Gender Fluidity vs. the Islamic State Or, What is a Binary Anyways?

This blog post is written by Tara Elliott, Creative Director at Paprika Productions

What do Lena Dunham, Caitlyn Jenner, and ISIS have in common? Besides popularizing conversation topics that often end in heated debate, not a lot. However, as touchstones in the national conception of gender identity, feminism, and extremism, they unite us in a discussion about what is black and white, and what exists on a spectrum.
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As the twenty-four hour news cycle wrings countless stories out of every act of terrorist violence, especially those committed in the west, the American public is at risk of falling prey to the false dichotomy of good muslims vs. bad muslims. Many progressive media sources have leaned on the term ‘moderate Muslim’ to designate those Muslims who are easier for western audiences to identify with. Not extremists. Palatable. Safe. But the problem with this line of reasoning is that it perpetuates the belief that the less Muslim a person is, the less likely they are to be a terrorist. Or even, the more like me they are, the less threatening they are to my way of life. Oversimplification? Yes. But the dualistic thinking that separates me from them is not a far cry from our now shifting understanding of the gender binary.

Maybe there’s something to be learned from the fanfare of Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation, and the shift in the national conversation about gender fluidity. What happens when we conceive of gender as a spectrum? Miley Cyrus has an opinion about that, and it’s pretty simple.”I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.” What if we could do the same? What could we discover by accepting gender as a social construct — a fact which a recent study of male and female brains begins to confirm. In short, new analysis of scana indicate that while there are structural differences between the male and female brain, the cognitive differences are negligible at best.

Identity is fluid, that’s what I’m getting at. Gender identity, religious identity, racial identity, and social identity: right now, they’re all in flux. And please, read this essay by Wesley Morris for a much deeper analysis and articulation of what this looks like and means. One thing I know is that it begs the question of what is at our core? What defines us if not these classifications that have been used to inspire and conspire towards a separate sense of self for hundreds of years? But I’m waxing existential. This is about you and me. So how does this translate to your daily grind? When we take away the polarized lenses and look at the people around us without black and white classifications (or Muslim and Christian, male and female) what do we see?

Shugs & Fats — two fictional characters who wear hijab, crack jokes, and riff on the nature of the universe — are interested in this question. What are the assumptions we make about people based on their appearance? Do we inherently categorize through a binary lens, making snap judgments about whether an individual does or does not share our values?

Yes. Of course we do.

That impeccably dressed woman on the train? She’s got her sh*t together, but she’s a heartless ice queen. Pushy guy in line trash talking the Starbucks employees? Probably a manspreader and obviously not a feminist. Oh and this attractive guy sitting next to me at my hip Brooklyn cocktail bar is definitely not a recovering junkie who lives in section eight housing.

I was definitely wrong about one of the above. Probably wrong about all three. And I’m actively attempting to temper snap judgements, to see beyond the shell to the human that is probably lonely underneath. But it’s tricky. Because we’ve shellacked a lot of value onto our efficiency, our gut instinct towards what–and who–is right and wrong.

It makes sense, it’s an impulse towards self-protection. But how much fear do we really need to associate with people who identify with words like feminist, Muslim, vegetarian, pro-life, or Republican? Sure, maybe they’re using a language we don’t, but what if we see that language as a point on a spectrum, instead of a categorical silo, forever separating them from us. Just, what if?

Any disruptions in our preconceptions of established norms begin to chip away at this false duality. And any established norm that is expanded, punctured, or stretched allows for broader definitions. Lena Dunham has been at the celebrity helm of fourth wave feminism, yet again changing what it means to call yourself a feminist. Girls is our generation’s Sex in the City, and where Carrie Bradshaw was bold and sassy, Lena’s protagonist embraces unapologetic humor, and a very raw, very real sexuality. She’s fighting for the equal right to be imperfect. She’s embracing the flawed middle ground, the mediocre reality that balks at extremism.

A fundamental element to all this? The ability to laugh at ourselves. Shugs and Fats do that too, and in so doing, tear through the veil of stereotypes we have about who Muslim women are. Their feigned ignorance of the American pastime, of catcalling gives them permission to make it their own. We’ve seen what happens to women walking the streets in NYC in Hollaback’s catcalling video, and the response to this of a woman walking the streets in hijab. Both of these are problematic for various reasons. But something less widely seen is women in hijab catcalling men. Yep. It’s everything you’re not expecting. Which is precisely what makes it tick. By continuing to defy our reactions it defines a new space, a middle ground that is a confluence of extremes we didn’t know could intersect. In that no man’s land is where judgement grasps onto old binary definitions of identity, and fails, where extremism clamors at the sidelines hoping to feed on judgement. But in that middle ground, we’re all a little lost, less certain of who we are and who they are, and that makes it much harder to separate us from them.

This blog post is written by Tara Elliott, Creative Director at Paprika Productions