As the late 1970s turned to the 1980s there were lots of changes on the culture front. The sexual revolution was in full swing, personal experimentation with everything from sex to drugs became more and more mainstream. But on thing remained taboo. Gender was still a static thing. For the most part people who expressed themselves and their genders as anything but their biological self were often seen as strange and on the fringe. Sure there was all sorts of what I would call “gender cosplay”. Movies like Some Like it Hot and the Carol Burnett show exploited cross dressing for its comedic response. However, there were few in pop culture who were exploring this subject. The first inkling of gender non-conformity appeared in songs like Lou Reed’s Take a Walk on the Wildside and of course the forbearer of exploring gender fluidity, David Bowie.
David Bowie was a boomer but his first dips into using gender as a part of his expression and art and how that influenced his music and personal life was a powerful statement to the world that we do not live in a world defined by two genders. It took some time but the 1980s saw an avalanche of artists and actors who thought about and used a newly found gender freedom to better express themselves and feel comfortable in their own life and art. The other, more important, factor in this shift was many artists were finding a more interested and less negative environment for their work. Now, let’s not neglect to acknowledge that the world for gender non-conforming people was not perfect. It was still a tough world for all members of this population. Fear and crimes against trans people and the GLBTQ community as a whole was and still is a place where discrimination, hatred, and violence are all too real.
However, if we look at Generation X and the 1980s we can see the early advances in gender identity acceptance. One of the earliest examples was the role of Roberta played by John Lithgow in the John Irving movie The World According to Garp. He played a former NFL player who had transitioned into a woman and was an associate of Glenn Close’s Jenny Fields character. He befriends Robin William’s character T.S. Garp and is a central voice of reason and love in the movie. When I was a child I remember watching this movie on HBO and I was fascinated by the idea of a man who could become a woman. I had never been exposed to such a thing. But what I feel was important was how Lithgow played the role with care and honesty and communicated to my young mind an idea that transgendered people were just like me. To this day this is my favorite movie and I think Lithgow’s Roberta is a big reason why.
After Roberta I seemed to find a lot of examples of gender non-conformity and with each one I became more understanding and curious about what these artists had to say. The next really influential artist who shifted gender as part of his persona was Culture Club lead singer Boy George. With his technicolor hair and make-up, effeminate gestures, and soft singing tone he was the lead in a band that was also racially diverse. Their pop sound was an ear worm for early MTV. Songs like Do You Really Want To Hurt Me became number one hits. The band even made an appearance on the television show Different Strokes. But Boy George was just one of many artists who identified as gender fluid. Depeche Mode guitarist Martin Gore, Grace Jones, the members of Erasure, The Eurythmics all experimented with different gender expressions.
Eventually this changing tide made its way to areas such as gender politics and the movies. One of the more obvious examples was Dustin Hoffman’s role as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie. The role won him a Golden Globe and opened the flood gates for an exploration of sexism and gender in the workplace and in life. Missing were stories of the lived experiences of trans-people but that was not too far away. Honestly most of these depictions were not really positive and were usually used as a redirect for comedy in movies such as Just One of the Guys but the message was getting through, gender was something for all of us to be open to interpretation.
For the most part gender and gender exploration was limited to males exploring life or portraying a female but there was one genre of gender identity that became a mainstay of 80s television and movies. And that was the role of the Tomboy. However, there were limits. Tomboys were always hetero-normative and always attractive. This helped quell the discomfort for many show runners and created an incomplete picture of women who felt more comfortable with a look that was more masculine in it’s appearance. Most Tomboys were portrayed as the scrappy best friend like Mary Stewart Masterson’s character of Watts in the movie Some Kind of Wonderful or the role of Jo played by Nancy McKeon on the Facts of Life. In these roles the Tomboy is often relegated as everyone’s buddy and literally, just one of the guys. But for many of us Gen X boys we began to see something different. I felt that Tomboys helped a young guy like me recognize and understand that women could be every bit our equal. The lack of a traditional feminine look changed the dynamic and forced us to be more inclusive. And, to be honest, I often found the Tomboy character to be more attractive because they were usually smarter, witty and had an attractive sense of humor.
As the decade counted down the 90s provided all sorts of examples of shifts from gender fluid dress and expression to the stories of the lives of people who identify as transgendered. Movies like Boys Don’t Cry and the Oscar winning performance of Hillary Swank, Paris is Burning, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and shows like Transamerica helped continue the shift from exclusion to inclusion. I am certainly not an expert on this subject but I am certain that the pop culture of Generation X helped move things forward to now we live in a world where making the environment comfortable for all genders is valued by many more than were 30 years ago.
I am not naive and realize that for the most part Generation X’s and my own relationship with gender is and was exploratory and only surface deep. We have much to learn and so much to do. However, It is my hope and expectation that Millennials will elevate this movement to true inclusion and a commitment to diversity where gender is not a novelty or a curiosity but the authentic lived experience that it is.
Editors Note: I am sensitive to the fact that I am a Cis-Gendered, Hetro, white male who may not fully understand all aspects of gender and gender identity. I realize my perspectives may be imperfect. If there is a way I can phrase or understand any idea presented in this post better please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your kindness and understanding.