Conchita Wurst, Cyborgs, and Our Postgender Future
When I watched Conchita Wurst sing her way to victory in the Eurovision competition in May 2014, I was thrilled. It wasn’t simply because her win was a triumph for transgender people everywhere (particularly given Putin’s gaybashing) but her unique masculine femininity (or vice versa) points us to a future in which the gender polarity that we feel is “normal” will no longer make sense. Conchita Wurst—the stage persona created by singer Thomas Neuwirth—breaks through drag queen conventions by sporting a full beard and no female prosthetics while wearing false eyelashes, big hair, and a sparkling gown. The transgender impulse challenges the very nature of male and female that has been the foundation of modern culture. It is an impulse toward a transcendence of biology that places a priority on freedom from the dualisms of modernity—masculine/feminine, mind/body, culture/nature—and thereby holds the potential for profound culture change.
Liberation from biology is not only happening among those who are transgender, but it’s also intrinsic to another cultural current: transhumanism. I don’t think it’s an accident that both are gaining momentum now. In fact, there are some fascinating similarities. Both encourage us to defy the limitations of our biology and re-invent what it means to be human. Both depend on technologies that are only coming on line now. Motivated by a drive for transcendence, which is often a spiritual goal, they seek to accomplish it through material means—surgery, implants, drugs, augmentation. Finally, different strains in these two movements envision a postgender future.
How much longer are we going to be able to depend on gender, and reproductive biology, to determine who we are as human beings? While it may be almost unthinkable to realize, identification with being a man or woman may become almost irrelevant to our lives, happiness, and creative contribution to life in the not-so-distant future. How will we ground ourselves and develop a deep sense of self-recognition, meaning, and purpose? I’d like to take a look at the postgender edges that are now emerging, and then contemplate how to develop our humanity so that we don’t become ghosts in a society of machines.
I Dream of Ramona
Postgender societies have been appearing in science fiction for decades. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, written in 1968, was one of the first—a “thought experiment” about a society in which people are “ambisexual,” taking on a specific gender once a month largely for procreation. In a recent series of posts on the science fiction/fantasy site Tor.com, author Alex Dally MacFarlane insists that “post-binary gender” needs to be an essential part of sci fi writing: “People who do not fit comfortably into the gender binary exist in our present, have existed in our past, and will exist in our futures.” In her posts, she notes how deeply gender is embedded in language and explores different approaches that authors have taken to break out of this binary. She asks: “How will languages change in the decades and centuries to come? How will we better express our gender systems—or, reaching far into the future, the gender systems of sentient life we might meet?”
MacFarlane argues that the gender binary is still the default in science fiction, but I would argue that this default is being undermined in surprising ways. Hollywood and the commercial gaming industry churn out images of males and females that are extremely differentiated and hypersexualized. So, the male cyborg is metal plated and muscle bound (the Terminator, Robocop, or Roy Batty from Blade Runner), while the females are often, to use a term from Blade Runner, the “basic pleasure model.” Despite the tendency for female action heroes to be, as Dr. Caroline Heldman says, merely “fighting fuck toys” (think: Lara Croft or Elektra), among the great sci fi heroes, sex doesn’t really matter. Male heroes (for example, Mad Max, Han Solo, Neo, Tony Stark, Jean-Luc Picard) exemplify classically male attributes: physical strength, rugged individualism, sharp intellect, inventiveness, leadership, bravery, power, and aggression. In the dystopian visions of the future that preoccupy our collective imagination, these male heroes are called on to defend and protect, put themselves in the line of fire, and rescue women and the world. They are, in essence, cowboys. But here’s where the tables turn postgender: the truly great female sci fi heroines—Ellen Ripley from Aliens, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and Catniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games—are also cowboys, cowboys with a bit more complexity. Not only are they courageous lone warrior/leaders, they are motivated by classically maternal concerns.
The trouble is that, despite the freedom that sci fi creators have to envision new worlds, really great female heroes are far too few. From Barbarella to the fembots, portrayals of women in science fiction and fantasy more often remind me of I Dream of Jeannie—the sexy, magic companion that fulfills her “master’s” every dream. The Escher Girls tumblr documents the almost comically absurd distortions and inappropriateness of female anime warriors leaping into battle with huge spherical bared breasts, flashing their naked buttocks. Too often visions of the future end up being a projection screen of immature fantasies that hypersexualize both sexes, but hold extreme gender differences in place.
Yet, there is a subversive element to this adolescent male fantasy world that undermines the gender binary that the often hypersexualized images themselves reinforce. Male teens adopting female avatars in gaming or on Second Life, and vice versa for female and male avatars, expands one’s “self” identification beyond the sex/gender with which one might personally and physically identify with. In Second Life, there is a great deal of conscious cross-gender exploration. So many males adopt female avatars that it’s led to the term G.I.R.L.—Guy In Real Life. A prime motivation appears to be sexual: cross-gender roleplaying allows one to explore different aspects of one’s sexuality. Even Ray Kurzweil, the dazzling prophet of our glorious technofuture and a director of engineering at Google, is experimenting with cross-gender virtual reality. He’s created “Ramona” as his virtual reality alter ego who fulfills his fantasy to be a female rock star. (Ramona also hosts chats on Kurzweil’s website.) These experiments with cross gender role playing in virtual reality spaces could lead to a postgender world in Real Life.
