Friday, August 16, 2019
Friday, August 16, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, August 16, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Is Androgynous Fashion the New Goth? Youth Culture and the Gender Revolution
Sometimes a news item almost immediately is catapulted into cultural conversation, that took place yesterday. The article headline "Beyond Androgyny: Nonbinary Teenage Fashion." The article appeared in the New York Times, the reporter Hayley Krischer. She begins, "Winged black eyeliner was precisely drawn past the corner of their eyelid; layers of silver and gold chains draped around their neck. Anna," we are told, "is passionate about androgynous fashion."
This is the kind of lead you're likely to find in this kind of article. Why? Well, it tells us something immediately about an individual. That's something you're going to see in an awful lot of the cultural conversation and media coverage. It doesn't begin so much with an issue. It begins with an individual. That brings about a certain specificity. It also brings about a certain kind of emotional connection. When we encounter this kind of story, we need to be aware of that right up front.
In this case, we are told about an individual, a young person, a teenager indeed, named Anna, who is described as being "passionate about androgynous fashion." Well, before we go further, let's at least look at some basic vocabulary. The word “androgynous” has a rather ancient history. It has to do with denying or blurring, blending the two genders, male and female, the two sexes to speak specifically.
But in this case, androgynous doesn't mean exactly that. It's become something of a synonym for a rebellion against the idea that there is a gender binary. Androgynous, in the sense of this article, doesn't necessarily mean classically androgynous. After all, we're talking about a feminine name even if we're not talking about someone who was born female. That's not even really a part of the story. We're supposed to be so with it now, we understand that that's not even important. The pronoun you will note is supposed to be about a singular person, but it's that "they"—that gender denying "they.” So anyone accustomed to the English language is probably already confused by the lead sentence, but that's really the point.
If I were to describe what's going on in this article, it would not be so much about androgyny and nonbinary teenage fashion, but rather an intentional embrace of confusion and that's going to be a bigger issue to which we will shortly return. Krischer writes, "They speak about 'androgynous ancestors' like the godmother of goth, Siouxsie Sioux and Lydia Lunch and Peter Murphy, the lead singer of Bauhaus whose look,” we are told, “gained cult status in the 1980s."
“Back then,” the paper tells us, "fishnet stockings and black platform boots used to mean you were a goth chick. But fashion definitions have changed. So have gendered pronouns." The New York Times notes, "Just try using 'chick' without irony to refer to "woman' in the public square."
The article then turns to refer to an individual identified as Mx. Kinlock. That would be Mx. Kinlock according to the new pronunciation guide by the moral revolutionaries. It isn't clear in the article if Mx. Kinlock here is the same individual as Ana two paragraphs back; but nonetheless, the assumption is that this must be the same person.
The story continues telling us that Mx. Kinlock is "an intern at the Brooklyn Museum's gender and sexuality teen program," known as, "InterseXtions.” But you've already probably figured out, it's not spelled intersections. It's I-N-T-E-R-S-E-X-T-I-O-N-S. We are told that Kinlock was at the museum "not long ago to prepare for the programs' sixth annual LGBTQ+ Teen Night. "Last year," we're told, "they put together a talk on androgyny and queer fashion, inviting Chella Man, an activist, actor and artist, as well as handing out a 'zine filled with pictures of the singers, David Bowie and FKA twigs and the self-described 'gender-fluid' actor Ezra Miller."
Now as you look at this story again, let's just face what we're looking at. We are looking at the fact that the New York Times is telling us that the style curve is now bending towards androgynous fashion, and that it is increasingly popular among teens who are woke enough to press back on the supposed gender binary as oppressive and patriarchal and intolerant.
We're told that participants at the museum, "spoke excitedly about the Bowie exhibit at the museum last year, about the goth and punk movements of the 1980s, and how androgynous fashion has come from a history of people locating themselves outside the mainstream."
Now again, when you're looking at a story like this, just realize that term "outside the mainstream" is absolutely crucial. That's why the story's interesting, but here's where we also need to remind ourselves. There have always been people outside the mainstream and now we have to wonder, here's something new, an insight coming from this article, we have to wonder if the new way to indicate that one is "outside the mainstream" is now just supposedly press against the binary.
