Spoilers for The Village.
The Village is a Shyamalan movie about a group of people that leave modern society to raise their children in an American Colonial time-period replica, so that their children will never be exposed to violence and alienation of modern life.
In a recent Discord conversation, it was speculated that maybe the only way to really get rid of racism would be if everyone agreed to suppress all their racial emotions, act as if they don’t exist, and raise the next generation in a world that pretends there is no racism. The children won’t internalize racist impulses, and hopefully won’t even realize that racism was ever a thing until they’re old enough to find out about it in history books and be shocked that people used to be so shallow.
Someone pointed out that this was basically what was being done in the 90s, and it fell apart.
It then occurred to me that this was also done for gender in the 90s, and with far more success. It legit worked on some people. Notably: myself.
In the 90s, basically every piece of children’s media had at least one girl in it, and the girl was always as capable as the boy(s). Gadget in Rescue Rangers was the nerdy engineer and got the crew out of tons of jams. The Pink and Yellow Power Rangers kicked an equal amount of ass as Blue, Black, and Red.
This “sex doesn’t matter” permeated everything. Lara Croft was disproportionate to entice male players, sure. But she was still a better athlete and killer than every man in her video games. Every female character in fighting games had just as much ability to win as the male characters. RPGs that let you choose what sex your character was gave the same starting stats regardless.
The un-dimorphism of the era extended to male action stars. Some of the most popular of the decade were fairly lithe. Neo certainly isn’t one of the muscle-bound lunks we got in the 80s. (Have you seen what happened to Hugh Jackman between the first X-Men movie and the latest Wolverine? yikes)
Yeah, we had the lunks too, if less frequently. But they were more like jokes. Schwarzenegger wasn’t a real person, he was a cartoon in human flesh.
And honestly, I’m not sure why I’m harping on action movies. Action movies were but one symptom, and they don’t even matter that much because most people have zero action sequences in their lifetimes. This “there’s no difference between men and women” extended into all domains. People were primarily presented as unique individuals that may have incidental differences in personality, but whose gender only mattered for mating/matching purposes. It didn’t define anything else about the characters.
Ally McBeal was so egalitarian that they didn’t even have sex-segregated bathrooms. Daria, the most Gen-X teen show ever created, only ever used gender-types as the butts of jokes to show how stupid they are. The main characters we identified with were basically androgynous. As it should be!
Of course the true encapsulation of 90s media, the one thing that sums up the decade and its ideals, is Friends. America has always used sitcoms as the mirror it sees itself in. And what did we see in Friends? A group of attractive young people that hooked up with each other a lot, but treated each other as equals, with basically no differences in temperament or treatment due to sex. They even all have roughly the same morphology, having similar heights and builds. Joey and Pheobe don’t quite fit, but they are caricatures —the throwbacks from the 80s that we laugh at in recognition of our own past follies.
Being raised in a striving middle-class suburb, I didn’t just get this message from media alone. I got this message from everyone around me. My parents, my teachers, everyone. There’s basically no difference between boys and girls, we’re all people.
The thing is, it worked. I didn’t care what sex/gender people were. It struck me as an insanely weird thing to care about, and I chalked it up to the same lunacy that made people hate other religions or skin colors. Our ancestors be fucking nuts, yo.
One of my favorite essays was P.Z. Myer’s post about how any differences between the sexes must be contained entirely on the Y chromosome (since only that one is different), and how ridiculous it is to think that things like “preference in colors” or “favorite genres of fiction” would be encoded within it. There’s seriously almost nothing different between us, and any difference that there is has to have put selective pressure on the Y-chromosome. C’mon guys, are we really this dumb? Selective pressure being put JUST on the Y chromosome?? Stop being a dogmatic, sexist fool.
It worked so well that I was legitimately shocked when I discovered the large differences in physical strength between the sexes, even among people of similar sizes, in my late 20s. (Yes, it took that long). It was a vast chasm in my model of reality that I plunged into, smashing into every protruding jagged edge and rock outcropping along the way.
So sure, maybe this view isn’t as accurate as it should be. But I still believe deeply that that was a better world for everyone. We managed, for the space of a few years between the mid 90s and early 00s, to create a world without gender. We still had sex – everyone could see sex, and it determined who you were sexually attracted to. But gender didn’t matter. There weren’t (much) gender roles or expectations or stereotypes. Everyone was an individual. And since gender didn’t exist, your pronouns didn’t matter. People defaulted to what it looked like your sex was.
Then 4th wave feminism happened. I could go on at length as to why 3rd wave feminism is the one true way and 4th wave feminism is vile trash that has destroyed incalculable amounts of value. But I won’t. I will, instead, bemoan the fact that it brought back gender, and made it THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. We had fixed the world in one small way. At least in some corners of it. Until, like someone finding a hidden store of small pox, 4th wave feminism couldn’t wait but re-infect the world with glee. We were almost there guys. And now? Now your gender defines you. It defines how you act, how you are treated by both strangers and friends, and the broader social system, and it decides what side of the culture wars you are on.
We were almost there.
No wonder the newest generation wants to opt out entirely, and go un-gendered. I would too, if I hadn’t lived through proof that the same results can be achieved in a better way. In the 90s, you could just be who you are and it was fine. Now you are either a strongly-identified gender, or you have to contort your appearance and lifestyle into aggressively signaling “I am no gender!” While also imposing costs on anyone around you. That’s fucked up man.
I guess that’s part of why I resented Them, and why I felt They were on the side of the 4th wave feminists shoring up the vital importance of gender. Opting out of gender isn’t something you bother to do if gender doesn’t matter. It’s only if one has bought into the “Gender totally matters for everything!!” hype that one would be so concerned they’re not seen as either one.
I get now that it wasn’t that they were intentionally reinforcing the narrative. They just didn’t have other options, given how badly gender equality has been mangled over the past decade.
I’m hopeful that 4th wave will eat itself sometime in the 20s. wokeness already appears to be imploding. Hopefully the next generation will get to grow up in a less polluted social atmosphere, once we get back to pre-2010 levels of dignity and human respect. The dream of the 90s is still alive, and not just in Portland.