to men as well. The expectation that men suppress their emotions is linked to the increased likelihood that men will deal with substance abuse and die by suicide. And the belief that anger is the only acceptable emotion that men can express is linked to the increased likelihood that men commit violent crimes.
The gender binary reinforces the existing system of privilege in America, one where men retain positions of power at disproportionate rates and use that power to marginalize and oppress everyone else. It’s past time we get rid of it.
The movement to end the gender binary offers a promising alternative to our current cultural beliefs. Its central argument is that we ought to start looking at gender as a spectrum instead of as a binary, and as such we should give individuals the space to define their gender instead of mapping a gender (and its associated cultural and behavioral expectations) onto someone based on our own assumptions. Alternatively, Postgenderism asks us to abolish gender outright, to strip it of its social significance and start “treating people according to their unique mosaics of characteristics rather than according to the form of their genitals.”
Ultimately, America must critically examine its conception of gender and restructure its political and economic institutions in a more gender-inclusive fashion. That means reaffirming the rights of women and non-binary people (we can start with finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment). It means creating opportunities for women and non-binary people to be represented at the top of political and economic institutions. And it means getting rid of the marketing and media apparatuses that cling to traditional ideas about gender roles. Once we let go of our antiquated ideas about gender, we can begin to build a more just and equitable society.