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Design and gender identity

The world that surrounds us plays a key role in our development as individuals. Objects, spaces, images shape our conscience and opinions. Design often finds itself being the main character for what concerns giving the first identifying inputs, especially through the first presents that children receive. For many years we have been used to products that convey specific gender stereotypes, that unconsciously shape our way of thinking, behaving and perceiving ourselves. Although, is it fair that the functionality of a product is often linked to an aesthetic that aims to strike a determined gender category? A product, or an image, can often make nonbinary people, or those who are still in a transition phase, feel uneasy; but at the same time, they can be toxic for the cliches of masculinity and femininity which we all unconsciously absorb. It looks like cautious and inclusive planning may be the only solution to reduce social inequality, by detecting design as an agent which brings reaction and change.

The World Health Organization defines gender identity as the gender experience deeply felt, inner and personal of a person, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or the sex registered at birth. Gender identity, therefore, is not linked to a biological factor, but to a personal and cultural one, which is often influenced by external inputs. In his book, The Gendered Society, Michael Kimmel states: “biology constructs genders and society constructs gender differences”. The cultural heritage that we carry on from the previous centuries, especially that of the XX century, induced us to unconsciously think according to stereotypes. An advertising agency with the task of selling kitchen appliances will make those advertisements appear during programs addressed to a female public; instead, if he was supposed to sell a certain brand of beer, probably this last advertisement would be inserted during any sports match. This way of making marketing has been proved more immediate, but at the same time too superficial and unsuitable, not only from an ethical point of view but also for what concerns the purchases. It is appropriate to assume that a woman never liked that brand of beer? Or that a man could never be interested in kitchen appliances? The same way of thinking leads designers to plan a shader in shades of pink and made of light steel women’s hair removal, while the one for men will be with steel inserts and dark blue or black colored; they forget that the usage of a shaver is only one and that, if we were to actually use smart planning, should be based only on the different types of hands and grips. With its being totally based on the user, shouldn’t we first ask ourselves which are his needs, instead of thinking about his sex or gender identity? Design should be a facilitation tool for everyone, by resulting the only constant for what concerns ethnic, class, and gender equality. Putting at the center of planning those who usually are emarginated from design processes means taking care of the minority and not of the majority; only by doing so, one can be sure of having covered the totality of the needs.

A few years ago the HB2 law was issued in North Carolina, according to which transgender people were forced to use the restroom concordant with their birth gender. The law tried to solve in a superficial way a problem which is still being much discussed, that is a bathroom’s gender. One still wonders if restrooms should have gender or not. It’s only fair to know that the imperative to divide male public services from female ones creates both a situation of uneasiness and a lack of sense of safety in transgender or non-binary people. The restroom’s separation according to gender was suggested both to reduce a factor of danger, that is protecting women from possible attempts of sexual harassment, and for paternalistic reasons, dating back to times in which a woman couldn’t live public environments and the world of work as men did, being forced to have their own restroom. But this condition of uneasiness often drives trans people to a total renunciation to use public services. Introducing a uni-sex restroom would also simplify numerous issues related to disability. Disabled people, or old ones, would be free to let the people assisting them enter the restroom, regardless of their gender. The restroom issue comes with many other problems that could be solved by studying the planning of a space capable of safeguarding privacy, safety, and comfort of women, disabled people, transgenders, and anyone who might feel uneasy about using public services. The solution to this problem, although, is often undermined by building regulations.

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Unknown author, Vintage Advert for the Milady Decollete Gillette Razor, 1916.

Our gender identity is influenced since the day of our birth through first toys or children’s products. As John Berger stated in his book Ways of seeing: “Seeing comes before words. The child watches and recognizes before he can talk”. Since I had to design a game, during my university studies, I found myself thinking about neutral gender aesthetic and the message it conveys; using colors not relatable to any specific gender, or thinking about illustrations that could have avatars with strongly male or female features, allowing the child to be free of any external influences for what concerns his future attitude. We grow by acquiring awareness of what is legit for us to like. A man wearing clothes or utilizing products traditionally related to womankind, for example, is seen by popular culture as ridiculous and embarrassing, and even more the other way around. This mainly happens because womankind is still being considered as the weak sex, representing a weakening factor for man strength and manhood. It’s not about simple preferences regarding a certain product, the object filled with social stereotypes and we feel a sensation of uneasiness as we choose what we simply appreciate the most. But how do we define what’s “male” and what’s “female”? According to the gender determination test known as Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) androgyny is the natural state, since most of the participants identify themselves as androgynous with inclinations towards male and female categories. BSRI was built starting with the hypothesis that the sexually typified person has interiorized the socially accepted standards of the members of the gender he belongs. Gender identity often appears in children between eighteen months and three years of age, according to his self-conscience and the relation with other people. The fact that gender identity is strongly influenced by mass culture was also demonstrated by its numerous changes through the years, especially for what concerns the famous blue and pink colors. At the beginning of the 20s pink was still considered a color that symbolized passion and manhood, for its being originated by red. On the contrary, in a 1918 edition of Earnshaw’s Infants Department, it’s written that “blue, which is more delicate and gracious, appears more suitable to women”. All of this is proof of how fragile is the border between what should be considered male, and what should be considered female, and of how everything keeps changing. “Make it small and pink” it’s the designer’s myth to conquer female buyers, leaving aside the function’s optimization itself.

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Unknown author, Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a child, 1884.

But besides restrooms and toys, one category which still nowadays keeps being full of gender stereotypes is that of the world of cooking. Some product categories, such as the outdoor cooking ones, seem to be dedicated only to the male public. When it comes to grill something, objects are planned and publicized for a target who sees man as the only protagonist. They are, therefore, characterized by a clean design and made of metal with an opaque cap, which makes them heavier compared to women’s products, and often the object is made heavy on purpose since it’s not an inevitable consequence. But besides outdoor cooking accessories, when it comes to home appliances, pots and tools, they are made mostly according to women’s needs, because cooking is considered one of their fundamental tasks. Planning and promoting products by addressing them to a female public is, therefore, more immediate, taking for granted the fact that as women they obviously have to cook, instead of extending the target to every person, considering a man who cooks as a gifted one, or as an artist.

To conclude, design should be a social tool capable of reducing inequality between human beings. Planning has the task of granting comfort and functionality. An inclusive design is the first step for an inclusive world, where one is free to choose what and how it wants to be, without all the social pressure that can be encountered in supermarkets or through the media; by “inclusiveness” we mean taking down the oppressive system which crushes the weak. We were able to see how fast everything changes over the years, everything can be dismantled and readapted. Taking responsibility for starting to plan again from the small details which we have always neglected represents the only tool we have to ensure equality for future generations.

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Bourgeois Louise, Femme Maison, 1947.

Translated into English by Matteo Annechiarico.

Cover: Elena Tonelli, Double face, Milan, 2021.

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Elena Tonelli Author
Born in 1999 in La Spezia, she graduated from the Scientific High School and currently attends the course of studies in Industrial Product Design at the Polytechnic of Milan. Her greatest passions are art and design, but she is also interested in cinema and music.
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