The Starbucks theory of sexual identity
Recently a BBC article was circulated widely on Twitter, titled: “How young people are shaking off gender binaries”. It claimed that Gen Z are breaking down “Western established norms” about what it means to be male or female. The gist of the piece was that old fogies, steeped in the traditions of the past, do not understand the modern, gender-fluid times.
Many mocked the article (which has now been mysteriously deleted from the BBC website), whose author seemed oblivious to culture over the last few decades. Reading it, you could be forgiven for thinking that David Bowie, Sylvester, Sinead O’Connor, Sharleen Spiteri and a legion of other stars who transgressed traditional gender norms (aesthetically at least) never existed. That, and people in their 50s, 60s and onwards were born in the Edwardian era.
Most pertinent about the piece are the new terms that young people use to convey their gender identity, such as “they”, “non-binary” and “demiboy”. No longer does anyone say they are a “tomboy” or “androgynous”. Specialised words are in vogue, sometimes in combination. This trend for an identitarian bio as long as a 14th century aristocrat’s moniker is especially apparent on TikTok, where youngsters can be found spelling out their pronouns for others to try to remember. Get it wrong and you’re the problem, goes the message.
Having seen these descriptors proliferate over the years, I have developed something of a theory about why gender identity has become so convoluted. It started in 2021 when I was moving out of De Beauvoir town, a fairly “liberal elite” part of the world. Two delivery men had come to pick me up and I asked them if they’d like a hot beverage. When they requested a black and white coffee, with no frills, I was stumped.
Had they asked for a “decaffeinated oatmilk skinny cappuccino”, I would have known exactly the place to head to. This was my beverage of choice at the local cafe, where convoluted orders were the norm. In fact, it would have been strange not to ask for something complicated. It was also a place that catered for fussy dietary requirements, with options such as “Scrambled tofu … on Dusty Knuckle sourdough toast” and “Sweetcorn fritters with a poached egg”. You would certainly not go in wanting some sausages and baked beans.
Online users are invited to diagnose and fragment their identities
I began to wonder if socioeconomic status affects how much you overcomplicate things, from your coffee order, to your choice of bread, to your conceptualisation of gender. If you are a regular at the De Beauvoir deli, you are likely to have some kind of “privilege” or have had some in your life cycle. This changes how you interact with the world. You have been socialised to be picky, with countless experiences of going to restaurants that encourage you to express niche tastes. You have reached the self-actualisation stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with the economic bandwidth to meditate upon your identity — maybe even explore it with an expensive shrink. “I’m a tomboy who has kissed a few girls” can easily turn into a lengthy, multifaceted identity, not least because the latter sounds more interesting. This, in turn, feeds into the media landscape, where the new descriptions for gender identity are quickly disseminated. One Guardian writer last year, for instance, celebrated the “non-binary finery” of Joan of Arc in the play I, Joan.
Of course, there are other factors that can influence how we conceptualise gender identity — and identity more generally. Technology has had a radical effect on people’s self-perception. Sites such as TikTok encourage users to view themselves through the prism of psychometrics, whether that’s the Myers-Briggs test or John Bowlby’s attachment styles. There are whole communities devoted to categorising other parts of identity, such as ADHD, where people are taught that behaviours are a sign of the condition — some more “neuro-typical” than “-diverse”. Increasingly online users are invited to diagnose and fragment their identities, often believing that this will give them greater clarity over who they are.
Far from demonstrating that Gen Z has more progressive ideals about gender and other types of identity, these “microdefinitions” mostly reflect a process of modernisation. It’s not obvious that attitudes to gender have markedly shifted since the generations who danced to David Bowie, or that they didn’t understand that things can exist on a spectrum (they were born after the creation of the Kinsey scale, after all). It could instead be that digital advances, as well as socioeconomic factors, reframe our lexicon and conceptualisation of many things, including identity. The terms “demiboy” and “nonbinary” may ultimately be better clues to their users’ age and economic background than gender.
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