The stock photo accompanies an article about Germany’s legal recognition of intersex infants. Even though the photo has been chosen to embody the “third gender” mentioned in the headline, we have to begin by calling the figure in this photo a woman, for we cannot see a third gender until we define one of the primary two. The woman has porcelain perfect skin. Hair helmeted in a glossy pixie, she wears a stiff white shirt like a cross between a chef’s uniform and a spacesuit. (All the great sci-fi writers have known that the future of gender is a space-age matter, and so does this woman.) With a finger white as the tracks left by the moon she traces a translucent box hovering in the air in front of her. Is the box gender itself? She is outside of it, but she also appears to be able to move it at her whim. She does not smile, nor does she frown. Instead she is intent, full of purpose about the task ahead of her: she has to embody the Future of Gender. Too bad for her that we can only speak of the future in the language of now.
Lately I have become interested in stock images, specifically in stock photos supposed to represent gender neutrality. Even conventionally gendered stock photos are designed to remove specificity. A stock image is a photo of a conceptual container—“woman at work smiling”—instead of a particularity—“Linnea Jessup smiles at her computer at re/max Realty on 23rd Street.” The stock image container is supposed to be able to convey the essence of its shell (woman, work) while avoiding the messy precision of time, context, and social location. Yet few stock photos attempt to remove gender, perhaps the most basic lens through which we see the world. The ones that do are illustrative in their failure. Experiment: type “androgynous” into the Corbis search engine and see if you can will yourself outside gender.
What happened? Did you change the way you see? Did categories other than gender assert their primacy—categories of emotional valence or social class or aspects of embodiment so subtle they can’t yet be named? Or did you see, maybe, a striking light-skinned African American man with a body as sensuous and coyly curled as a comma, naked except for a smudge of red on his lips? Or a white girl with arched eyebrows and a white V-neck T, scalp stubble short as a wheat field after harvest?
If you’re hearing the edge in my tone you’re right: I set you up for failure. Even the construction of our sentences—modifier followed by noun—demands that we make gender primary: a white man, an old woman. “Insofar as social existence requires an unambiguous gender affinity, it is not possible to exist in a socially meaningful sense outside of established gender norms.” Judith Butler published that statement in a 1986 issue of Praxis International. This was before she’d written Gender Trouble or any other book, only two years after she received her PhD—so early, in fact, that it is almost ontologically prior to Judith Butler herself, if such a priority can be imagined. So why do we continue to think it possible to step outside gender?
Because stock images are meant to represent and then recede, it is hard to think about them for what they are not. But let’s try, with the Third Gender woman with whom we began. Remember her? She is not black. She is not old. She is not having fun. She is not adorned. She is not fat. She is not asymmetrical. She is not her own specificity. But is she ungendered? That, too, she is not.
Stock photos are like cops: they help enforce norms. It took millions of repetitions for us to associate women and salad, but now the deed is done and there’s no going back. Unless we remove the stock from its context, bring it to the surface like whiteness and see it for what it is. This is the joy of “Women Laughing Alone with Salad.” Separated from the articles they’re meant to illustrate—on healthy eating or work/life balance, say—the salad-eating women become funny. Their laughter is obviously effortful, their poses contrived. We consider that they would probably rather be eating cake. The only hope for us to emerge from the normative weight of the stock image is to peel back the veneer of corporate laughter and find the real laughter underneath.
Most stock photos of gender neutral people are of women so neutered that they approach—though never fully achieve—the masculine. This is because man is original. Strip enough woman from the woman and you get something close to man. But you can’t strip the man from the man. You can only adorn him. This is why stock photos of gender neutral or androgynous men rely on the shock of the ornament: a glimpse of pearl necklace, carmine lipstick on lips boldly pursed, earrings unfettered. These men are appropriate for studio art stock photo shoots, not for going out in public. A man with lipstick out in public is mocked or worse, because he is failing to be a man—a crime more unconscionable than failing to be a woman by a hundredfold. And yet, even he is not outside gender: he is a failure of a man but a man still.
There was a time when I attempted to step outside gender, to be the woman in the astro-nautical chef uniform manipulating the translucent box of ideology. Or rather, to be the person. To become interchangeable. To become stock.
