Gen Z refuses to have its gender put in a box

Members of Generation Z refuse to be identified by their gender and want to be defined by who rather than what they are. What does this mean for brands?

Brands should reconsider how they approach their marketing because gender fluidity is more than a trend, according to a Virtue panel.

Research from VICE found 41% of Gen Z respondents from western countries identify themselves in the middle of the masculine to feminine scale, while half identify themselves as something other than heterosexual.

Gender fluidity is only going to become more mainstream as Gen Z grows up, according to

VICE global SVP of insights Julie Arbit: "This generation who have the lifestyle of fluidity are going to enter the workforce and politics and have kids of their own and they are going to instill this mindset in the rest of the population."

Artist and author Esben Weile Kjær believes the rise of a generation of people who are gender fluid is "the post effects of queerness in the 90s".

"Philosophers such as Judith Butler came up with these ideas that gender is something socially constructed and performative," says Kjær. "This whole generation is not thinking in queer theory – but I think when you see that feminism is now mainstream and a lot of identity politics is also quite mainstream then this more abstract way with dealing with queer theory is easier to access."

Kjær argues feminist messaging in marketing is not the same as working with gender fluidity because "first wave feminism in many ways is really binary", while the concept of fluidity is much more radical.

"One of the biggest shifts in the mindset of this generation is around identity – for this generation identity really is fluid," says Arbit. "This generation refuse to be put in a box, they don’t want to align with anything that is binary. I like to call them definitively undefinable.

"They do not want to be defined by what they are but by who they are – by their personalities, their passions and their values."

Arbit argues brands must pay attention to Gen Z’s gender fluidity but warns against thinking of it "as a third box to check".

"It’s not another box, it really is this whole spectrum of ways to express yourself and I think that is something that brands are really struggling with," says Arbit.

Kjær explains: "Sex is between the legs and gender is in your mind, try to think like that rather than in binary gender."

Ryan Sherman, a senior creative at Virtue, an agency born out of VICE, says he struggles to think of any ad campaigns that powerfully represented gender fluidity.

"I’m working in advertising but I can’t think of anything that is actually a really genuinely good representation," says Sherman. "What is more interesting is the actions that companies are taking – whether that is Zara bringing out a gender neutral clothing line or [toy manufacturers] removing gender from their products.

"These are good examples of actual actions. Rather than talking about it, you need to do something."

The big picture
VICE itself has taken action by creating a stock photography library called the ‘gender spectrum collection’ that shows gender non conformative people doing everyday activities such as buying a coffee or hanging out with friends.

"It is just seeing people for who they are and what they like to do, beyond just what their gender expression is," says Arbit.

The decision was made to create the library after the editorial team struggled to find suitable images for articles about gender non conformity. Previously stock images were limited to shots of flags or pictures of someone before and after they went through a transition.

Kjær advises advertisers to have a mindset that is always questioning stereotypes, and is hopeful that in the future "we will see a much more complex way of understanding gender".

Arbit agrees the key is to have an open mind and brands must be wary of falling into stereotypes.

"Listening to people and hearing their stories is important to getting all sides of the story," says Arbit. "Be really open to it and understand that it might be hard to understand."

Gender fluidity is a matter of nuance and efforts must be made to avoid oversimplifying the issue, according to Sherman. "It comes down to diversifying the workplace and really making sure you are picking up on the nuances."

He concludes: "It takes a lot of people to stand behind it and keep pushing it forward and make it more of a majority perspective rather than a minority one.

"You have a  responsibility to educate yourself on the movement. Talk to people, and surround yourselves by a diverse set of people to truly understand and shift your perspective."


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