Endless Nameless

Gender reconsidered as “vibes”

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In 2015, a meme declaring that there were “only two genders” began to circulate — typically juxtaposing a mocking or bewildered reaction image to the suggestion that there were more than two genders. The meme’s earliest adopters, ignoring the complexities of human biology, considered this a simple biological fact; the punchline was the apparent absurdity of denying it. 

The meme was easily reclaimed by returning that absurdity. Increasingly surreal spin-offs subverted the initial sentiment by proposing even more arbitrary binaries. Twitter user @frz_sunsetblush riffed that the two genders are “trash” and “yummy cheese.” Tumblr user itsinjustbeing observed, “the two genders are ‘i no longer wish to be perceived’ and ‘i have to be the most fuckable person at the grocery store.’”

Like most forms of comedy, underneath the offbeat and wry tone of these memes is a sincerity much closer to personal truth

As the meme spread, it expanded. A related meme, “Ah yes, the three genders,” followed in the same vein — a tweet by @emmastory features a screenshot of gender options “male,” “female,” and “I have no plans to purchase a new vehicle.” Going even further, @ericweiskott observed 17 genders in a table of baroque composer Charpentier’s descriptions of musical keys and modes, including C major, or “gay and warlike,” and Bb minor, or “obscure and terrible.” Reddit user ironic_mousse responded to a user insisting there were only two genders by declaring “there are 65 genders and every time u complain we add five more.”

This proliferation of wild genders roaming the internet is as much a function of an increasing number of people who know someone who is trans or nonbinary as a sign that how we perform and perceive gender is undergoing a transformation. The act of labelling any loosely related group of items or concepts — positioned as if they were diametrically opposed, or discrete subtypes — as “gender” demonstrates how such categories are, in the most literal sense of the term, socially constructed. It’s an acknowledgement of our tendency to rely on heuristics that seek to make an increasingly complex world thoughtlessly navigable and ready-made for consumption — it’s easier to chunk and categorize than to contend with the possibility that there are more ways to live and understand each other than the delimited version we’ve settled for. And when it becomes clear that the criteria by which we come to register and legitimize categories are arbitrary, it becomes difficult not to question whether the categories we have assigned are either accurate or helpful.

Like most forms of comedy, underneath the offbeat and wry tone of these memes is a sincerity much closer to personal truth. While they playfully push back against the gender binary, they also open up new ways of defining and embodying gender, returning the means of construction to its users — as something less like a binary characteristic, or even an item in a list of options, and more like a “vibe.”

While some may contend otherwise, a universal, clear-cut definition for gender doesn’t quite exist yet. Different dictionaries and professional organizations circle around a vague notion of gender as it relates to how sex is socioculturally perceived, without coming to a cleanly shared consensus. The top definition for gender on Urban Dictionary is “[a] scam invented by bathroom companies to sell more bathrooms. And yet this vagueness is what makes gender a productive and prolific force in certain enclaves of the internet.

Online spaces where engagement is more interest-based — as opposed to directly extending an offline self — are particularly conducive to new conceptualizations of gender. This goes for segments of Reddit and Twitter, and perhaps most famously for Tumblr, which, as noted by user Replicated, is “social media for people who don’t exist.” Neither a physical representation nor a highlight reel, Tumblr is an embodiment of what users devote their attention to. The productiveness of such spaces goes beyond the freedom of self-expression afforded by anonymity, and beyond academic critiques of a binary division of gender. Here, the very irrelevance of the gender binary provides fertile ground for more personally and socially meaningful understandings of gender to flourish.

Engaging with content-based accounts that are purposefully divorced from the user’s personal attributes is more akin to talking to an animate inanimate object. Gendered pronouns become unnecessary altogether. “[D]on’t talk about me,” said Tumblr user horriblebeing in response to another user asking for their preferred pronouns. In this context, the act of asking for someone’s gender becomes suspect. What purpose does knowing someone’s gender serve? What is the intent behind seeking this privileged knowledge? What new value or valence or does it bring to a collection of out-of-context quotes, memes, and film screenshots meant to be consumed in a vacuum? Beyond the practical reasons why someone might not want to disclose their gender, superimposing personal characteristics onto a space designed to be separate from the identifiably personal defeats the purpose of carving out such a space in the first place. Reimposing the trappings of gender on such content becomes as absurd as asking a skeleton or a suit of armor whether they’re a boy or a girl.

Tumblr is an embodiment of what users devote their attention to. Here, the very irrelevance of the gender binary provides fertile ground

Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, made her influential argument that “gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed.” It is in actions and behavior that gender is made legible; it is not an inherent attribute or essence of the subject doing them. The subject does not have a gender until it performs those acts. On certain platforms, this nonexistence is not only made literal, but fully embraced. Relationality is no longer mediated by binary gender norms, or any traditionally recognized conceptions of gender, but by increasingly granular commonalities of experience and emotional valence.

