Gender, nationality, species: everything is fluid for Gen Z
Social media is rewiring how they understand identity
It’s not so very long since Rachel Dolezal spawned a thousand op-eds explaining why cross-sex identification is okay but cross-race identification is not. Now, UK singer and Instagram influencer Oli London has sparked a backlash after ‘coming out’ as Korean with ‘neopronouns’ ‘kor/ean’ and a rainbow-coloured Korean flag. London explicitly defended a ‘transracial’ identity, declaring: “If you can be transsexual you can be TRANSRACIAL” and that “I was actually born in the wrong body!”.
London is one of a slew of recent cultural phenomena that test the acceptable limits of where inner self-perception can and should transcend outer appearance. These boundaries are quixotically policed, as the reaction to Rachel Dolezal and now Oli London demonstrates, particularly when compared to the semi-regular lionisation of celebrities for announcing trans or ‘non-binary’ identities.
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Let’s set aside the related but separate political dispute over the nature and boundaries of sex and race. The core contest now is over what the accepted balance is between inner self-perception and the immutable, objective outer self. And this debate is close to the cutting edge of a new, net-native aesthetic that we can expect to see trickling into the mainstream.
In one video, Oli London strikes poses for the camera after surgery, with the caption “New hair, new teeth, new eyes, new forehead- new me”. Last week, Netflix announced Sexy Beasts, a ‘blind date’ reality show which makes such radical makeovers the central conceit, albeit with the “new hair, new teeth, new eyes, new forehead” grotesque and bestial, and delivered prosthetically rather than surgically.
Ostensibly the show is about whether it’s possible to fall in love with someone having never seen their face. In practice, its appeal (or offence, depending on where you stand) lies in its exploration of a boundary between selfhood, embodiment and image-making that’s become unsettlingly fluid.
Social media took off during the Noughties, and the generation now reaching their twenties has never known a world without internet-mediated social life. I’ve argued previously that interaction via avatar rather than in the flesh is a major contributing factor in the rapid uptake of ‘trans’ identities. It’s no coincidence that this emerging culture of malleable flesh, ascendant ‘true self’, self-construction via image, and the politicised boundary between these domains is gaining traction as this generation reaches adulthood.
But ‘trans’ is simply on the edge of this cultural change. Sexy Beasts, which brings the aesthetic of a Snapchat filter to the IRL space of sex and love, interrogates the same territory — as, in a different way, do Oli London’s ‘transracial’ surgeries. Where does inner selfhood stop and objective reality begin? To what extent can — or should — we feel entitled to edit our ‘meat avatars’, or to demand that others perceive us as we feel inside?
Those of us who grew up pre-internet will likely see this generation’s aesthetics of selfhood as bizarre, grotesque and perhaps even immoral. But we can, as they say, ‘cry harder’; it’s a done deal. Social media has already rewired how the emerging generation understands bodies, selfhood and perception. We can expect the political demands that flow from this digital refashioning of personhood to become more insistent and irresistible, as the Instagram generation matures.
Some days you can earnestly debate this and other days you just want all of these attention seekers to vanish. To just disappear and shut the ef up.
But every day I wish upticking a comment here were easier……..
It is very likely they all carry some deep pain. I doubt the fringe just do it all to annoy us. Life is very hard outside the normal, and compassion is more often needed than annoyance.
As another contributor said yesterday, we are getting hung up on people’s feelings (on UnHerd) instead of talking about real issues.
If we discuss every feeling, every division of feeling, cross-referencing with other feelings, bringing in the feelings of other writers, we are in danger of focussing on the fashion of the moment. Is UnHerd about fashion?
What happened to economics, taxation, jobs, politics, poverty, homeless people, immigrants, working class lives, the organisation of the police, old people, pensions (occupational and old age), organisation of the NHS, free prescriptions, electric cars versus alcoholic cars? We could even return to the environment and not accept the present fait accompli.
Trouble is there’s big money in all this. The cost of the operations done on perfectly healthy bodies is scandalous. But then keeping young people focused on their own bodies and feelings prevents them from getting involved in important issues such as you list.
Well yes, I see that. But does that mean that UnHerd should be side-tracked?
Especially scandalous when done on the NHS perhaps? I used to teach a human development module to psychotherapists, and a story in the news at the time (that I used to highlight) was of a surgeon in Scotland who had done amputations of perfectly healthy limbs for people who wanted to be amputees. He had become ‘known’ internationally and began to attract people from America, for instance, who planned on travelling for the ‘free’ surgery. I wouldn’t believe this story if I didn’t have the press coverage to prove if at the time either… Fortunately, the hospital stopped it, but it does illustrate quite dramatically where all this nonsense could lead.
Well said Chris.
I would love if Unherd had a News section to go with its People and feelings based articles.
But then reading this sort of article is good for ones like me who have no contact with young. I have withdrawn into my own world mostly, reading a great deal, then spending hours a day on the water or in my woods alone, I work alone mostly, as a tradesman, so can work as much or as little as I feel. I think my great many years spent in remote camps, as often as not alone, or with one other, gave me great tolerance for my own company, although then solitary existence seemed burdensome, when younger – but now I find I seek solitude, I think I acquired the habit over decades, my wife even moved into the cottage here, I guess I became hard to deal with.
