National Geographic’s ‘gender revolution’ cover fails women

This week, National Geographic announced their “historic special issue” on the so-called “gender revolution.”

But, wait! What does this revolution look like?

On one version of the cover we have a nine-year-old named Avery, who identifies as a girl. Dressed in pink from head to toe (including dyed pink hair), the child is described as “sitting pretty” by Brittney McNamara at Teen Vogue, who adds, “Avery is the perfect choice for this historic milestone.”

Some have questioned the ethics of putting such a young child on the cover of a magazine, especially if this child is truly struggling with a disorder. Also troubling is the regressive presentation of Avery, decked out in a colour and posed in a way that is traditionally considered “feminine.” McNamara claims the cover “drives the point home that being transgender isn’t a choice, but just something you are,” implying that this feminized presentation represents something innate. Rather than saying that kids are drawn to various colours regardless of their sex and that boys should feel just as comfortable in pink as girls, the supposedly “revolutionary” cover conveys the opposite message: that this male child must be a girl because he wears pink.

Where does socialization and societal expectations factor into this “revolution?” Will it address the fact that boys are told they cannot wear dresses (lest they be called “girls?”)

Avery’s mother, Debi Jackson, is a self-identified “conservative, Southern-Baptists, Republican from Alabama.” In a speech that went viral back in 2014, Jackson explained that her child “transitioned” at four-years-old, “which means she changed her outward appearance from male to female,” thereby living as “her true gender.” Jackson explains that Avery was a “rough-and-tumble boy” until he was three-years-old, but then “asked her dad and I if we could buy her a princess dress.” They did not initially buy Avery the dress, assuming “she was going through a stage of liking bright and sparkly things.” But eventually Avery’s parents gave in to persistence and bought their child the feminine clothing requested (princess dresses, sparkly shoes, nightgowns…) After the child declared he “wanted his genitals gone,” Jackson did a Google search, which informed her that her child might be transgender.

Shunned by many in their family and community due to Avery’s clothing choices, Jackson says her family “went into hiding for about a year while [Avery] grew out her hair to look like the girl that she is.” That time enabled the family to reemerge with “a daughter.”

While indeed Avery may be suffering from what the DSM calls “gender dysphoria,” having declared himself to be a girl numerous times, both Jackson’s and National Geographic’s choice to focus so heavily on a feminized appearance is telling. Conservative America wouldn’t accept a boy in “girly” clothing, but shouldn’t liberal America see things differently? And if a child truly does suffer from body dysmorphia or gender dysphoria, why are sparkles, pink, and “princess dresses” the primary focus of discourse surrounding these conditions? Surely we can support kids to be whoever they want to be and dress however they like without further reinforcing sexist stereotypes…

A second cover is no less troubling.

While the cover features a male, two “transgender females,” an “intersex non-binary” person, a “transgender male,” an “androgynous” person, and an individual who identifies as “bi-gender,” notably absent is… A woman!

Is this really what a “gender revolution” looks like? A boy whose “femaleness” is proven by stereotypically “girly” clothing and colours and an apparent rainbow of “genders” that excludes women entirely?

Gender, under patriarchy, is not the “spectrum” so many well-meaning liberals claim, but is, as feminist activist Lierre Keith says, “a hierarchy.” Gender functions in our society to devalue those born female and systemically empower those born male. A true “gender revolution” would fight stereotypes that say girls are inherently drawn to wear pink dresses and grow their hair long, while boys have short hair and are “rough-and-tumble.” It would, in fact, challenge society’s idea of gender itself, acknowledging that some humans are born female and others are born male, but that this doesn’t mean one is passive and submissive while the other is aggressive and dominant.

The trouble with gender, in any case, is not really just in the superficial — though women’s status as sex objects defines the clothing and grooming rituals we are expected to adhere to — but in our lesser status in this world and the violence we are subjected to as a means to enforce and remind us of that status. Prostitution, rape, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation (FGM), the mail-order bride industry, pornography, and domestic violence are all examples of this — none of which can be resolved by shunning pink and putting on a tie.

The group of people who most desperately need a “gender revolution” (you may recall there is already a movement afoot addressing the harm of gender — it’s called “feminism”) are women, yet National Geographic failed to acknowledge this on either cover, figuring, perhaps, that boring women and their gender troubles are old news.

But hey, celebrities loved it!

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.