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Artillery Row

Women can have short hair, too

Pseudo-progressives are resurrecting gender stereotypes

Young children, it is often claimed by progressive types, are far more open-minded than adults when it comes to questions of sex and gender. You don’t hear the average five-year-old whining about sex-based rights or complaining that cis is a slur. If someone says they are a woman, no one in reception class is going to ask about their gametes. As long as this person has long hair or some suitably feminine accessories, that will be evidence enough.  

Alas, this is not because each child is born a mini-Judith Butler, wise in the ways of queering, at least until cisheteronormative patriarchy gets to them. It’s because even the most intelligent children can draw stupid conclusions due to their lack of experience of the world (Butler, who is 68, has no such excuse). 

As developmental psychologist Kate Alcock points out, until the age of around seven  “children think that when something changes its appearance, its underlying reality changes”. If someone has short hair, they must be a boy; if they put on a dress, they become a girl. Realising that sex is constant and cannot be changed has long been understood to be an important developmental stage. Children who have not yet reached it will of course be more receptive to the idea that someone such as Pips Bunce is a woman on some days, a man on others, depending on hair and clothing choices. 

Most adults do not think this because most adults grow up. Even those who believe there is such a thing as being born in the wrong body do not generally think that this can be solved by one trip to Toni & Guy (they tend to opt for full-on medical scandals instead). Yet recently I’ve noticed that there are some people who have drifted into adulthood still unaware that having a haircut isn’t magic. It is incredibly strange.

If a young female celebrity has short hair, there’s a good chance she won’t be identifying as a woman. Countless articles recommend “non-binary haircuts to embrace your gender identity”, while Apple’s “non-binary” emojis are nothing more than random people with medium-length hair. In one TikTok video, an obviously female person with a nice pixie cut seeks to defy the imaginary “Karens trying to kick [her] out of the toilet” due to her apparent androgyny. Even if we are assured that “gender begins with one’s soul or one’s interior life before it manifests itself into a haircut”, this really feels like a long-winded way of saying “certain ways of presenting are not usually for girls”. We are witnessing a new conservatism, one that is only reinforced by those who consider themselves super-rebellious for tinkering at the edges. 

It is as though something very obvious about what it means to reject femininity has been lost in translation

If you are a Gen Xer like me — that is, someone who grew up when genuinely androgynous women such as Grace Jones and Annie Lennox were at the height of their fame — this seems especially odd. It is as though something very obvious about what it means to reject femininity has been lost in translation. The degree of misunderstanding might be summed up by a bizarre meme featuring Jones and Lennox, which features the caption “I don’t really understand how people who were young in the 80s act so confused about different gender identities and expressions when the celebrities of their time looked like this”. The trouble is, we weren’t confused at all. 

We knew that Grace Jones’ style didn’t make her less female; it showed there were other ways in which to be female. More space was being created for female self-expression. If someone said of Jones “you can’t tell if that’s a man or a woman”, you knew they were lying. You also knew that the comment was intended to reinforce rather than shatter norms. Now, pretending not to be able to tell is treated as laudable. 

There is a part of me that finds the seriousness with which some young activists now take trivial gender markers quite funny. It reminds me of the Onion article “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People”. I almost want to tell the girl in the TikTok video “hang on — you look like that and yet … you’re not a boy? Consider my tiny, Karen-y mind blown!” Yet overall, it’s not that amusing. I can’t help feeling something has gone very badly wrong when the space for free expression for young women in particular has become so narrow that looking totally unremarkable counts as earth-shattering. It is as though the moment one does not conform to the strictest of feminine standards some kind of declaration must be made. Even if one does not go so far as renouncing womanhood entirely, one must at least make it known that one knows this is a little bit on the edge.  

In her 2009 book Living Dolls, Natasha Walter drew a connection between the intense gender stereotyping to which children were subjected and the sexualisation of girls and young women. Back then, her specific targets were neurosexism and lad culture, both of which might be said to hold less sway today, yet her overall analysis feels very prescient. Walter describes a “melding of the doll and the real girl” that “can extend way beyond childhood”. The girl — back then in the neurosexism/lad culture age, now in the genderism/Pornhub age — is surrounded by images of exaggerated femininity, with increasingly restrictive understandings of what it means to be a female thrust upon her. She is alienated from her real, flesh-and-blood self and encouraged to focus on that which is plastic, glossy, primped, perfect. Even if she reaches the stage of knowing that her sex cannot change, the doll self holds more girlhood rights. I think this is even more true today than fifteen years ago. Children define sex by stereotypes because they know little about sexed bodies; young women know, but are told to discount that knowledge. 

I would rather young women mistakenly believe trivial external changes made them unrecognisable as women than lifelong physical ones. Perhaps — hopefully — this will become more common as gradually, step by painful step, we work our way back to a feminist understanding of what it means to reject femininity. In the meantime, though, so much time will have been wasted.  

Changing your appearance doesn’t change your sex, and if people judge you for looking “less feminine”, it is because they notice your sex, not because they don’t. The sad thing is, feminism already had the solution to this. It is better to think like a feminist than a child. 

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