1995, my friend Alison’s house. Her mother was chronically ill, and so the house had an antiseptic quality: eggshell walls and carpet, high-end frozen dinners that left no residue of smell when taken out of the microwave. They had a dining room left darkened and shuttered, used only for special occasions. I had been to Seders at their house and they didn’t use it then, so when, I often wondered, would be special enough? Standing in the foyer next to that forbidden room I felt something in my body release, like the landing gear on a plane, and I went into the bathroom and there was the telltale smear of rust.
I didn’t mind being girl—the general category. Contrary to the prevailing narrative I was not trapped in the wrong body. But there in my underwear was the irrevocable sign that I was a woman. Being a woman made me the embodiment of a story that was not my own.
I turned to ballet. See, I was never a tomboy. I loved all ballet’s trappings: instep arches and pointe shoe rosin and the line of a proper arabesque. But most of all I loved how ballet allowed me to become neutral. The ideal was like the Third Gender woman: no breasts or only the slightest hint of them, a hard flat line from the clavicle to the legs, narrow hips, zero butt. George Balanchine—the man who invented modern ballet and defines its aesthetic still—didn’t want women. He wanted girls.
It was the discipline that saved me, meting my food out and going to class every day and swimming on the weekends. I was fifty pounds lighter than I am now and there was no one who could look at my body and say, That is a woman. My body was a plateau, hard and flat. Through force of will I stopped menstruating for years. The studios were all mirrors, and I spent hours looking at myself. Some days I thought I might have really achieved it, I might have become stock.
If you search a stock photo site for an action, like “running,” you’ll have to deal with the gendered modifiers: “Young Woman Running in Forest.” Even pictures of abstractions like “sad” are typically captioned this way: “Girl Crying,” etc. (It goes without saying that this is a white girl—if it were a black girl crying the caption would say, “African American Girl Crying.”) I could imagine a “sad” image of a gender indeterminate person, but it probably wouldn’t be successful. We would be so busy trying to figure out the gender of the person we would forget to be sad.
The other day I made a cartoon version of myself with the program Bitmoji. Choose a gender, the program prompts in the first step. A couple years ago this command would have paralyzed me. Now I view it as a necessary evil. Imagine starting with some other choice—a hairstyle or kind of shirt. You have to choose these farther down the line, but they aren’t the most basic. Gender comes before everything else; it is the plane on top of which we accessorize. When I was trying to be gender neutral, I sought to strip myself down to this plane. I could be just a surface, general. What I didn’t realize is that the general is always specific. Peel back the curtain and the plane of no-gender becomes a serious white woman with short hair in a spacesuit. There’s nothing general about her, but such is the power of stock.
Thirty-two years old and I’m already a curmudgeon. I am becoming the kind of person who says, In my day our words were better. In my day—when did my media desirability peak? maybe five, six years ago?—genderqueer was the thing. I heard it and found my umbrella, my pashmina-lined cardboard box, my sensuous-voiced GPS. In college I’d read Michel de Certeau’s essays on the power of ordinary people “making do” with what they are given. The city planners design the layout of the streets, but the cabbies are the ones who figure out the back ways, the alley entrances, the detournements. This is genderqueer—but it is already out of style. Kids these days like to pretend there was never a city planner at all. Agender is the new thing. Though genderqueer, gender neutral, and agender are often conflated (these definitions tend not to be rigorous), agender seeks by its very ontology to go beyond neutrality. It does not seek a space between, it rejects the spectrum itself. An Internet photo series titled “This Is What Agender Looks Like” consists of selfies of people who look genderqueer. Except we all know now that it doesn’t matter how you look; it only matters how you identify.
Yes, I resent them. I resent them for trying to get outside gender. Who do they think they are? Can’t they realize that what everyone sees when they look at their selfie is not the absence of gender but a boy with eye shadow, a girl in a tie?
