Nerf balls are for boys. Dolls are for girls. Romance movies are for women, and action flicks for men. Nearly everything in our world is gendered in some way. But what if we lived in a world where gender was more like hair colour — something you could change at will, and that had little bearing on what other people thought of you?
This is not a future without gender. It's just a future where gender just isn't all that important to people. To figure out what this world might be like, I talked to Ann Leckie, Meredith Talusan and Laurie Essig.
Leckie is a science fiction author, who wrote the books Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. I called Leckie because the main character in these novels is from a society called the Raadchai, where nobody cares about gender. Raadchai find it deeply confusing to interact with people in cultures that have male and female pronouns. But because English demands such pronouns, Leckie had to figure out how to get across the Raadchai's lack of gender assumptions — so she just calls everyone "she." This is something science fiction writers have tackled before. In the book The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, the people of a sexless society are all referred to as "he." (LeGuin later talked about regretting this decision). Leckie went the other way.
The effect in the books is that there are moments when you realise as a reader that a character you thought was a woman is actually a man. But the idea that gendered pronouns might confuse people is not science fiction. In fact, Meredith Talusan grew up without gendered pronouns and has written about how that impacted their ideas of gender. Now Talusan is an LGBT staff writer at BuzzFeed, and she's the one who suggested looking into this future.
Talusan is also working on a project with Medium called Gender 2.0, where writers take on their ideas of gender. One of those writers is Laurie Essig, the Director of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies at Middlebury College.
Leckie, Talusan and Essig have a lot of ideas about what a world free from our obsession with gender would be like. You can hear them in the episode.
It might be hard for you to imagine a world without gender, and that's not because you're bad at imagining things. It really is hard to imagine a world without gender. Nearly every single thing you do is gendered, from the way you sit, to your clothes and glasses to the way you speak. It's all impacted by the gender training you get throughout your life.
Essig thinks that right now, we're moving away from a genderless future, not towards it. In the most recent push for LGBT rights, there was a lot of talk about the innateness of gender. She wrote an essay recently about why that line of reasoning is dangerous. If we embrace the idea that gender is something deeply rooted within us, something biological, that means moving away from a world where gender is fluid and unimportant.
The notion that our ideas about gender will get more progressive with time is something that our own Annalee Newitz has refuted already. So this future may never come, or it may be so far away that we'll all die from space pirates dragging a comet to Earth first.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby