Is Gender Flipping the Norm?

It’s hard not to be tickled by the new “gender flipping” meme making the rounds of late, which gently pokes fun at the media’s tendency for absurd hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine imagery and stereotypes. Basically, the meme “flips” the gender of ads/book covers/movies posters/etc., turning female images into male ones and vice-versa, thus rendering them absurd.

The broad meme, which works on everything from video games to music to the very English language, is a simple, attention-getting, and hilarious way of raising awareness of gender expectations.

Advertising flips are the easiest, since women’s semi-nude bodies have long been used to sell everything from toothpaste to monster trucks. In ad gender flips, we get a lot of faux ads of semi-nude men in goofy and improbable positions: buff models crawling pants-less on countertops, celebrity males in topless come-hither poses, and serious cases of duck face, “pin-up boys” wagging their butts at the camera.

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It all makes you wonder why so little has changed on Madison Avenue since the 1960s.

Comic books and video games have long been guilty of promoting hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine stereotypes, making them a particularly juicy source of genderflips as well. Here we get “Lawrence Croft,” raiding tombs in little more than a pair of bike shorts, and the nerd-tastic The Hawkeye Initiative, which takes sexily posed female comic characters and replaces them with Hawkeye doing the same.

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These projects are important because they help make space for women in historically male realms, and help young men see beyond the stereotype of mega-muscled, gun-toting masculinity.

But my personal favorite example of gender flipping is the “coverflip,” wherein “guy” books are given the “women’s fiction” treatment, with pastel colors and misty photos of pensive-looking girls, and girly books get bro-ed up with graphic black-and-white. Inspired by YA fiction writer Maureen Johnson, who says she regularly gets emails from male readers complaining they’re embarrassed to read her pink-covered books in public, coverflipping now has its own Tumblr. Highlights: John le Carré’s Cold War spy classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy done up in pink and baby blue with four model-like men lounging provocatively on the jacket, Freedom by “Jane Franzen” featuring a manic pixie dream girl raising her arms to the wind, Titanic-style.

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Recently, a bunch of male sci-fi authors, acknowledging the genre’s particularly egregious gender imagery, posed half naked on a fake book cover for charity.

Scifi authors pose half-naked on this genderflipped book cover—for charity

These coverflips are especially potent because readers are often less-than-consciously aware of the gendered nature of book covers. But, consciously or not, men will shy away from covers that say “women’s fiction,” whether they shriek it in hot pink or whisper it with vintage fonts and arty photos of tenderly cupped hands.

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Lord of the Flies/The Frisky

And, perhaps, if more men read “women’s fiction” it would cease to be “women’s fiction” at all, and simply become what male-written novels have long been called: “fiction.”

The book cover flip is especially good because it takes the flip out of the realm of the hypothetical and presents the two different scenarios next to one another in stark contrast. Visual genderflips are so effective because they tend to highlight the way the same visual signifiers are assigned to “male” and “female”-oriented products, and how visual representations of people tend to cater to the male gaze. Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from rental cars to tampons. Women are presented too often not as consumers of the product, but part of the product – a sexy body sexily getting ready to surf, or a sexy body sexily wearing American Apparel. We’re used to seeing women look sexy and undressed in ads, while men in ads tend to just wear the clothes properly while also looking handsome in the face area.

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Men, of course, are also bombarded with unrealistic images of how they should look and act – there’s no denying that. But we’ve become accustomed to a much higher level of stylized, silly, overtly sexy images of women, ones that present them as primarily sexual – which is why similar images of men are jarring.

Another gut-busting–and deeply important–gender flip can be found on the new Tumblr, Flip the News. Here, stories from mainstream news outlets get their pronouns flipped. Suddenly, men are obsessed with their fertility and profiles of male leaders begin with assessments of their shoe collections. There have already been plenty of serious criticisms mounted against the news media’s vexing habit of focusing on women’s domestic abilities and womb status; these gender flips add to the critique in a playful, social media-friendly way.

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Walk A Mile

And then we come to putting yourself in a situation where you can actually have the experience of being treated as the opposite gender. One man copped an earful of abuse from two dudes when playing Mass Effect 3 online under his wife’s gamertag – abuse which became even nastier when they realized “she” was better than them. Management consultant Kim O’Grady blogged last week about having no luck in his job hunt for months – before he added “Mr” to his resume and got an interview for the very next job he applied for. He concludes his post with a thought:

Where I had worked previously, there was a woman manager. She was the only one of about a dozen at my level, and there were none at the next level. She had worked her way up through the company over many years and was very good at her job. She was the example everyone used to show that it could be done, but that most women just didn’t want to. It’s embarrassing to think I once believed that. It’s even more incredible to think many people still do.

What Can We Do?

All this flipping and flopping is part of a process. The basic skill to develop, though, is the one that lies at the heart of flipping: asking, “What if?” If I were a woman, would I talk to me at parties? If I were writing about a male musician, would I talk about his clothes and his famous exes this much? If I drew Hawkeye in the pose I’m sketching Black Widow in right now, would he look ridiculous?  If we were to genderflip Romeo and Juliet what would we realize is socially engrained in our minds as what women do and what men do?

The Hawkeye Initiative and Flip The News won’t make us all into enlightened, thoughtful social justice warriors overnight, but those moments of epiphany and empathy add up. By the spring, our Drama Club will hopefully think more on this, will find out something more about themselves as we study a different Romeo and Juliet.  Social change happens slowly – often so gradually, you don’t even notice until it’s all around you.


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