Anna we are told is, "excited to use clothes as a method of empowerment." Anna said, "Androgynous fashion isn't only about looking boxy and flow and looking ambiguous. The androgynous fashion movement is about expressing yourself without the confines of gender."
So then the New York times actually has to ask the question, "Then what's new?" Here some historical background is genuinely helpful. We are told that in the beginning of this very decade, "gender confines felt fixed. Nonbinary was hardly a part of the lexicon. Androgyny was reserved for subcultures and didn't have a place in the teen and tween marketing machine."
So what we're being told here is that the entire nonbinary ideology as a part of our conversation is less than 10 years old. We're talking about a moral revolution within the space of less than a single decade. The Times actually becomes very helpful telling us that the word “nonbinary” became more popular on the internet, specifically in the year 2014.
Now, just again, consider this for a moment. That means that an individual who was born then is now about five years old. That is just the blink of an eye in human history. We're talking about even in a human lifespan, a very short amount of time, but we're talking about a fundamental redefinition of what has been fundamental to human self-understanding, and even to the ability to make reference to one another, to make sense out of the civilization. Our civilization has required understanding the categories of male and female, he and she, husband and wife, son and daughter, brother and sister. You go down the list. It is not at all apparent that you can have a civilization without such kind of fixed definitions and enough understanding to be able to have a sensical conversation.
This kind of news story is further evidence that you can't have that kind of sensical conversation even if only because the pronouns had been changed in such a way that number is no longer indicated. But of course Christians understand that number is not the most basic issue at stake here. We are told in the New York Times article that "Gender Is Over." That's actually a subhead in the article. That's a big moral signal. Get over it. Gender is so yesterday.
The New York Times tells us that as recently as two years ago, in 2017, a University of California, Los Angeles study found that 27%, that numbers out to 796,000 California youth between the ages of 12 to 17, "believed that they were seen by others as gender nonconforming." What in the world could that mean? Could it mean that there are about 800,000 teenagers in California in 2017 that thought they were in some sense androgynous, who considered themselves as pressing against the gender binary? There is no research that indicates that anything like that is true.
What is a constant in adolescent culture is a preoccupation with peer perception, and there has also been a constant of those who are nonconforming personalities. Looking at this article, especially with the reference to goth in a previous generation, it really does raise the question as to whether or not this kind of supposed revolution against the gender binary isn't just something like, at least when it comes to the big numbers reported, something like the kind of generational nonconformity that has always marked a significant percentage of teenagers. Though a minority, a very visible minority, the goth movement, very visible in the 1990s. Small in number but extremely visible, whether at the mall or at the movie theater or just about anywhere else you had a large group of people. The same thing was true if you go back to the hippies and especially the alternative culture of the 1960s. And you can look at just about any period in modern America, and if you look at adolescent culture, there has been a nonconforming margin.
Jeremy Wernick, identified as a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at a New York medical center, whose work, we are told “focuses on gender expansive children and adolescents,” said, "Yes, non-binary kiddos are sort of leading the way in pushing the boundaries of those binary stereotypes."
The article goes on and on with teenagers declaring that gender roles are now ancient, and we are told that there are fashion shows and there are fashion brands trying now to brand themselves with some kind of nonbinary androgynous fashion for teenagers. But the article makes clear that this kind of resistance is not at all uniform. Not only are we talking about a minority of teenagers, it turns out that many of those classified as pressing back on the binary, some of those who are even identified as being attracted to this new androgynous fashion, we're told that they don't even all mean anything like the same thing by how they describe themselves or how they describe their dress or how they want to be perceived.
Christians looking at this story need to recognize with full sympathy that there are some very troubled people — there are people who have a genuine struggle, and our heart goes out to them. And we see every single individual as a human being made in the image of God and deserving full respect, but that does not mean that we extend full respect to every claim that an individual might make about his or her own identity and try to force the entire society to come to terms with that identity claim. Those are two very different things. And in this kind of article, we also come to understand that with full sympathy to those who have some level of confusion about their gender or sexual identity, the reality is that as you are looking at this article, it does appear that even the New York Times senses that this might have at least something to do with adolescent nonconformity that goes far beyond the question of sexuality or gender, much less the category of androgynous.
