In 2019, the idea that there are only two genders is archaic and obsolete. Gender is a spectrum of “zies”, “eys”, “theys” and “pers”, and the sex you were assigned at birth has less to do with which one you identify with than how you feel in any given moment.
Okay, so the above may be the extreme case and only reality on some university campuses and among particular vocal groups of the alt left, but the gradual phase-out of traditional male and female gender roles and norms has long been a shift occurring in many places around the world.
In just a few decades, changes that once seemed like distant fantasies have become the new default. Today, men are typically not thought of as the sole breadwinners; looking after the kids is often considered a shared responsibility; talking about feelings and having a good cry can be seen as a manly thing to do; and many sports and feats of physical and mental strength, notably ultra-running and sumo wrestling, are turning long-standing ideas of tradition and biology on their heads.
More recently, we are seeing this gender shift reflected in the media landscape. This year in the UK, ads that play heavily on gender stereotypes were banned. The number of series and programs that put gender issues front and centre are on the rise. And slowly but surely, brands are adapting their campaigns and product lines to meet the needs of our modern culture and fit into a non-binary world.
The thing is that whereas some ideas such as that only women can wear skirts, a man can’t change a nappy, and women can’t park are clearly constructed and generation-dependent, other aspects of gender are a lot more well defined. Aside from the obvious, for instance, it’s pretty much a universal truth that women prefer to shop and make the vast majority of purchasing decisions, and yet men, making up almost 90 percent of the world’s billionaires, are — at least, this is one way it could be construed — the ones who’re more driven by social status and material worth.
This raises an interesting question for marketers: to continue basing customer profiles on the fixed, binary view of male or female, or to get with the times and upgrade to a much more inclusive and dynamic model?
The male and female in all of us
Men think differently to women. This might seem like an obvious statement to make, but it actually offers a profound insight into the real nature of their differences.
For a long time, it was believed that we were the product of a fixed and unchanging set of genes. But then the theory of neuroplasticity came along and showed us that the brain is actually changing constantly in response to our environment, experiences, and behaviour. The result: we’re not defined by our genetics, we become what we think.
That’s not to say gender isn’t real. I don’t need to look that hard to figure that I’m a male. Rather, it tells us that pretty much any ideas we have about what it means to live in the world and society as a male or female are largely up for debate.
With this basis and the underlying notion of neuroplasticity, we can look to the work of British clinical psychologist and professor at Cambridge Simon Baron-Cohen. In his research on the autistic brain, Baron-Cohen explores gender as something less concerned with which bits you’ve got and more concerned with how you think.
As per Eastern ideas like the feminine-masculine dynamic of yin and yang, Baron-cohen suggests that both male and female thinking styles are characteristic of everyone, regardless of their sex. On his continuum, with male at one end and female at the other, an extreme “male” brain has hyperdeveloped systematising, whereas an extreme “female” brain has hyperdeveloped empathizing. The typical male brain lies more on the systematising pole and female toward the empathising pole, with a more balanced brain landing somewhere in the middle.
What’s interesting about Baron-Cohen’s ideas for gender marketing is that, whereas you may overall exhibit a primarily male or female thinking style, there’s nothing to say this won’t and can’t change from one day, situation, or role to the next.
This means it’s no longer possible to lump men and women into such basic binary categories and say, for instance, that all women are more empathetic and prefer to talk about feelings and emotion than objects and activities, and that all men are more likely to break the rules and not share what they have. Or that all men just want to know if a product works and all women want all the information they can get and won’t make a decision until they find it.
According to research like that of Baron-Cohen, these are characteristics that happen beyond appearances and sex. But does that mean gender doesn’t exist? Certainly not. Does it mean the fixed, traditional idea of what it means to be male and female is all but dead? One hundred percent.
In 2019 and going forward, gender is not a binary system that’s based on your reproductive hardware, it’s a fluid spectrum that has to do with your software or styles of thinking, how you behave, and the free choice of who you consider yourself to be.