Decolonizing Genders, Bodies, and Minds
Last week, I returned to one of my favorite museums and favorite events in DC for the Fresh Talk for Change series at National Museum of Women in the Arts. If you’re a longtime follower of the blog, you might recognize that series from previous posts, and this evening absolutely continued the dedication to conversation and change that #FreshTalk4Change and the NMWA are all about. Previous talks focused on female artists and creating spaces for diverse voices to be heard (a passion of ours here at BGMB too!), but in the most recent Fresh Talk, we gathered to consider an even more radical change: a new understanding of gender as it impacts design.
I expected this talk to center on design in the most artful, aesthetic sense — after all, the event was held at an art museum — but instead of talking about gender in the designs of traditional, Western art, we as participants were asked to think about design at its most every day, in the signs and symbols that make up our ever day interactions with gender. The most obvious example, and the touchstone that all of the presenters and the Catalyst cocktail conversation returned to, is the question of gendered bathrooms.
By examining the symbols of “man” and “woman” or “masculine” and “feminine” that hang on public restrooms the world over, we are seeing how gender is itself a language that we are taught to decode and understand through culture. We have shaped genderless objects into gendered ones through our own cultural expectations and use — and these expectations of the gender binary can be a source of violence and oppression to those who exist on their margins. Bathroom politics are just one example of gender as a language that we learn to speak, a large portion of the evening was also devoted to considerations of a genderless fashion design, or genderless photography and modeling.
Once we begin to see how prevalent the gender binary is in the design of objects around us, we can begin to question what it would be like to live in a world that operates outside of this binary. While for people who identify as trans, genderqueer, or genderfluid, this external life is often a struggle because of cultural pressures to conform, spaces exist where gender was not formed as an oppositional duality, male versus female. The most powerful moment of the evening came when a map was projected on the NMWA screen that highlighted the cultures of the world that had a non-binary view of gender.
Here in the Western world, the gender binary is prominent in not only our minds and culture, but in the way we interpret and understand objects as well. But for many cultures, cultures that have been erased through colonial violence, that is not the case. As we seek to find other ways of knowing gender, seek to “de-sign” the binary that we are presented with, we are also seeking to decolonize our bodies and our gender presentations. Unlearning the language of gender is a radical act with many more consequences than we can anticipate, a political project with the potential to undo not only the violence against bodies but also the violence against non-Western cultures that make up the bulk of history.