Illustration for article titled Not he. Not she. Instagram posts use forklifts, basketball hoops, and cartoons to define gender

Gender is a social construct. Gender is a drag. Gender is over.

Gender has become a battleground of modern identity politics, and as the old regime of binaries comes falling down, the spectrum of possibility is widening—but the vocabulary hasn't yet. With words lacking, aesthetics are now playing a large role. On Tumblr and Instagram, people are expressing what their gender is in new ways, by, for example, defining it as a brightly colored piece of construction equipment:

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I saw this photo in my Instagram feed recently and was shocked at how easily I understood what the poster was getting at. OF COURSE! This photo elegantly describes a gender with a butch sense of utility and a femme sense of flair. This single object says so much more than trying to verbally describe some balance of masculine and feminine, and instead opens up the idea of gender to include ANYTHING, and in doing so points out how we gender EVERYTHING.

And then I noticed that quite a few people were posting photos like this with the caption, "This is my gender." When I spoke to a friend of mine, Scott Reed, about the phenomenon, he said he uses the tag often on Instagram. “A lot of mine are food related," he said. "An airport burger and three glasses of white wine, or eating pastrami at Sherman’s outside under the misters in Palm Springs.” The posts aren't always easy to find, since people don't seem to be using a hashtag at the moment, but the ones I have found have been downright poetic.

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A basketball hoop amid a pink flowering tree gives you far more information than checking a box labeled "male" "female" or "other."

The images that succeed are ones that juxtapose two different ideas; an artful representation of what might otherwise be considered a gray area on the spectrum of gender. A piece of construction equipment doesn’t inherently have a gender, but we very well may assign it some masculine qualities. Labeling inanimate objects with the caption “this is my gender” is part mind-expanding exercise, part self-aware social critique; a new way to bring nuance to the gender conversation.

The trend of defining one’s gender via visual language appears to have started on Tumblr, one of the first platforms to favor aesthetics over text and a natural home for people seeking out kindred communities. Interestingly, the translation of gender into images actually appears to have originated with trolls who were mocking a list of genders compiled on Tumblr that includes 113 different names, everything from Genderqueer to some less familiar identifiers such as Astralgender and Epicene.


Sadly, for every person that identifies as a non-binary gender, there seems to be a troll waiting with a meme, and so began the 'mayo meme.'

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While the trolls may have been the first to make the leap from defining gender with terms to making fun of those terms with images, queers seem to have reclaimed the practice and turned it into something more.

Smashing the binary gender system isn't easy, and at times the line between sincerity and absurdity might be as fuzzy as a sinister fox with a ruffled bib.


But what started as a troll attacking the idea that gender could be anything, has turned into a useful way to describe gender without the shackles of words.

This is my gender identity.

— Dan (@danmappart) June 16, 2016

While it might feel cumbersome and downright ridiculous to describe your gender as "body-building, bearded drag queen pushing a person in a brightly colored wheelchair yielding semi-automatic weapons," the photo seems to do the trick nicely. A million thought pieces have been written about how platforms like Tumblr and Instagram illustrate time and time again how a picture is worth a thousand words, but what we don't always talk about is how images can actually free us not just from the quantity of words needed, but also from the burden of their rigid definitions.


What is implicit in any binary system is that one side of the spectrum is favored over the other; binaries exists to reinforce power structures. We live in a time where we are actively trying to break down those structures in favor of a more nuanced understanding of identity. In a world where black and white, male and female, gay and straight are inadequate descriptors, how do we fill in the multitude of identities that lie between two words?

A humble request: label your favorite objects as gender descriptor posts with the hashtag #mygender so that we can all follow along as we topple the binary oppositions of Western structuralism, one Instagram post at a time.


Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.

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