Gender is Dead, Arise the Individual
Gender stereotypes are dying, and maybe this time it's for real. It’s not just another glamorous fad and it’s not the usual story of generational rebellion in which the kids provoke their parents by challenging their out-dated wardrobe beliefs. This is something much deeper. This season smells of revolution – a revolution that is bringing young people together to reshape and redefine the boundaries of their own identities.
We’ve experienced pivotal gender points before. Back in the 1930s you had pioneers such as Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich wearing suits and sporting masculine, aggressive attitudes. At a time when women were getting arrested for wearing trousers in public and ‘’masquerading as men’’, these ladies completely subverted the female stereotype and yet had the entire Hollywood under their spell. Challenging gender norms became sexy and designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent capitalised on the new feminist wave with history-making pieces such as ‘’le smoking’’, a tuxedo for women.
Then in the '80s we witnessed another challenge to the notion of gender in itself. Bowie and his non-gender creation Ziggy Stardust featured on every teenager’s wall, closely accompanied by Madonna, Bolan and Boy George. The androgynous look was the symbol of the new transgression and - as my mother cares to remind to anyone who’d ask - Annie Lennox was already pulling it off before Miley Cirus was even born. Girls began rocking up at the bar in perfectly neutral Roy Rogers jeans, suits and striped t-shirts.
But the battle was not won. The '90s brought with it an increased focus on personalisation, which brands especially enjoyed using to target insecure parents. And so began the era of pink accessories ‘tailored for women’. An array of poorly personalised toys in which girls were pointed towards Barbie, ponies and little lipsticks, whilst boys were given tradesmen tools, water guns and sports gear.
Which brings us to the present day and the latest revolution. Over 60% of Generation Y’s and Z’s say that gender lines have already been blurred and that there is no coming back. They see no reasons why girls can’t wear brogues and at the same time take up a knitting class and crave a family, or why they can’t love heels and play rugby. Men, in turn, are free to enjoy painting their nails pink, splurge on perfumes and yet love football. There is no female model and there is no male model. There are just individuals, who want to feel represented in their many identities, which may be at times masculine, feminine or androgynous.
And yes, my mother is perfectly right. None of what we are ‘’seeing’’ is new. Not the clean unisex blouses held so dear by norm-core Londoners, not the androgynous models paraded by Jean-Paul Gaultier and All Saints, not Tom Ford’s new make-up line for men – which, by the way, was already hugely popular with France’s Louis XIII and the Romans.
But we still are witnessing significant progression and it’s fascinating to see how brands are capitalising. In March last year Selfridges hired designer Faye Toogood to temporarily transform the Oxford Street giant into a gender-neutral retail wonderland. Everything, from the website to the shelves was given a liberating, unisex feel.
At the same time, Zara launched its first ‘ungendered’ clothing line with the help of ‘fluid model’ Ruby Rose. And the parents association ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ has inspired all of the UK’s biggest toy retailers to remove ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ designations when displaying products.
So for marketers, the good news is that girls will not be offended by a t-shirt with pink ponies and butterflies on it – but it may just happen to be particularly popular with boys too. And fewer people will call your ad sexist if it features a woman to advertise cooking gear.
But as personalisation continues to grow in importance, current targeting techniques will also need to evolve so as to go beyond easily built categories such as gender and focus instead on personal tastes and affinities. Social media offers great opportunities to do so here thanks to refined targeting algorithms that look beyond gender. It also means an enhanced purpose for CRM.
Whatever the channel, marketers will be remiss to ignore such a topic. It’s worth taking the time to think about where your brand sits on this scale – and what you can do to take advantage of the latest gender revolution.
Just remember: pink is okay. As long as it doesn’t mean ‘for girls’.
Genre: People , Strategy/Insight