A couple of other issues for us to consider: One of them is common grace and common revelation, or general revelation. Christians believe that God has revealed himself and his moral attributes in all of creation. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 1 with the things that are invisible, even being made manifest in the things that are seen. That's why he says, no one on the day of judgment will have an excuse. God has shown himself in every dimension of creation.
As we understand human beings, we also come to understand that the biblical worldview tells us that we have in our own structures of consciousness and awareness, there is knowledge within us that we cannot, as the Christian Church has oddly and ironically affirmed, we cannot not know some things. This is to say that even as people say, "I don't know that," or "I don't believe that," there is still a knowledge in their hearts and even in the structure of their consciousness that cries out to them. And here's where we have to understand that restraining grace, or God's common grace, is one of the reasons why more people, most people, do not struggle with this kind of gender nonconformity or identity.
But it also reminds us that there's a basic reality test that we should bring to any kind of news story like this. Is it plausible that this is really true? We've been told for years now by the way, that these waves of fashion are coming. And they're not just coming to the fashion houses we’re warned, they're going to be coming to the local mall and they're going to be coming to a bedroom right down the hall from you. But as we see, it generally does not turn out that way.
In your local church, you can just think of the young people in the church, the teenagers in the church. How many of them are in any way confused or in any way resisting the gender binary? Go to the local high school football game, look in the stands. How many of those teenagers appear to be even tangentially confused about this?
Right down the street from the seminary is a Catholic girls high school and a Catholic boys high school. They are kept at a respectful distance for obvious reasons. And then you look at those two schools and you look at the kids coming out of them, there's not a whole lot of nonbinary messaging going on here.
No doubt there are people pressing back against this kind of structure, this kind of reality, even the binary of male and female, but the very fact that they are doing so and that they are doing so as some kind of attempted revolution is why the New York Times carried this story in the first place. If this were normal, it would not be news.
But one final insight on this story has to do with the role of parents. A good deal of what goes on in adolescent culture is explained by the fact that it is actually facilitated by parents. We're told about a 14 year old, "who wore a forest green baggy camp sweatshirt, a loose pair of jeans, short hair, and glasses the other day at her house …" her is the pronoun used in the article, "… in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She has always had an aversion to Daisy Dukes and cold shoulders. 'I just couldn't wear those,' she said."
The story concludes, "Last summer she asked her mother, Rebecca, to get her 'man's pants' for a summer concert and so she did what any mother would do to please her teenage daughter. She shopped for a pair of pants for her daughter in the men's section. They were a perfect fit."
But this too, points to a reality that Christians ought to reflect upon and recognize when we see it. One of the oddities of a youth rebellion culture is that often parents and adults become complicit in it. The most morally significant sentence in this news article is where the reporter tells us that this mother, "did what any mother would do to please her teenage daughter." I don't think that's true, by the way. I don't think it's morally true. I also don't think it's factually true. I don't think most mothers of teenage daughters would do this.
Finally, on this story, we are told that one of the young people wore a T-shirt that says, "Gender is over. If you want it." Well, let me just state the obvious. If gender is over, you don't say gender is over on a T-shirt. If gender is over, it's over, but it's not over.
Overblown Moral Outrage Over Television Ads in Great Britain: Civilization Can’t Always Be at Stake in Every Commercial
Next, while we're talking about these kinds of gender issues, an ominous story came also in the New York Times. The reporter: Palko Karasz. The headline: "Useless Dads and Placid Women: UK ... " that's the United Kingdom "… Bans 2 Ads Over Sexist Stereotypes." There are multiple levels of concern in this article. The bottom line is what we are told in the lead. "Two television ads have been banned in Britain under new rules against harmful gender stereotypes.” The country's advertising authority made the announcement this week. "The first such actions since the regulations came into force last month."
The advertisers whose advertisements were canceled were Volkswagen and the food chain Mondelez. They were found, "to be in breach of the rules which stipulate that ads must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious, or widespread offense." Now, that raises a fascinating question. Just how out of line and harmful must these advertisements have been?
Here is exactly word for word how the New York Times explains the dangerous and harmful ad that Britain has banned. "Volkswagen's ad showed a series of men engaged in adventurous activities while the only two women depicted were asleep in a tent and sitting by a baby carriage. The main characters of the ad for Mondelez, for the cheese spread Philadelphia, were two distracted young fathers in a restaurant who appeared unable to care for children effectively."
Now just a couple of quick observations. The first is this: Here you see this redefinition of the word “harm.” Harmful here means offensive to somebody, and in particular, the new gender police. The second thing you have to note is, it's going to be very, very, very difficult to offer anything that is intended to be humorous from this point onward. Humorous requires something disjunctive, out of order and unexpected, something that someone might find in some sense offensive or at least out of the norm or for that matter a stereotype.
But all of that goes right out the window because of what the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority declared to be the cause of "real-world harms. Such as,” says the paper, "affecting children's career choices." Yes, out of a Philadelphia cheese spread advertisement.
One of the most interesting statements in the articles made by Geraldine Ingham. She's identified as the head of marketing for Volkswagen in the United Kingdom. She defended the ad and she defended Volkswagen. She said about the ad, "Just like the men," the women "are shown taking part in challenging situations, such as in a tent perched on a mountainside and in a spacecraft, while another is shown to be embarking on what is surely life's greatest and most valuable role, raising another human being."
That would be, since the character here is a woman, what had previously in human civilization been described as motherhood. But wait just a minute, that might be a harmful stereotype. The Volkswagen spokesperson also said something that is profoundly true but is likely to be incredibly controversial and that is that raising another human being is "life's greatest and most valuable role." I don't think that's going to be considered harmless by the Advertising Standards Bureau there in the United Kingdom. If they're turned off by two women by a baby carriage asleep in a tent, there's no doubt that just about anything might and will offend.
But another aspect for Christians to consider here is the fact that this article is premised upon the idea that advertising can change the world, can lead a young person to make a disadvantageous career choice after all. The article actually tells us, "The new rules were a response to a 2017 report from the Advertising Standards Authority that argued that stereotyping in ads can ‘limit how people see themselves, how others see them and limit the life decisions they take.'" All of that from advertising.
Christians understand that, indeed, advertising is a targeted intentional form of messaging. Sometimes we underestimate the importance and the influence of advertising. Advertising obviously does have an effect. People are not paying billions and billions of dollars for no effect. They intend an effect. But on the other hand, this also shows you the kind of moral panic that can take place in a society where now anything means everything.
An advertisement can now mean the future of civilization. A televised advertisement can change or determine a young person's career choice. This kind of moral panic means that everyone wants to make an absolute moral issue out of everything. But that won't work. No civilization can function if everything always has to mean ultimately the future of civilization. Civilization can't be at stake on every single television advertisement, on every single episode of every program, in every single conversation, in every single political decision.
A society will not only grow fatigued, but it grows back and forth between two different wrong positions: between understanding that everything is morally significant to the extent that civilization has shaken to the understanding that nothing is morally significant. Societies go back and forth in this. It's like you could see a swing between legalism and antinomianism, not so much in its religious discourse, except for the fact that everything, if it is moral, is also everything religious. People have to make a religion out of something, and they'll make a religion out of policing advertising if that's all they're left with.
"There Goes a Human Being": Sometimes You Just Can’t Make Sense of the Story
But finally as the week comes to an end, we need to ponder the fact that when you look at the mass of humanity, you might consider the fact that each of us is in some way odd, but some of us appear to be more odd than others and to act more oddly. Sometimes there just seems to be no adequate explanation for how someone behaves, for an incident you might come across in the media. There might be some explanation, but upon reflection and some of these stories, it's hard to come up with an explanation. That is also why we have fiction and literature. Because in fiction and literature, someone can try to make sense of the story when there's no apparent sense to the story.
Just consider a report that came a few days ago out of the state of Oklahoma. As The Week reports, Oklahoma police made a traffic stop of a 41-year-old man, "and allegedly found he was driving a stolen car on a suspended license and was in possession of an unlicensed handgun, a live rattlesnake, a canister of powdered yellow uranium, and an open bottle of Kentucky Deluxe whiskey." Now you can try to make sense of that or not. You might just look at that and say, "There goes a human being." But in this case, a human being with a good deal more to explain than the rest of us.