NatGeo Doesn’t Understand Gender



Social media has been abuzz with the news that National Geographic has done a special issue on gender. I haven’t managed to get a copy yet, but yesterday I saw this tweet from Sophie Walker.

In confess that my first thought was, “on no, now we are going to have people claiming that WEP hates trans people”. Thankfully that doesn’t seen to have happened. My second thought was, “yes, I agree”. But until I had investigated more I didn’t know just how much I agreed.

I know nothing about Avery Jackson, the young trans girl that NatGeo has put on their cover. Possibly she likes pink as much as that photo suggests. There’s nothing wrong with pink. I wear it a lot. But the fact that she’s on that cover with pink hair and all-pink clothes very much seems to say, “look how pink I am, I must be a girl!” I suspect the photo was chosen as the cover — by the magazine, not by Avery — with exactly that message in mind.

This reminds me very much of the focus on appearance that gender clinics had when I transitioned. Twenty years ago, if you turned up for an appointment wearing jeans you would probably get sent home. Dresses, or a smart skirt with twinset and pearls, were the order of the day. Your hair had to be long, your make-up had to be obvious, and the decision about whether you were behaving in an appropriately feminine manner was made by a middle-aged man. These days we have made a lot of progress in helping the doctors understand that presentation and gender are not the same thing. Lots of cis women never wear dresses or makeup. They are no less women because of that, and trans women are no less women if they do the same.

Sadly the media is still a long way behind the curve. Whenever you see an article or program about trans people there is always an emphasis on feminine performance. Newspapers gush about how parents knew their kids were trans because they loved pink and wanted to play with dolls. TV programs always have a shot of the trans woman putting on her makeup. This gives entirely the wrong impression of what being trans is all about.

NatGeo goes further. In this article about why they did a gender issue they have this story:

Nasreen Sheikh lives with her parents and two siblings in a Mumbai slum. She’d like to become a doctor, but already she believes that being female is holding her back. “If I were a boy,” she says, “I would have the chance to make money … and to wear good clothes.”

Wait, what?

Liking pink does not make you a woman. Wanting to wear dresses and makeup doesn’t make you a woman, though it may make you non-binary in some way. The only thing that makes you a woman is the unshakeable belief that you are a woman. Equally wanting to be a doctor, and perhaps be safe from gender-based violence, despite being assigned female at birth, doesn’t make you a man; it makes you feminist.

Even NatGeo could see that there was something wrong with this, that it didn’t quite fit into the trans narrative. But that won’t stop the New Statesman running articles about how trans activists are encouraging parents to have their sons “mutilated” because they don’t like football, and their daughters “mutilated” because they want careers. We are not saying these things, but because the media keeps saying this is what being trans is all about its not surprising that people believe we are.

It is all very frustrating. And NatGeo, despite thinking that it is somehow riding the wave of a gender revolution, is actually providing ammunition to the very people who want that revolution stopped in its tracks.

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3 Responses to NatGeo Doesn’t Understand Gender

  1. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    Thank you so much for making these points. My own tardiness in understanding trans issues was precisely because of having to wade past some people’s prominent essentialism. That “every child who likes pink must be female” and “every child who likes sports must be male” thing–no, of course, this wasn’t coming out of the whole trans community (and was probably worst in the confused-ally set honestly).

    I still can’t articulate what it is that makes a person what gender they are and I just end up saying “The person is a man or a woman because they are, that’s all. Why not just believe what they tell you about their gender, even if it changes?”

    (I have a recurring nightmare in which a regime pretends we’re getting what we want by giving people tests and assigning their gender on the basis of whether they fit the stereotype or not, leaving some people forcibly transitioned and many people stuck without recourse to transition that they dearly need)

  2. Erica says:

    “Newspapers gush about how parents knew their kids were trans because they loved pink and wanted to play with dolls. ”

    I honestly wonder if this sort of thing is what drives some feminists to the TERF philosophy. As a cis-woman who often felt at odds with traditional gender roles and presentation, I used to think that if we were more flexible about these things then kids wouldn’t feel like they were trapped in the wrong body. I now know that assessment is incorrect and that gender identity goes far beyond roles and presentation. I wish the media (and biology textbooks too) would do a better job of differentiating culture-specific norms about gender and the actual experience of being male or female, and of being both or neither for that matter.

    • Cheryl says:

      I can’t say for certain that this drives people to become TERFs, but I know for certain that the TERFs think it does because they use arguments like this all the time. Their current favorite in the UK is that trans activists go into schools looking for kids who don’t have stereotypical gender performance and forcing them to transition. That’s not something we’d do because a) it is a misunderstanding of gender, b) you never force anyone to transition, and c) we don’t have that power anyway. But it is what the TERFs want people to believe we do.

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