Expanding Gender Expression

Trends / Realness
Mengwen Cao
Reya Sehgal
Oct 3, 2022
The world of gender is undoubtedly changing at a scale and speed we have never seen before. More than 30 years after Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990, outlining the theory that gender is performance, we’ve seen a flurry of new vocabularies, fashion choices, coming‑out stories, and Hollywood tales featuring people who explode the traditional norms of masculinity and femininity—from Jaden Smith and Bad Bunny to Demi Lovato, Thom Browne, Steven Universe, and the ever‑popular Ru‑Paul’s Drag Race.1 Now, people have been bending the rules of gender identity and expression for decades, even millennia, but as Butler's academic theories have found currency and circulation in digital space, what was once relegated to nightlife spaces or treated as taboo has now become a mainstay of pop culture. Social media feeds are ripe with self‑expression for young people, who explore and perform their identities for their friends and audiences, sometimes using filters to try on different gender expressions.2 But even as rules around gender get challenged and rewritten, the binaristic norms remain, well, norms.  
In the most popular visuals, gender expression—defined as the “external appearance of one's gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, body characteristics or voice”—remains fairly traditional.3  First, more than 99% of visuals feature cisgender men and women—trans and nonbinary people are seen in less than 1% of images. Within that 99%, more than 90% of visuals reinforce conventional gender expression; women are mostly shown with long, naturally‑colored hair and wearing feminine, form‑fitting clothing, while men are seen with short haircuts, facial hair, and frequently dressed in collared shirts—even when they’re working from home. These norms affect how children are pictured, as well: though the use of pink and blue is no longer so overt, young girls are overwhelmingly pictured with long hair and accessories (bows, headbands), dresses, and brightly‑colored clothes, while young boys are shown with short hair, wearing dark plaids or stripes; moreover, boys are more likely to be seen engaging in silly play, and are more often shown with toy trucks, playing sports, or using technology.

However, our Visual GPS consumer survey data shows that Americans are increasingly accepting of gender expansive identities and expression. More than 8 in 10 Americans believe that people should be free to express their gender through clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms, and more, and 72% say that society should not try to enforce conformity to traditional gender roles. People are also highly aware of how gender and sexuality are depicted; nearly 80% say do not regularly see visual representations of trans people in everyday settings, but that they frequently see visual representations of lesbian women who are shown as masculine, either in the way they dress or behave. Further, self‑expression impacts perception: 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ people and women say they experience bias based on how they look, dress, or present themselves.
As American understandings of gender identity and expression become more inclusive, visuals can follow suit by moving beyond cis‑normative ideals of masculinity and femininity. With more than 1.2 million US adults identifying as nonbinary, and nearly half of trans, nonbinary, and gender non‑conforming Americans reporting that discrimination has significantly affected their ability to be hired, exploring gender variance through imagery can not only normalize this growing population but also provide examples for young people whose gender expression may change as they grow up.In fact, as desire for a wider scope of gender expression grows, even among cisgender people, visuals can reflect back how people are already redefining gender performance: showing masculine‑presenting people wearing jewelry and skirts, women with short haircuts and loose‑fitting clothes, and more androgynous self‑styling across the board. As behaviors change to move beyond gender norms, showing emotionally expressive men and technologically‑adept young girls can also move our narratives about gender roles forward.

Highlighting people of all gender identities and showcasing a range of gender expressions—from high femme to soft butch to androgynous—speaks more truth to the shifting standards around self‑expression, especially for young and digital‑native people.
[1] Think Gender is Performance? You Have Judith Butler to Thank for That (The Cut); The World’s Newest Superhero: Bad Bunny (GQ); Breaking the Binary: How 'Steven Universe' empowered me to claim my they/them pronouns (GLAAD)
[2] Social media filters are helping people explore their gender identity (MIT Technology Review)
[3] Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions (Human Rights Campaign)
[4] 1.2 million LGBTQ adults in the US identify as nonbinary (UCLA Williams Institute); The State of the LGBTQ Community in 2020 (Center for American Progress); Gender identity, gender diversity and gender dysphoria: children and teenagers (Raising Children Network)
Indigenous Representation in the Americas