I am not as empathic as I should be because I have not fully forgiven myself for failing to overcome gender. I’d been making do for so long that I’d forgotten others didn’t know my secret alleys. Maybe a decade ago, my ballet days long done, my failure began to emerge. I began to realize how many times I was being told, You are a woman. Maybe this is just what it means to grow up. When waiters called us ladies, when standing in a line of women in a crowded bathroom labeled women, women told me by being in front of me and behind me and looking at me like Can you believe this line? that I was a woman just like them. All those years I thought I had neutralized my body I was wrong. I had failed to become stock.
Have you ever tried to look at a person whose gender you didn’t know, I mean, really didn’t know, and really and truly look long and hard at them? They compel you, but the cognitive dissonance makes it hard to keep looking. In public, you force yourself to turn away as if from the scene of an accident or facial malformation. I’ve done it myself. I did it when our transgender support group switched from just transmasculine to all transgender people, and I tried to hide the panic I felt as I looked around the room and struggled to discern who started male and was trying to get to female and vice versa, who had already arrived in their chosen gender, who wasn’t planning on choosing a gender but I still need to know where you started.
Maybe this is my problem, or our problem. Maybe we should be the ones changing. But I suspect it’s impossible. I suspect we’re hardwired to seek categories. This is the lie at the heart of agender, the lie that hurts me in my moments of feeling like a fragile child and not the empathic adult I want to be. I look at these agender kids, who are all on real or metaphorical college campuses, and I say, try living in the real world. I don’t just mean checking a box on a form. I mean, try changing the very way we see. What I am really saying is: It was hard for me, and I failed, and because I failed I want you to fail, too.
I wondered for a long time whether my decision to take testosterone was a capitulation or an exultation. Some three years ago I had my breasts surgically removed; I thought this would be the end. After all, I had finally erased the excess of womanhood that I’d tried so hard to remove back in ballet class, so many years before. But something was missing. “My chest . . . no longer looked like a proud distinction of androgyny. I looked like a blank slate, waiting . . .” (Thomas McBee, Man Alive). There’s something in that word: “androgyny.” I’ve never quite liked it. Maybe because it seems that to be androgynous you have to be painfully stylish all the time. Or maybe the resonances are at the root of the word: andro like android, like a robot, like something replaceable.
The fact is, getting my breasts removed made me realize everything else I had tried to remove. I thought to myself, This is no way to live. I began to add.
There were certain images that I kept returning to. Mostly of transgender men that I knew, or friends of friends. I returned to them obsessively. These men had style, pilling cardigans and floral baseball caps and all. Their nouveau barbershop cuts were of the zeitgeist but you couldn’t reduce them to a representation, because there was always something that bound them to the moment they were in, unlike the Third Gender woman, removed from her own time, shunted into the future. It was then that I began to realize the emptiness at the core of the gender neutral stock image I’d been trying to embody, the abstraction that led to nothing, like a novel so universal no one can know it for themselves.
How I Learned to Love the Gender Binary—is that really what this essay has become? Maybe. All I can say is that now I have a wisp of a moustache and a voice coarse as untreated wool. That I continue to search the Internet for ankle pants, the only kind that fit my inseam. That I’ve instituted a five-day-a-week oatmeal regimen to keep my cholesterol levels in check. That I have great form in Triangle Pose and love my own smile. Every morning I arrive in myself again, corporeally. I have just started to stop asking the question, How can I negate the woman in me? and to begin to ask, What kind of a man am I?
It is only when you embrace the category that you’re free to transcend it. A Believer magazine infographic compiles “Non-Essential Stock Photographs.” There is the hazy outline of something that could be a state called “Almost Wisconsin.” There is the eponymous “Chicken Legs on Asparagus Cans.” Another apt title: “Sneakers, Kibble, Screws.” There is joy in this excessive specificity. Imagine a picture of chicken legs on asparagus cans on the wall of the dentist’s office, instead of the gauzy paintings of flowers that are meant to be looked through, not at.
We take stock and we stock up. We ready the things we expect our bodies to need in the future. But when we stock up for the future, what version of ourselves are we stocking for? The only certainty that we have is that our bodies will change.
But go ahead, lay in some cans. When the storm finally arrives, strange and purple around the edges, it will catch you outside and unprotected anyway. When you find your way back to the pantry you will discover the shelves on the floor and the cans dented—and that’s when you will know it is time to build a new home.