I’m booking a restaurant online and it needs to know whether I’m male or female. Why? I don’t eat with my vagina, unless I’ve been doing things wrong all these years. What use could this information be to them? Do they have customer sex/gender quotas? Do their portion sizes vary according to perceived calorific needs? Do I need to order extra chips? I had to state my sex for the flight-booking site and on estate agent’s registration forms. Again, why? If I’ve faked my passport, my gender is probably the one thing that still matches. And, said estate agents, the 1.5% fee you’re charging is worth the same however big and hairy the knuckles on the reluctant hand passing it over, I assure you. It drives me insane.
But it’s a question that may at last have had its day.
Emma Watson recently took home the world’s first gender-neutral acting award. MTV found her to be simply the Best Actor in a Movie, as Belle in Beauty And The Beast, in a competition category that included male and female nominees. Gender categories in retail (toys and clothes for boys and for girls especially) are being challenged, and the wider question of what makes us male or female, what the categories mean and where and whether they are necessary is being interrogated as never before.
This looks and feels like progress and in a lot of cases it is. Acting, or eating, or travelling, or buying a house has nothing to do with chromosomal make-up or genital arrangement (unless you’re planning some serious manspreading, in which case you are a tw*t before you are a man anyway). On most job applications too, it should be irrelevant.
But, as with everything that looks like progress, we must beware. Because we exist – men and women, and are both affected by it, albeit to different extents – in a sexist society and things don’t change all at once.
Gender-neutral categories or the absence of those two boxes to tick on forms is a nudge effect at best. A best actor category is a welcome reminder that talent is found everywhere. But it does not stop gender bias in judging, or in the creation of roles for women or in the stories told. Gender-blind job applications will work until your boobs come through the interview door with you and meet an all-dinosaur panel.
When the Barbican centre recently changed its loo signs to “Gender neutral with cubicles” and “Gender neutral with urinals”, men flooded both (metaphorically, although…) and women had to queue even longer. Somehow, a progressive move ended up with them having to cede their physical space to men again.
Proposed gender-neutral changing rooms at various swimming pools and gyms have been decried basically on the grounds that, as things stand, while most men are not perverts, most perverts are men and therefore the greatest unogled happiness for the greatest number of people lies in not welcoming them into the vicinity of female nakedness.
But the fact that change can quickly get tricky and that mistakes can be made should neither stop us trying to make it nor rectifying those mistakes and trying again. Where sex and gender are truly irrelevant, we should stop asking about it. And where they are, we should accommodate that too. And all the while, working to change a system that still refuses to accept either that we can be the same, or that we can be different – but equal.
Images: iStock/Rex Features