In 2017, it is still a head-turner to see somebody with a penis in a dress. Culture tells us that boys play with cars, girls play with dolls, and dresses are reserved for the ‘fairer sex’. ‘Gender Blender’, a new permanent exhibition at Aarhus Women’s Museum, aims to challenge such boundaries.
by Elizabeth Waind, photos by Kvindemuseet Aarhus
We have long fought for the freedom to define who we are and who we want to be, and to live without prejudice or discrimination based upon our identity. In recent years this freedom has increasingly been considered a basic human right that is challenged by deep-set cultural constructs and societal expectations. The fight for the rights of the gay community eventually led to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Denmark in 2012; and the feminist movement has experienced multiple waves throughout recent history, the current surge seeing, amongst other issues, a fight for equal rights in the workplace and an end to everyday sexism.
Now, after a millennia of living in the roles of men and women according to the expectations pressed upon us, the boundaries of gender itself are being challenged in the search for freedom to live without the pressure of expectation.
Challenging the status-quo
Back in March, a new permanent exhibition called ‘Gender Blender’ opened at Aarhus Women’s Museum. The aim of the exhibition is to question the role that gender plays in society and to encourage visitors to think properly about how social expectations of gender affect themselves and those around them, perhaps without them even noticing.
To emphasise that gender and sexuality are not polar but can exist at any point along a spectrum, the exhibition begins with an abacus-style interactive game, with four sliders labelled as follows: gender identity; biological sex; gender expression; and sexual orientation. The aim is to encourage the visitor to consider their own identity and where it lies along the spectrum. Later, a list containing 68 different gender types, each accompanied by their own individual gender symbols, demonstrates that gender is much more complex than simply male or female.
Children’s toys, items of clothing and even tea created ‘especially for women’ and branded ‘Womankind’ are displayed to demonstrate how such things uphold gender constructs in everyday life. An FC Barcelona women’s shirt from 2008 is noted for being totally inappropriate for playing football: “It is a fitted female model which you can wear as a fan of the male team (and look nice at the same time).” Only in 2017 has the Danish women’s national football team started to wear shirts designed for them to actually play in (they came second place to the Netherlands in the recent UEFA Women’s Euro 2017). The display aims to unveil the not-so-hidden everyday clichés that uphold the gender divide to demonstrate that, in reality, we are all the same and therefore deserve to live as so.
Gender through history
Since the dawn of humanity men and women, historically based upon biological differences between the sexes, have held different roles within society. In a timeline that goes all the way back to 22,000 BC with the Venus of Willendorf figurine – discovered in 1908 and believed to represent female fertility – ‘Gender Blender’ highlights some of the most notable elements of gender history.
Denmark has always been a nation at the forefront of working towards greater freedom and equality. In 1930, Danish artist Lili Elbe underwent the world’s first ever sex-change operation, inspiring recent film ‘The Danish Girl’ starring Eddie Redmayne. The surgery itself was carried out in Germany, but Elbe was able to have her name and sex legally changed in Denmark, obtaining a passport in her new name. Elbe lived as a woman for 14 months before she died due to complications as a result of her surgery.
Although in 2012 Denmark was only the eighth country in Europe and the eleventh in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, in 1989 it became the first country worldwide to officially recognise same-sex partnerships. The 1989 law allowed same-sex couples to obtain the same legal frames for their cohabitation as in marriage, and it wasn’t until 1993 that another nation – Norway – followed suit.
Now, in 2017, Denmark has become the first country in the world to remove transgender from the list of mental illnesses. The country has furthermore put pressure on the World Health Organisation to remove transgender from the international list of mental illnesses, but with no success so far. No other country has yet followed suit in removing it from their list.
Gender of the future
Society is beginning to break down the boundaries of gender, accepting that it is a product of culture rather than biology, and viewing it in a more fluid way. Perhaps we are living in the age of gender blending, but at the end of the exhibition’s timeline we are reminded that the future of gender equality remains unclear.
A number of ongoing issues are highlighted: the division of parental leave; equal pay; career choices; birth control; single mothers and fathers; gender-related violence; transgenders; embryo technology; and so on… Hopefully, as society becomes more conscious of the need to tackle such issues, we will see the ‘Gender Blender’ timeline continue to grow.
For more information about the ‘Gender Blender’ exhibition, and for practical information about visiting the Women’s Museum, click here. Entry to the museum (Domkirkepladsen 5, Aarhus C) is 65 DKK for adults and 50 DKK for students.