American liberalism loves to talk about gender. As a transgender person who is alive in our media culture, I am constantly bogged down with proclamations of how beautiful gender nonconformity is, and how progressive as a nation we have become, and how, to paraphrase Nicholas Peterson, our generation will “smash gender stereotypes.” And indeed, the perceived “smashing” of gender is emphasized: MTV recently “de-gendered” prom, and transgender activists and celebrities, like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and, more recently, Caitlyn Jenner, are gaining ground.
Some may feel that this is good visibility for the trans community and wider population of gender-variant people, helping to demystify what it means to not be cisgender in a cisnormative society. I do not agree with this idealization, because our media culture has also allowed gender nonconformity to be appropriated as a media fad, especially in how terminology is used.
This just happened to/with Miley Cyrus and the word “genderqueer,” a term that refers to the (not necessarily trans) rejection of gender binary. I found out about the buzz over her identity the same way I do most things, which is by trawling social media. Countless friends of mine shared articles titled things like “Miley Cyrus Genderqueer? Singer Reveals Her Gender and Sexuality,” and made posts preemptively congratulating the singer on this revelation.
Here is the actual content of what happened, sourced from the article, “It Looks like Miley Cyrus Just Confirmed She’s Genderqueer”:
1. Cyrus, in discussing her organization for homeless youth advocacy on Good Morning America, said that she feels she is “not tied to a gender or to an age.”
2. She also, in an interview with Out Magazine, stated that she “didn’t want to be a boy… I kind of wanted to be nothing. I don’t relate to what people would say defines a boy or a girl, and I think that’s what I had to understand: being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”
Nowhere does she state her identification as genderqueer, hence the headline’s misleading claim that it “looks like,” not that she did; as the article admits, “she didn’t say it flat out.”
And yet the speculation was immediate and extreme: there have been countless incendiary, presumptuous headlines; it became a trending topic; and a Google search for “miley cyrus genderqueer” yields 53,500 results. A commentary developed on her bravery: I saw numerous friends of mine, many of whom had criticized Cyrus in the past for any number of reasons, champion the star over the possibility that she might not identify as a woman. What journalists have extrapolated from her statements, what they have seen fit to align with terms they think are appropriate, has allowed the general public to define her existence outside of her.
This is the nature of the “gender” media fad, the unintentional, yet inevitable, result of that more inclusive visibility. Policing how celebrities identify and rendering those identities to buzzwords reflects a public excitement over how our progressive generation will “smash gender stereotypes” next. But what is truly being “smashed” by this presumptuous trend?
The speculation surrounding Cyrus is problematic in a basic sense for how it circumvents her involvement. To reiterate, she does not explicitly state that she is genderqueer. Brianti Downing, in the previously linked Feather Magazine article, points to her Instagram share of the Out interview as Cyrus “seem[ing] to confirm her gender identity.” But Cyrus captioned the excerpt not with a confirmation but with the statement, “NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!,” a vague affirmation of her individuality.
Just because Cyrus appears to reject a gender binary--at least as it relates to her life--on an ideological level, she is not automatically genderqueer. Political discomfort does not always indicate how someone may identify: a woman can be a woman regardless of how much she “relates” to prescriptive femininity. Women’s liberation from this compulsory femininity is a historical goal of the feminist movement, indicating that a subversive interest like Cyrus’ can exist within womanhood.
Additionally, the treatment of gender-nonconformity as a spectacle is nothing new. The aggressive interest in how Cyrus identifies is not at all inconsistent with how gender nonconforming people, especially those who are transgender, are othered and objectified. Sonny Nordmarken, in “Gender Normativity, ‘Gender Anomie,’ and Transgender Oppression: Transgender People’s Emotional Labor Negotiating Dominant Gender Optics,” defines this as “encounter[ing] blatant hostility, misinterpretation, confusion or discomfort, and microaggressions.” This occurs, in part, through the conflation of identities. The Slate piece Downing links to, for example, defines both “genderqueer” and “non-binary” as “differentiate[d] from people who are transgender”--I know this to be patently false because I am a non-binary trans person.
The predominating force of “othering,” however, manifests as systematic oppression, lower quality of life, and violence. To quote the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 2013 report on LGBTQ+ hate crime, “for the third year in a row, transgender, transgender people of color, and LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color experienced disproportionately severe violence [and] more than half of 2013’s homicide victims were transgender women of color.”
This brings me to my last point: Miley Cyrus is white, designated female at birth, and conventionally attractive. It is unsurprising that the same Google search for “miley cyrus genderqueer” also highlights her short hair and mixing of gender-coded clothes. As a white, designated female at birth, and conventionally attractive (meaning thin and able-bodied) trans person myself, I can speak to the fact that these are the demographics associated with the stereotype of gender-variance. We are culturally designated more “androgynous” or fluid space, in comparison to trans people of color, especially those who are trans women, and industry trends, which extend from standards of patriarchal sexual consumption, reflect this.
Considering the reality of violence among gender-variant people, and how, to reference the NCAVP statistic, that disproportionately affects people of color, nothing is “smashed” by the influx of attention given to Cyrus, and no real progress is made. Through centering on her, it constructs and emphasizes what is ironically a normative idea of gender nonconformity, reifying the disenfranchisement of those who fall outside of it.
In conclusion: if Cyrus is not genderqueer, stop making a gender stereotype out of her in service of that “smashing.” And if she is, good for her--but that’s not for us to decide.