When young I dropped out – dropped out of school and the normal world and hit the road as a drifter for decades, then I came back into the world for a couple decades (on and off) to make money, and succeeded at that, and now I am closing the circle and dropping out of the normal world again, I have even lost my interest in travel, I just like my animals, gardens, forest, water, reading, and now, Unherd, and so Ms Harrington and her kind bring the world of people to my little world of solitude, which is good.
But Real Journalism, World NEWS, would be Excellent to add to Unherd!
Or maybe they’ll grow up…
Well, they have got a little ahead of themselves, the tech has not quite caught up, but I agree with Mary, it’s a done deal. What’s really interesting though, is the tech and the nature of the tech is still being define by… mostly us boomers with the odd millennial. They won’t have control over their cultural and individual self perception until they can take control of the tech – and at the moment they are too poor to do that.
“Netflix announced Sexy Beasts”
I think Netflix and Prime are run by Satan, as are most of the entertainment and Social Media industries. With Christianity now shoved aside in the young, they have no defense, and are being taken by the dark side more and more.
Does anyone in the world feel AI will be a good thing for humans? Do any thing the direction of society is a healthy one?
I know my post seems like a crazy old guy, but evil does exist, I have seen it several times. A visit to Konzentrationslager Auschwitz and it is so strong you feel it in the air, the very ground is permeated by evil, such was the monstrosity done there.
Moderns believe in correct/incorrect, nice/bad, the whole concept and belief in Good/Evil is slipping away from them.
Tell you what, Chapter 8 of Schild’s Ladder, by Greg Egan. Not the simplest of books, unless imagined alternate physics interests you but just Chapter 8 if you have Audible if you don’t want to read the whole thing – have fun!
Always good to hear from you, Prashant
I always liked the edges of physics, string theory, the alternate realities, one spun off at every choice made.
I spent a great deal of my life in ways different enough from the normal to be almost alternate realities. It can extend past just physical and lifestyle, Ones ‘reality’, that which is real, can become different once you get so far out and the facts have even changed. And I am not talking just mentally, but the whole world is different. Philosophers always made a great deal of what is real, ‘I think therefore I am’, existentialism (which I hold in contempt) is like that, like the edges of physics where everything becomes very fuzzy and unknowable.
An example could be an Afghani Talib, what they see as real, what they know is real, you would not see, or believe, if it could even be explained to you, so different your realities both are from each other.
I am getting at that the people mentioned in the article have a different reality to us. Kafka was about this, getting caught up in some mire of being out of sink with the normal world and the way of that, almost always harsh but inescapable, Kafkaesque, we call it, although not always his nightmarish images…..
I have been there when young, finding my self so far away from my land and people, so broke, so laden with such obstacles it seems impossible I will ever get back, but always did end up making my way back, not all do, or wish to.
As George Carlin would have said, welcome to the freakshow here are your frontrow seats. social media means the wackaloons now have global audience and have to complete in their freakishness with all the others competing for attention.
these people are the exception not the rule
My wife thinks I’m non-binary!
Last week I said, “I love you.”
She replied, “I love you two!”
Please keep us updated on London’s application for a Korean passport. I will pay for the letter from the Korean government to be translated, I just want to know how this lands in the real – other – world.
My person fear for the young, is not the narcissistic development of selfhood, which is an adventure for them and has always been a feature of the young . But acceptance of the idea that everything is performative,therefore constructed.This leaves nothing on the table.
The idea that self examination and rejection of societal norms will reveal the true self, is gaining greater currency. Personality is fragile and once there is no normal to define yourself against, what then? People are then open to maleability. It is all too clear that reductive analysis of sexuality/gender to mere performance, together with the policing of race authenticity , is a recipe for societal implosion in the west.
Thank you for yet another interesting, informative and thought-provoking post. Can we make a distinction between ‘production’ identities and ‘consumption’ identities? In the case of the former we identify ourselves in terms of the interdependencies that bind us and the goods that they deliver- the enjoyment of doing a good job, making a contribution. the consolations of solidarity, the security that authority brings…… . In the case of the latter we create a unique ‘me’ in the shared language of fashion and enjoy the recognition that comes with being a competent ‘speaker’ of that language, or better still in being a creative ‘speaker’. I can see how social media facilitates ‘fashion’ identities but I am unclear as to why it could not serve ‘production’ identities equally well. Maybe the problem lies elsewhere. We need belonging and autonomy: surely autonomy is impossible without belonging and what use is belonging without autonomy? Fashion identities seek to give us autonomy without belonging. And those that seek to promote belonging identities do so by drawing boundaries, finding unity in fear and hatred of the outsider.
The essays are way too long. Can someone summarize why it is OK to say I am a woman, but I cannot be a black wo/man?
My pronouns are now ‘sh/ark’. Beware!
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