Trend/countertrend: The rise (and simultaneous fall) of gender norms

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Y&R's global planning director: Are we moving beyond gender or finding new ways to embrace it?

This time of year, we tend to see an onslaught of predictions for which trends will shape our year to come. The Year of Wearables. The Beginning of Visual Speak. The End of Anonymity. And so on.

The reality, however, is that many of these predictions are not as black and white as they appear. It is not as simple as out with the old and in with the new. The world is changing, but at a macro level, every behavior, observation and perspective has an inherent tension that ultimately creates a countertrend. A countertrend that fills our head with possibilities, ideas and what if’s.

For example, one of the most interesting predictions for 2015 is that "gender" will soon become a defunct term — that people are eschewing the typical male and female categories for gender-agnostic self-expression outside of traditional lines. Consider Lorde, the New Zealand singer and songwriter who took the world by storm this past year. She stated in Teen Vogue: "Prescribed ideals on how girls should look are over … I am feminine, but I really love dressing in boys’ clothes, too." And a group called "Let Toys Be Toys" recently convinced Toys"R"Us to lose their gender labels from all their products sold in the UK, on the basis that gender-specific labels on toys can be detrimental to children. Earlier this week, a couple who raised their child as "gender neutral" for five years so the infant's "real personality" could shine through have finally revealed he is a boy.

From unisex baby names and toys to fragrances and clothing, we’re clearly moving toward a world where gender just may be an archaic distinction.

And yet …

Today, about 25% of people still believe that a woman’s primary duty revolves around taking care of her home and family. According to Emily Matchar, author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, "a generation of smart, highly educated young women are spending their time knitting, canning jam, baking cupcakes, gardening and more (and blogging about it of course), embracing the labor-intensive domestic tasks their mothers and grandmothers eagerly shrugged off. Some are even turning away from traditional careers and corporate culture for slower, more home-centric lifestyles."

Even the corset, once considered a torture device designed to crush a woman’s ribs and rob her of air in an effort to highlight her feminine waistline, has made a fashionable comeback, according to Marie Claire. Kim Kardashian is credited with the comeback and refers to hers as the "waist trainer" over Instagram.

And while it seems that the feminine touch has finally been celebrated in the dog-eat-dog corporate culture, it has also spurred evangelists such as the ReturnOfKings.com, which bills itself as a blog for heterosexual, masculine men, lamenting that "yesterday’s masculinity is today’s misogyny."

A recent ad for Woodford Reserve Bourbon chose to portray their drinker as a man’s man, a hammer and saw kind of guy without a metrosexual bone in his body: "When I see a man drinking bourbon, I expect him to be the kind who could build me a bookshelf. But not in the way that one builds a ready-made bookshelf. He will already know where the lumberyard is. He’ll get the right amount of wood, without having to do the math."

So, are we heading towards an era of genderlessness … or are we re-emphasizing what makes us male and female?

The answer is … Yes. Both are true.

There is an opportunity for brands to expand what was once expected as male or female behavior and embrace a newfound flexibility to dip their toe into what was once reserved for the fringes. To play with their identity. To resist the usual and define who they are based on what truly makes them interesting, not what they are expected to say to "men" or "women" as defined by the thinking of the last 20 or 30 years.

Sandy Thompson is global planning director at Y&R.

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