Although it has (rightfully) been maligned as the Worst Year Ever, 2016 was also an interesting year for our understanding of gender archetypes and how they affect our society. In some senses, 2016 was a boundary-breaking year, with huge steps forward for transgender awareness and new openings in the definitions of masculine and feminine "spheres" and what people of certain genders can and cannot do. In other ways, though, it was a year that shifted the conversation in more negative ways, a trend exemplified by the results of the presidential election. We won't look at gender in the same way after 2016, but not all of the new elements are necessarily great improvements.
What do we talk about when we talk about gender? The year 2016 revealed just how expansive that conversation has to be, from the behavioral expectations placed on girls and boys from birth to understandings of gendered roles in society, and how personal conceptions of gender can differ radically from physical ones.
For many of those aspects, 2016 has been a seminal year, where we'll carry forward the progress (and the hurt) from these landmark moments for years to come.
Covergirl Signed Its First Male Spokesmodel
Meet James Charles, CoverGirl's first ever cover boy https://t.co/8byZuZwecR— Ryker Sear (@RykerSear) November 23, 2016
Let's start with something deeply positive: Covergirl's decision to hire their first ever male spokesmodel, the incredible James Charles, to feature across their campaigns. Charles can work a highlighter like nobody's business, and the campaign was a direct hit at gendered notions of cosmetics as purely female, which, to be honest, isn't backed up in the history of makeup at all.
Men have used makeup throughout history, from the ancient preference for face and body-painting to the powdered faces and rouge of pre-Revolution France. The modern world, however, has largely restricted cosmetics along gender lines, so Charles' big-name (and big-money) campaign as a cosmetics maven, plus cheekbones, is a big boundary-breaker for the notions of gender performance and the inherent "femininity" of makeup. Considering that the previous standard-bearer for male makeup, Johnny Depp, had a spectacular fall from grace in 2016 with allegations of violence against ex-wife Amber Heard, there was a need for a new positive icon for men in eyeliner.
Laverne Cox And Hari Nef Kicked All The Asses
It's Laverne Cox's world; we're just living in it. The transgender icon came off a heady 2015 in which she'd made TIME's list of 100 Most Influential People (and its cover), and has only made further progress for visibility and excellence; she took on the gender-bending Frank'N'Furter role in FOX's remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with ease, and continues to be a powerful advocate for trans issues around the world.
The new spotlight was on Hari Nef, the trans model and actress who starred on Transparent and was the first openly trans woman to take several steps: one, be on the books of IMG Models; two, feature on the cover of a major British magazine when she took the cover of Elle in September. Cox isn't a lone voice (or always paired with Caitlyn Jenner) any more, and that has made 2016 an incredibly exciting time.
Science About Deep Gender Stereotypes Went Mainstream
The science of gender went big in 2016, and we now know things about the way gender functions that we've never known before. The idea of "gendered toys" was still a hot-button issue, with new science emerging to indicate that children as young as nine months gravitate towards "gender-appropriate" toys (dolls for girls, trucks for boys); but we're still not sure whether it's something innate in children, or if they're picking up on gendered messages from their parents and caregivers. And a major conference given at the White House in November showed new research that the toys we give our kids, emphasizing nurturing or spatial awareness, may have big knock-on effects on their skills in the future, setting up their strengths and weaknesses for adulthood.
The idea that women just "aren't good enough" at STEM to pursue a career in it was also tackled in 2016 (by female scientists, no less). And there's been a breakthrough: a study in November found that a big part of the reason that girls stay away from STEM isn't about test results. It's down to self-confidence and the weight of public perceptions; girls and young women seem to absorb societal beliefs that "girls can't do math" and rate their own abilities lower as a result, while boys often have an inflated view of their skills. Parents in the study tended to hold higher opinions of sons' mathematical abilities, which probably added an extra layer of discouragement.
Gendered stereotypes go very deep indeed, it seems. While it's upsetting to have proof of that, 2016 also proved it can be very useful.
NASA Threw Gender Stereotypes Out The Window
One place where gender inequality and the notion of the "inferior" woman became obsolete in 2016 was the astronaut training class at NASA, where, for the first time, its intake was 50 percent women. Entry to the astronaut training is notoriously difficult, restricted to eight candidates, and this year four are women, marking a historical achievement for an agency that's featured some pretty spectacular female thinkers over the years; the engineer Margaret Hamilton, for instance, wrote the bulk of the Apollo 11 mission's codes by hand. The future looks bright at least when it comes to the stars.
We Saw Female-Led Nerd Culture Break Through
It may be that 2016 was the year in which the boundaries between "male" and "female" entertainment broke down with a crack. From the female quartet of Ghostbusters, which led to trolling from men grumpy about it "ruining their childhoods," to the record-breaking Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with its female lead (and diverse cast), and Arrival's glorious sci-fi fantasy anchored by Amy Adams, the big-bucks mainstream nerd cinema culture became a space for female leads at last.
Unfortunately, the sexist backlash has proved that gender equality remains a serious issue in this most male of spaces. Critics have also pointed out that both Rey and Jyn, the two new female Star Wars leads, are virtually the only females with major roles in either film; and the new drama-space-rom-com attempted mash-up, Passengers, has been utterly derailed by people pointing out that Chris Pratt's character is actually "creepy" and "stalkerish," rather than romantic. There's still a long way to go, but it's been a seminal year.
Trans Rights Awareness Hit A New High
Beyond the visibility of individuals, the transgender experience became a more prominent part of culture in 2016 more generally. The release of Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me, the film documenting the transition of punk rocker Laura Jane Grace as she fronted the band Against Me!, raised hugely important conversations, while in sadder news, Chelsea Manning's continued incarceration in a men's prison was appealed loudly by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
And everybody everywhere had an opinion about the "bathroom bill" of North Carolina, which blocks people from using bathrooms that don't correspond to their gender assigned at birth. It was one of the highest-profile issues of the year, with everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Demi Lovato and the National Collegiate Athletics Association protesting the state. Although an attempted repeal of the bill has just failed, the sheer weight of outcries against it indicates that transgender rights are accelerating as a part of the American consciousness, and that a tipping point is coming.
The 2016 Election Revealed The Glass Ceiling Remains Shockingly Thick
The year 2016 represented one of the biggest steps forward and most colossal steps backward, at the same time. Hillary Clinton's nomination as the first female major party candidate for president of the United States was the culmination of centuries of fighting for the political representation and empowerment of women.
Ultimately, however, the sexism ran thick and fast; it was far from the only problematic issue with the Trump-Clinton contest, but the fact that a man who talked over his female opponent constantly, was revealed to have talked about p*ssy-grabbing, and was sexist by any definition possible won over a competent-if-flawed woman made evident the presence of gender inequality in the American psyche.
The year 2016 will give us many scars, but that's probably the deepest: gender still gets in the way of the highest office in the land, and misogyny remains unpunished and acceptable if you're rich, powerful, white, cis, straight, and male. It's a hard lesson to learn again and again, but hopefully in 2017 we might start unlearning it.