(Not) Born This Way: Re-evaluation of Gender among Youth Today

Are you sure of the gender? Photo: InspireCreateChange.com


The more one is exposed to Millennials, and their younger cohort Generation Z, the more apparent are their differences with previous generations, with technology being the driving topic of conversation. But one of the less pronounced, but arguably just as important, developments has been the evolution of gender norms in North America, which not only has an impact on the individual, but has a wide array of implications for society as a whole — in family structure, dress codes, emotions we are allowed to express, etc.

As we ponder the implications of these developments on society’s commercial space, in many (if not all) categories, the need to use a typical male archetype, such as a male warrior or king, is archaic. And when a marketer clings to such a passé view of gender, especially as it relates to men, it has the added adverse consequence of leading to unreal insights and weaker creative briefs, and ultimately prevents your marketing from working harder and smarter for you. The purpose of this write-up is to focus on what is occurring and why it is occurring, and determine what the key themes are and their implications on more than one level.

Social Construct

There are many things we believe to be biological in society, primarily because we are told they are, but in many cases science tells a different story. One of the prime examples of that is race, which for many years was looked at as something predetermined, but all current evidence reveals how humans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, are nearly 100% biologically the same. What is different are the circumstances that lead to specific cultures forming around certain groups, which in turn has led to many of the attitudes and beliefs people have about others on racial grounds, i.e., culturally created differences that did not exist before and which do not have a biological basis.

Is race biological? Not if Rachel Dolezal (pictured) and most scientists and anthropologists have something to say about it. Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano/Today show, via Reuters

You probably recall the story of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who was living as a black woman and headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington. This was probably the first time many North Americans ever thought about the notion that someone’s race could be different than the race he or she was born with, further demonstrating it was less about biology and more about society. Rachel had adopted all the cues that indicated that she was black — from her speaking mannerisms to the music she listened to and the causes she supported. If the Facebook ethnic affinity marketing tool was targeting her, she would certainly have been classified as black, even though she was born as a white woman. Society has placed certain symbols to identify one’s race, and for many people, up until the summer of 2015, those fixed elements could not be changed.

So naturally, this makes us wonder: Does the same thing apply to gender? The quick answer is yes (note — one’s sex is something different, and of course it has a biological basis). Gender, like race, has been constructed by society and certain behaviors have been tagged to indicate whether one is male or female, and it has also forced many to feel that they could not be themselves and had to act in a certain way. Thus, many generations of people have led repressed existences due to gender norms.

Younger Millennials and Generation Zers have pushed back on the notion of what is appropriate gender behavior because:

1. They have a deeper understanding of human beings and realize gender is not fixed.

2. They also have grown up in a digital world that has allowed them to have access to more points of view, and thus more opportunity to feel comfortable expressing themselves differently compared to previous generations.

3. Unlike other generations, they actually have role models they can look up to who allow for greater freedom of expression.

Mass Culture

Partly due to norms created by society, there are systems of shared beliefs, behaviors and customs that are formed around a group, which we classify as culture, and without questioning are passed along from one generation to the next. While there have been certain individuals throughout history who have challenged gender norms, such challenges have not been as common as they are today for younger Millennials and Generation Edgers. Just think back to 20 years ago and male role models such as The Rock, The Gallagher Brothers, Barry Bonds (pre-scandal), etc. Now fast forward to 2016, and many of the most famous male role models in North America have given a “middle finger” to how they should act, dress, and respond. Further highlighting this shift is the intersection with race. During the 1990s, society told black men that they needed to be hyper-masculine, but now they are among the leaders who are redefining what it means to be male in contemporary North American society.


Jaden Smith (pictured) is the leader among Generation Z men who have chosen to redefine gender norms. Whether it is what he wears, the poetry he writes, or his philosophical views of the world, he has challenged the expected characteristics of a man. Photo credit: E Online
On Modern Family, Adam Devine (pictured) plays Andy Bailey, the Pritchards’ male nanny. Photo Credit: ABC

Key Themes in Understanding the New Norms of Gender

1. Spectrum — For many young people, the idea of gender is not a binary concept — you are not 100% male or 100% female. Rather, there are varying degrees of gender depending on the individual, day and context, and most people fall in the middle.

2. Self-expression — While previous generations predominately used their musical tastes or extracurricular activities to express themselves, for younger Millennials and Generation Edgers, another attribute to add to the list is gender. They see being gender non-conforming as a mode of self-expression, with many people expressing themselves compared to those of previous generations.

3. Gender-neutral parenting — While we see this avalanche of change among young people today, it is also important to look at those born in the past few years, as Millennial parents have incorporated gender-neutral parenting into their style, e.g., refusing to ascribe certain colors based on gender, using gender-neutral names for children, refusing to reveal a child’s sex, and so on.

4. Pronouns — As we all probably remember from our grammar classes, there are eight pronouns in English: I, you, he, she, it, we, you (plural) and they. When it comes to gender, we traditionally use he (male gender/sex) and she (female gender/sex), but increasingly common among members of younger generations is the use of other pronouns such as “they” or “we” that obscure how they were born or how they want to be treated.

5. Beauty norms — Interestingly, the personal care category for men has recently exploded, and this partly has to do with the changing nature of gender norms. But as one digs a little deeper, one often finds that men tend to claim they use these products for a health purpose rather than for a cosmetic purpose. (Whether it is subconsciously about image and sexual attractiveness is another topic.)

6. (Not) sexuality — Some of you reading this may be Generation Xers who remember gender-bending pop stars from your youth. But there are two key differences between them and members of today’s generations: Most of the time the pop stars’ behavior was mingled with their sexuality, and most of them were British, not North American. Most of the young men who challenge gender today still classify themselves as heterosexual.

Implications for Marketing

When one is marketing a product, in many cases the differences between product A and the rest can be slim to none, and those differences may not be consequential to the average consumer. But when marketing, especially a commodity, in a cluttered market, it is imperative that messaging and associations disrupt the pattern one is used to seeing. For example, in Portland, riding bicycles is the norm, so seeing a bicycle rider is not unusual. (If our minds registered importance to every event, we would have analysis paralysis and never accomplish anything.) But Portland is also home to the World Naked Bike Ride, and since that is not a typical urban event, when I see it, it makes me stop, think, notice and ponder. When marketing to young men, it should be no different, and the direction of creative briefs and their accompanying briefings have perpetuated a dated view of masculinity that is not applicable to many young men in 2016 and make it much harder for one’s advertising to be noticed. Thus, if your brand truly desires to “break through the clutter” when the target is young men, one of the best devices you can use is to express their current understanding of masculinity — a vast difference from how most (if not all) ads now portray them. In addition, when looking through this lens, even in exploratory research phases, it helps to get deeper insights, as your line of questioning will not be based on a fallacious and dated assumption of what it means to be male.


While marketing at its core helps a company make money in order to stay in business, the use of marketing as a device to accomplish this also has broader implications for society as a whole. As ads take hold in culture, they reinforce social norms and mores, but advertising also has the opportunity to challenge thinking and liberate people. So as you take in all this knowledge and apply it through a business lens, as we have demonstrated already, the case is strong and clear for this “rethink.” We also know many marketers take seriously their role in society and culture, and see what they do as much more profound than selling products. For too many years, men in North America have been told they need to speak in a particular way or dress in a particular way or have specific types of interests, and these societal pressures have caused many young men to have physical and emotional stress, or even prevented them from living fulfilling lives. But if we begin to acknowledge and celebrate where these young men are now, we can bring society even further into a world in which our young men can be better versions of themselves because they can be true to themselves. And there are few things on this planet more powerful than that.

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” — Simone de Beauvoir

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