Genderless? Not quite

Three colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mississippi sat down and had a “sociological jam session” after reading the recent NYT article on “genderless danshi” (genderless Japanese men)sport-1685854_1920

Who can “play” with gender?

Judith Butler’s concept of “masquerade” has always thrown me for a loop. When I first read her work, I was excited by the possibility of “gender play” and wanted to believe in the idea that it could bring down the gender structure, one bodily subversion at a time. But I was always asking, “Where do these people go to work every day? Can they really do masquerade and still get paid?” I was stuck on how the organizational structure keeps us all in line and I still find myself focused on the conditions under which people are “at risk of gender assessment.” Toman, a model and pop band member in Japan, and other young musicians and talent agents wear make up and play with fashion that is seen as traditionally feminine, but continue to define themselves as men. Their work in an artistic field may allow for the embrace of a more fluid gender presentation. And it actually may be required because that “look” makes money! The article mentions that “genderless danshi” was a term “coined by a talent agent” interested in “capitalizing on their social media followings to market fans.”  What about fast food workers? Construction workers? Teachers? Bankers? Can they engage in gender play and still get paid? What “aesthetic labor” is required in their workplaces? Even if Toman and other danshi turn out to be cultural trendsetters who open up the rigid binary bodily performance of gender across more societal work contexts in Japan and beyond, it’s going to take more than men wearing foundation and eye shadow to take down a system of masculine power.

– Kirsten Dellinger, Professor of Sociology

What does “genderless” mean?

In Transgender History, Susan Stryker describes gender as “the social organization of different kinds of bodies into different groups of people.” These different groups of people are sorted into varying degrees of power, privilege, and prestige in society. Knowing this, the New York Times article about “genderless danshi” Japanese men made me pause. These hip young men, reports the NY Times, are genderless because they are “bending fashion gender norms, dyeing their hair, inserting colored contacts and wearing brightly colored lipstick.” To drive this point home, one interviewee, who is described as dressing like a “preadolescent girl,” asserts, “At heart, I am a man” but then goes on to say that gender “isn’t really necessary.” This made me think: is he genderless? Sure, his style of dress opens up space for a femininely adorned body to be a man’s body (notably as part of a boy band). But doesn’t his remark also reinforce the essentialist belief that males are at their “heart” men? What about those who refuse the signifiers women or men altogether? Are they also free and safe as they blur gender lines?  In the interviews, heterosexuality is a proxy of masculine power. With references to their fan base – depicted as “screaming” young women – danshi men protect their status as men as they keep the institution of heterosexuality intact. These are just men who like to wear make-up and skinny jeans.

– Amy McDowell, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Is this another Western reading of Asian men?

My first reaction to this NYT article on a “genderless danshi” who wears make-up was: “Oh, once again, here’s another Western media portrayal of Japanese men as exotic and feminine.” In the West, Asian men are often portrayed as being feminine. This emasculation of Asian men is rooted in Orientalist notions of the Other. Edward Said (1979) argues that the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western [masculine] superiority and Oriental [feminine] inferiority. But the Western gaze has it all wrong. Here, flowing cloth and gentle curves in the sleeves are aesthetics of high-class masculinity in Asian culture. K-pop and J-pop stars are some of the “coolest”: they wear eyeliner, pink lip-gloss, heavy make-up to create porcelain-looking skin, remove their facial hair, and don skinny pants and frilly shirts. Women, young and old, love these nice, sweet, soft and gentle “flower boys.”  They are neither “genderless” nor “asexual.” They are what some would call “chick magnets.” While these “genderless danshi” wish to think that wearing makeup and nail polish is about fashion, not sexualities, to me, the danshi actively perform a very specific, trending, and cool heterosexuality. In part, it may be the Western reading of Japanese culture that blinds us to this interpretation.

– Minjoo Oh, Associate Professor of Sociology

Our final note

According to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranked 101 out of 135 countries in terms of female professional, economic, and political empowerment. Does men wearing makeup and receiving manicures make Japanese men genderless? We think not. “Genderless” becomes meaningless when we hear men defined as “blurring style distinctions” explain that “I think men should protect women… Men are stronger than women, and a man should work because women are weaker.”  Yet, the very fact that danshi feel the need to defend their maleness and heterosexuality to others might mean that they are doing something to disrupt the sex/gender/sexuality system.


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