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Gender and Self-Expression in the Time of the Plague

An underreported side effect of the pandemic has been the effect of widespread insecurity on people’s sense of self. In their 2021 study, researchers Gibbons and Thorton found that the changing social environment of the pandemic allowed people to “experiment with how they express their identity”. With this widespread focus on self-improvement throughout the pandemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that an increased number of young people have experienced qualms about their gender identity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an erosive effect on many societal norms we previously took for granted. We have already witnessed lifestyle changes en masse on a fundamental level—from people moving from metropolitan to regional areas to the Great Resignation taking place in the United States. Young people in particular purport to be increasingly motivated to seek psychological help and wellbeing incentives, with almost 21 million requests for mental health-related services such as therapy and counselling processed between March 2020 and September 2021 throughout Victoria. Social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have seen increased posts, reels, and other ephemera related to mental health and self-improvement. Between the 1st of May 2018 and the 31st of March 2019, approximately 5.26 billion social media accounts were exposed to conversations or exchanges about wellness, which writer Joei Chan attributes to a growing rise of wellness and New Age movements.

An underreported side effect of the pandemic has been the effect of widespread insecurity on people’s sense of self. In their 2021 study, researchers Gibbons and Thorton found that the changing social environment of the pandemic allowed people to “experiment with how they express their identity”. With this widespread focus on self-improvement throughout the pandemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that an increased number of young people have experienced qualms about their gender identity.

In public and professional settings, gender norms and conventions have always been restrictive. Recent graduate Rachel finds that, in public contexts where she can be physically perceived, her body “limits” her: “My face and my body are so obviously feminine, and I hate the idea that people are aware of this.” Similarly, even after lockdowns, actor Marissa “still discovers ways” that she performs femininity: “second-guessing myself in professional situations, over-explaining, being ‘nice’, having to care about what I wear”. Such concessions equate in Marissa’s mind to “giving power away in social and professional situations, [and] defaulting to cis men”.

A particularly salient influence on the growing number of young people questioning their identity has been the specific lack of opportunities to perform for others socially. Marissa says the “downtime” afforded by the COVID-19 quarantine gave her a chance to think about her gender expression and identity. “Whilst I have spent many years fighting for equality, and against misogyny, I have never questioned certain aspects of ‘being a woman’ and what that means to me, beyond the assumption that I am because of my sex.” University of Kansas researcher Briana McGeough states that, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, “isolation likely insulated people from social norms and allowed them to think about their identities in a new way”.

This hearkens back to an idea popularised by Judith Butler, that people become gendered only by seeing and being seen. In “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, Butler states that gender identity is “instituted through a stylised repetition of acts”, and an “active process of embodying certain cultural and historical” norms. As Columbia Spectator writer Temi George states, “one’s presence in social contexts motivates and perpetuates gendered behaviour”. Based on interviews and research conducted throughout 2021, writers Verbowski and Driscoll found that isolation enables people “to take a break from the constant demands of social gender performance”. According to George, “lockdowns disrupted these ‘normal’ modes of socialisation that performance depends upon”. This lack of pressure to perform for others has enabled people to question the value of such learned behaviour in their lives. For Marissa, realising her queerness was “in equal parts scary, exciting, and confusing”. “I have come to be happy and feel complete in the confusion. [It’s] such a different way of being and identifying than the absoluteness, perfectionism, and, conversely, shame that has been just accepting the binary in all things”.

Before lockdown, arts worker Sarah says that the way she expressed herself was influenced by society and the pressure to perform femininity for other people. “I didn’t even know there were other ways to perform or express myself. I always thought that because I was female, I must be feminine at all times.” Sarah credits the online platform TikTok with spurring her exploration. The pandemic saw a rapid, necessary transition to online life, where pre-existing trans and gender-diverse communities were strengthened. Searching ‘genderfluid’ on TikTok presents more than 500 million results, many videos having been created by young adults. Through exploring identity via online platforms, “I found myself being able to fully tune into what being feminine or masculine means for me,” says Sarah, “and that you can present yourself in both ways, and how liberating that is.”

COVID-19 necessitated moving much of our lives online, including daily hobbies, work, and education. Clinical social worker Rebecca Minor tells writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich that, thanks to online work and schooling, the “peer gaze isn’t entirely gone, but now it can be controlled”. Ordinarily, societal norms would be incidentally policed through interactions as minor as walking down the street, choosing what to wear to a club, or going into the office. However, during COVID-19, Rachel found the flexibility afforded by working from home to be liberating: “the other people in the call have no clue what you look like. … I don’t want to be a body that is used to deliver ideas … I just want to be my ideas. Camera off; you’ve got no idea what I look like! And therefore, you’ve got no biases!” The ability to selectively filter our spheres of social interaction and how we present ourselves has relaxed the formerly cast-iron conventions of behaviour ascribed to different genders.

For many young people, quarantine and self-isolation provided opportunities to explore gender identity and expression. The pandemic has instigated widespread change in social dynamics and created more opportunities for self-reflection. As a result, more and more people have purportedly come to re-examine their identity, their gender, and the fundamental truths constituting how they relate to the world around them. However, George questions whether these ways of reconceiving gender will stick once society emerges post-pandemic. According to George, since presenting non-normative gender identities in public is “undesirable” and “dangerous”, it is difficult to predict how this gender reconfiguration will continue post-pandemic.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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