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Ethics in CultureSociety

Between the Lines of National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution”

By Sarah Ertelt
9 Jan 2017

In its 128th year of publication, National Geographic has put the spotlight on gender issues. As a renowned culture and travel magazine with significant resources, National Geographic has tremendous influence on how important issues are perceived by its wide audience. “Gender Revolution” is inherently a weighted title for their latest project, implying that a deep-seated problem is in need of revolution, and that their project sheds light on this problem. National Geographic interviewed over 100 nine-year-olds from around the world to gain their perspective on gender, as well as shared stories of many individuals who identify as more than male or female. The “Gender Revolution” is a battle for the fluidity of gender that encroaches more sensitive subjects besides gender.

In an NPR interview with Robin Henig from National Geographic, the first question the interviewer approached was “What gender revolution?” Indeed, for many readers of National Geographic and even more of the public nationwide, there is no obvious need to redefine gender and gender roles. Until National Geographic’s involvement, discussion of gender issues in the news was generally limited to conservative publications bashing the liberal war on traditional family values or liberal publications, blogs, and communities asserting a need for change. National Geographic’s coverage of transgender people and more represents growing awareness of the political and cultural issues surrounding gender.

According to Susan Goldberg, national editor of National Geographic, “National Geographic is almost 130 years old, and have been covering cultures, societies and social issues for all of those years. It struck us, listening to the national conversation, that gender was at the center of so many of these issues in the news.” The need for a broader spectrum of voices in the midst of Supreme Court cases over bathroom use and endless questions from parents and grandparents over their child’s troubling behavior cannot be underestimated. By covering everything from transgender children to intersex adults born with genitals from both biological sexes, and including a 20-term glossary that redefines gender, National Geographic provides a unique cultural perspective on gender instead of a political or legal one.

However, January’s “Gender Revolution” edition of National Geographic sets an important precedent for the year ahead that cannot evade the world’s politically charged climate. This in-depth study on gender issues comes at a time when a polarized and tempestuous election leaves the LGBTQ community fearing for their rights in the coming years. This study on gender also comes in the wake of celebrity stories like Caitlyn Jenner, a celebrity who came out as transgender and had sex change surgery at the age of 65. The magazine sought to widen the conversation from celebrities to everyday lives of people around the world. However, some think that National Geographic fails to achieve their lofty goal of a revolution.

The first transgender individual to be on the cover of National Geographic is Avery Jackson, a 9-year-old transgender girl from Missouri. This now iconic image features a girl clad completely in pink including pink hair. Meghan Murphy from the Feminist Current worries that this image fails to truly redefine gender, instead affirming that girls are naturally attracted to colors like pink. Murphy contends, “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?’”) Would a true gender revolution assert that children are drawn to various colors, toys, activities, and mannerisms regardless of gender or biological sex? Despite the wide variety of cultures covered by National Geographic, the “Gender Revolution” affirms once again how deeply gender is socialized in every society around the world.

Despite its potential shortcomings, National Geographic’s landmark issue on the “Gender Revolution” brings to light an issue formerly unknown to many. The magazine provides an important precedent for the year to come, one that will hopefully include more thoughtful discussion on issues like gender and sexuality, and more respect for individual differences in everyday life.

Sarah graduated from DePauw University as an Honor Scholar majoring in Religious Studies major. She is from Fishers, Indiana and works in Indianapolis as an Onboarding Coordinator for BCForward.
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