Pop Culture and Gender Redemption

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By revealing gender nuances, pop culture takes us to psychological places that dismiss the need for reality

by Pedro Palhares translated by Carolina Walliter revised by Tracy Miyake
Elke Maravilha

Elke Maravilha is a man. At least that’s the first suggestion in a Google search for the artist who was designated female at birth and today dismisses any definition. Elke is an example of gender fluidity, and while Google represents the widespread common-sense need to frame people according to traditional binary patterns: male and female. Fortunately, the pop culture of Elke and others blends these polarized concepts, turning them into blurs of an old society.

Lack of information and society’s bias about the subject can lead transgender or gender-fluid people to severe states of unhappiness and emptiness. And pop culture — whether in the androgynous portraits of Andy Warhol or when Madonna tells us to “express our love as it is” in “Express Yourself” — tends to stimulate changes, encouraging people to voice their acceptances.

But there is an invisible and less-romanticized side of all this. Some transgender people are so embedded in their contexts, where there is no room for change, that they end up wearing the normative masks imposed by society. To these individuals, pop culture has become less of a support for their struggles and more of a means of survival. Forbidden from presenting themselves, dressing, and acting the way they want to, it is in the characters of certain icons that they can find ideals and take their secret pills of transgression to keep living.

The mass culture that reveals gender nuances is the closest contact most people have with their ideal universes. When the doors cannot be kicked open, flirting with the utopian world of liberation helps to reduce the musty smell inside the closet.
miley cyrus
Gender deconstruction, feminism, and free nipples: Miley Cyrus in a photo shoot for Paper Magazine.

Superficial or not, the message of self-acceptance has entered the records of society thanks to pop culture. Whether this results from a real intention to change or simply because it sells, the entertainment industry absorbs this ideal of empowerment and spreads it around. Once highbrow and distant from reality, the concept becomes mass culture, reaching more people, though less deeply.

Television host Ellen DeGeneres, for instance, in her suit and sneakers and openly discussing her homosexuality, is very famous and well-loved by American audiences. She is a slap in the face to those who only recognize women as the stereotypical girl in skirt and high heels.

Na foto mais compartilhada da história, Ellen está de terno e tênis cercada por mulheres de longo e salto. E o melhor, ninguém estava falando sobre isso.
In the most widely-shared picture of all time, Ellen is in the center wearing suit and sneakers, surrounded by women in long dresses and killer heels. And the best part of it was that no one was talking about it.
Pop art, with all its ambiguities, is exempt from the obligation of having an active social role. But intentionally or not, it ends up causing transformations.

When a situation is portrayed in a play or movie, we put ourselves in the character’s shoes and live that moment alongside them. In doing so, we visit psychological places, like anger, love, happiness, without the need for it to be real. The same happens with gender. And then, despite all the criticisms that can be made, the entertainment industry fills the gap of being unable to socially express who you are inside. Pop music, the drag scene, and incorporating gender-fluid people into the mass media eventually meet some of the needs of a group that has always seen itself as repressed by patriarchal standards, and foster the emergence of a more democratic and free society.

“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” — Judith Butler

Consequently, pop culture frees these repeated acts, even only to a limited extent, permitting a less constrained performance of standardized gender.

Gender for whom?

With respect to behavioral nuances in a more practical approach, however, all this escapism can be not only a source of comfort, but also of isolation. Living a double life, with one side embracing social standards and the other powered by a culture opposed to these standards, can create islands of comfort and safety, not to mention social seclusion. The reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race is very popular and widely discussed among the young LGBT scene, but most of Brazilian society and the national drag scene have never heard of it, a fact that reflects the isolation of the LGBT community itself.

Divine, uma das Drag Queens mais famosas do século XX e precursora dessa arte, em tributo na People Magazine de 1988.
Divine, one of the most famous drag queens of the twentieth century and a pioneer of this art, in a 1988 People Magazine tribute.

Gender issues are still generating so little discussion that most transgender people can’t put a name their feelings for a considerable length of time during their own lives. Their parents, friends, and close relatives know even less: they either do not realize or close their eyes to what is going on in their prematurely worried minds. Although medicine and psychology are key players, the appeal of pop culture goes more straight to the point.

After all, many social restraints take place precisely because of rationality, objectivity and coldness, which are typically scientific approaches. Perhaps the subjectivity of a song, a movie, or a picture can create a better dialogue with the manifestations and needs of the being.

Ruby Rose: atriz australiana que se refere a si mesma no feminino mas diz não se identificar como mulher nem como homem. Nomeia-­se gender free e ficou conhecida por interpretar Stella na série "Orange Is The New Black", do Netflix.
Ruby Rose: This Australian actress refers to herself in the feminine but does not identify as a woman or a man. She calls herself gender-free and became famous playing Stella in the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black.
Mc Xuxu: cantora que coleciona mais de 3 milhões de visualizações no YouTube com suas músicas que despertam a consciência sobre a realidade das travestis no Brasil.
Mc Xuxu: with over 3 million views on YouTube, her songs build awareness about the reality of transvestites in Brazil.

We should thank the internet for promoting debates on the issue. It is where these arguments reverberate; it encourages people to accept themselves, and then feeds these experiences back into the mix. After all, an empowered person inspires other individuals who see themselves in their image. The benefit from technology-driven changes is real. But while people are still discussing (in the twenty-first century, believe it or not) whether psychologists can cure transsexuality or not, children and young people are having a blast in their bedrooms with their doors locked, listening to Lady Gaga singing they are “beautiful in their own way,” living the broadcasted freedoms that have become reality – at least for the short time the music is playing.

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