The Feminine Invasion of the Masculine Sphere
I’d like to escape from the sci fi warrior world and return to Planet Earth where the gender binary has been under siege since the start of the women’s liberation movement. While it is difficult for us to see clearly now, the changes in expectations for women have already begun to forge a postgender social world. As women stepped from the private feminine sphere of the home into the pubic masculine sphere of work (and politics and so forth), the stark opposition that held the gender binary in place began to soften. Once a new change becomes the norm, it’s almost impossible for us to imagine that life could ever have been another way. We forget that in the nineteenth century well-respected doctors argued that women’s wombs would atrophy if they engaged too much in intellectual pursuits. At this point, given that women have clearly proven their capability and competence across the board., such ideas seem ridiculous. Similarly, it took over one hundred years of agitation by radical women to secure “permission” to wear trousers in public. Women today take for granted that they can wear what had been male-only clothing for hundreds of years.
We don’t yet grant men parallel permission to wear what has been female clothing. This is why Conchita Wurst’s appearance is such a surprise. She isn’t simply cross dressing; she is doing so without giving up her beard or her actual body shape (that is, without full breasts and buttocks). While Conchita is evidence that this is beginning to change, the growing trend for young boys to wear female clothing—simply because they want to—is a larger step toward a postgender world. These boys are not necessarily gay, nor straight, but are asking for, and getting, permission to play with the full range of appearance and behavior that male and female have encompassed.
The liberation of women and men to explore and to be the entire range of human possibilities will only be further enhanced by new technologies. The biological difference between men and women in relation to human reproduction has been foundational to the creation of a gender divided culture. Advanced reproductive technologies will make the biological differences between the sexes less and less relevant. What will it mean to be biologically female when advance reproductive technologies enable healthy infants to grow outside a living womb? What will it mean to be a male when technology could even enable men to bear children? How will we envision our robot helpers who won’t ever actually be male or female, and how, in turn, will that affect how we see ourselves? Gender means nothing to robots. As we begin to replace parts of ourselves or perhaps have more options for our embodiment, would we continue to create ourselves as distinctly male and female? Why would we?
Keeping the “Trans” in Transgender
Recently, I read two different accounts of young adults who were in the midst of making the transition from one sex to another and then stopped. They stopped the process because they realized that becoming the supposedly opposite sex wasn’t what was driving them. One said that s/he didn’t want to go from one “box” to another. Reinstating a gender binary by switching from one side to the other misses the radical potential in the trans impulse.
While, clearly, some human beings feel that they are trapped in the “wrong” body, as a developmental psychologist, I wonder if this is may be an issue of cognitive development. Our culture emphasizes the gender binary, and at a certain level of cognitive development, our minds are capable of thinking only in binary terms. In this case, culture and mind may reinforce each other, leading a small but very real percentage of us to believe that the sex of the body that they have is not who they should be. If our culture would begin to see that gender and sex encompass a range, with “purely” masculine males and feminine females being the extremes of an entire range, then would there be less need or impulse toward sex reassignment? In other words, in the future, will most of us be “trans” in relation to the gender polarity we have now, and the “fringe” will be the masculine and feminine poles at either end of the spectrum?
The capacity for us to think “trans” rather than binary is a new and evolving one. The very structure of modern culture has been built on the binary distinction between two sexes with two genders: male/masculine and female/feminine. This is also the foundation of our identity—who we most deeply think we are. What becomes of us if we no longer have sex/gender as the foundation of our selves or our culture? How do we anchor ourselves in relationship and purpose if the sex of our bodies no longer hold a significant purpose that guides how we live our lives?
As I see it, we have two different paths to follow. The deconstruction of this polarized gender binary and questioning “woman” and “man” as monolithic categories follows an evolutionary logic. Eventually the polarity between male and female that currently has such a hold on our imaginations will cease. Life evolves toward diversity, and human life, even our sense of identity, grows toward greater differentiation. Our drive to individuate, to become unique individuals, is a movement toward differentiation. We can continue with this movement in relation to our gender identities and create a plethora of masculine/feminine/neutral ways to be human. I become a unique gender, which sets me apart. However, what then would bind us? Insecurity, fragmentation, and alienation could easily overcome us, leaving us increasingly separate and alienated from each other or from a core sense of self. How can one have a core if who we are is so malleable?
The other pathway, one that is emerging at the edge of culture now, would be to differentiate in the context of unity. Beyond and before our realization of separate or differing embodiment is the unity of consciousness that is the foundation of all creation.
The cultural momentum toward post-traditional forms of spirituality expresses the longing that individuals feel for a deeper foundation of self. The realization of Being that goes beyond the separate self provides a context for difference within wholeness. Difference can only truly be engaged with from a place of unity, as a shared human project. Rather than rooting our self in binary difference or in increasingly fragmented me-genders, our various expressions of humanity can find an anchor in the ground of nonseparation from which all differences arise. This depth that is prior to gender holds the potential to liberate us to create a postgender culture that is, literally, wholesome.