Photo by JC Jeans Company
It’s been said that your sex is about what’s between your legs while your gender is about what’s between your ears – a cutesy way of explaining that sometimes a person’s genitals and chromosomes are incongruent with how he or she feels inside. (Also, a helpful way to understand what it means to identify as transgender.)
I’d argue that gender is also about behaviour.
Maleness or femaleness is a cultural construct as much as it is an outward physical look or an internal feeling; we act as men or as women because we’ve been trained from birth to do so.
Baby boys are big and strong and rambunctious; baby girls are small and cute and in need of protection, etc. Socialization: it’s a real thing.
So it is that most of us grow up learning that real men play sports and don’t cry or eat quiche, while real women are better at cooking and sit with their legs closed and don’t fart.
It’s all bullshit, of course and, intellectually, most of us get that. And yet, such stereotypes still inform our understanding of ourselves and influence how we move about in the world. (Case in point: the difference in the way men and women sit while on public transit.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of gender as performance, Swedish fashion label Crocker by JC Jeans Company’s latest ad campaign offers a great real-world example.
In the short video and accompanying photos, model Erika Linder appears as both a man and a woman.
Linder does a pretty convincing job of portraying both genders — and, while her success is certainly helped by clothing and makeup, it’s her body language and facial expressions that really sell the fantasy.
Some things to notice: when performing maleness, Linder is the active character. In the video, ‘he’ strolls onto the set, all squinty and brooding, walking past the female Linder who’s crouched against a wall, checking ‘her’ phone. Of course, she can’t help but notice him and become intrigued.
As the man, Linder gets to be the hero of the unfolding story. As the woman, she gets to admire the man.
When Linder is transformed via hair and makeup into a woman, she performs femaleness by rubbing her body and touching her mouth. Her eyes are often closed. Her lips are parted. (Start paying attention and you will see this ALL THE DAMN TIME in advertising.)
To be a sexy woman in our culture is be objectified. Ergo, depictions of sexy women tend to involve a lot of gaping mouths, as if the women being portrayed are interchangeable sex dolls.
This is not a coincidence.
You can see gender being performed in the still photos, too.
When both Linders are posed together, for example, notice how the male version looks directly into the camera, almost in a confrontational way, while the female version looks off to the side, blankly. Notice whose mouth is mostly open and whose is mostly closed.
Notice, too, which version of Linder is allowed a furrowed brow.
In our society, visible wrinkles – whether because of scowling or age – are the sole domain of men. SORRY, LADIES, NO GETTING MAD OR OLD. (Here’s a particularly obvious example of this idea.)
Though its creators are arguing that they’re breaking new boundaries, the Crocker campaign is definitely not the first time the fashion world has flirted with gender fluidity, nor is Erika Linder the first model to do a kick-ass job of gender performance.
Off the top of my head, I recall Andrej Pejic garnering international press a few years ago for being — gasp! — a man who modeled women’s clothes and looked gorgeous while doing so. (Hilariously, the article to which I linked uses the word ‘Genderless’ in its headline. Um, no. High heels and dresses are perhaps two of the MOST female-gendered trappings we have in our society.)
In fact, as much as such a campaign is trying to be inclusive and, therefore, progressive, the fact that it reinforces both heteronormativity and the gender binary makes it boringly traditional.
You really want to break boundaries, fashion industry? Feature a female model with her mouth closed and laugh lines on her face.