The “Gotta Be One Of My Favorite Genders” meme first appeared as an Instagram post on this year’s International Women’s Day, featuring a Black man standing in front of a car with his hands folded, captioned “Shout out to women’s day fr 🤞 Gotta be one of my favorite genders.” In a little over two weeks, the image had spread across Twitter and Tumblr. Other favorite genders now include a range of inanimate objects and fictional characters, like fangs, bowling alley carpet, and welding. Nearly 12,000 users reblogged a meme naming Hamlet as a “favorite gender.” While most of these users were probably never ordered to commit murder by the ghost of their father, there are certainly moments in life that evoke the feeling of holding the skull of a childhood friend and monologuing about the inevitability of death. What makes this a “gender” and not simply an identification, or a square in a mood board, is that it refers to a mode of being — made up not only of particular characteristics but also feelings, experiences, responses, and potential acts.

This process of publicly cataloguing genders is as much a form of catharsis as it is inside joking. The Twitter bot @gender of the day provides daily highlights of genders like “an ominous black hole,” “the sound of a record skipping,” and “the smell of 6 a.m. just before it starts to hail and sound of dry leaves crunching underfoot.” The account’s stated aim is “outsourc[ing] our feelings about gender to a bot…free[ing] up a lot of mental space for other things.” Tumblr users similarly curate their own personal gender repositories in their tags, declaring that gender is cigarettes and earrings. Gender is hands, scars, and being covered in grime. Gender is mad scientists. Gender is biblically accurate angels. Gender is Renaissance paintings with wounded bodies in recline, transcendent in their exsanguination. 

When users speak of their own genders in this way, this objectification is taken literally. These hypothetical genders, while deliberately whimsical, nonetheless represent in aggregate the user on the platform. And they express real emotional nuances — a real orientation toward oneself and the world. Gender online is no longer something that is witnessed so much as something that is felt — said in another way, it’s measured in mood and vibes.

Formerly a cornerstone of New Agey mysticism, where the invocation of good or bad “auras” or “energies” were euphemistic renderings of social judgment, moods and vibes have become the placeholders of something akin to “atmosphere.” They’ve been called the new frontier of commodification and a means of consumption that is inherently superficial and passive. But the term also captures experiential nuances that are sometimes intense and profound, ones that might otherwise be ignored.

A vibe is neither something intrinsic, nor something that can be externally acquired or dispensed. It’s all-encompassing, if ephemeral, describing both an atmosphere and oneself in relation to that atmosphere — a self and its context, each mutually informing the other. This happens to be a decent working definition of gender itself. Vibes are a potentially more accurate way of describing how gender feels and operates — as something simultaneously transient and ineffable, absolute and all-consuming.

In order to transmute gender into a vibe, users must undergo the labor of both translation and transfiguration — of attempting to articulate something nameless and hyperspecific, and innate, yet recognizable enough to be shared intelligibly. The reward of successfully making something eminently abstract and personal legible enough to be seen and understood is the affirmation afforded by recognition — the social currency of likes, retweets, upvotes, and notes that serve as markers of relatability. More than that, to intelligibly declare something to be a gender is to make it habitable: the affinity we share with the affect or experience conveyed is of home. It’s a home carried upon our backs — a hard shell we are simultaneously inside and outside of, one that we can retreat into for the safety of being surrounded by the essence of our selves. 

Transmuting gender this way is participatory, foregrounding the ways in which gender is relational to begin with. While the legibility of any particular gender is still subject to the judgment of other users and the sociocultural factors that color their engagement, gender-as-vibe is recognized through a spirit of presumed mutuality. Unlike a binary that operationalizes gender as something oppositional and exclusionary, or even a more expansive non-binary gender schema that still delimits gender by discrete labeled categories, gender-as-vibe is received as if we’re looking into the witch’s Magic Mirror in Snow White, asking it if what we see rings true to what we already know. 

The novelty and delight of chancing upon a reflection of yourself renews itself with each serendipitous encounter — small miracles of affirmation and connection that catch us off guard enough to laugh in unexpected self-recognition. And in the case of gender, the more ineffable and niche it is, the more miraculous these connections become. It’s encouragement enough to extend ourselves into the generative gender void beyond. 

It could be argued that this is a conflation of gender with aesthetics. But the “genders” that these posts evoke aren’t tied to external expression so much as intrinsic expressivity. The clothes, props, and atmospheres of aesthetics like dark academia and cottagecore, among others, certainly transform how a user interfaces with the world and with other people. But unlike aesthetics, gender-as-vibe neither preexists nor totalizes the user. It speaks not to something that can be assumed for a time before being taken off and put away like a costume, but a persistent and coherent desire to give form to a particular mode of shifting and nuanced relationality to self and to others. 

For instance, pronouns, previously a fiercely guarded Pandora’s box, have been deconstructed into the quintessence of their grammatical function, imparting even more multifaceted connotations to their referents. The new pronouns, as Tumblr user @l0st-vegas notes, are “she” as in how sailors refer to their boats, “he” as in the way you’d call a shy animal “little guy,” “they” as in the omnipotent collective. Gender is something you can write down and put in your pocket, “carry[ing] it like a small, cherished object.”

Vibes are a potentially more accurate way of describing how gender feels and operates — simultaneously transient and ineffable, absolute and all-consuming

This does not negate an ever-present yearning for physical embodiment. Gender envy is a term typically used by transgender and gender non-conforming people to describe the feeling of intense jealousy they feel towards the physical appearance of someone who embodies their ideal gender. This concept has been used online by both cisgender and transgender people to encompass a strong identification with and desire to be that person. Subjects of gender envy run the gamut from Anime and cartoon characters to influencers and celebrities.

Among the most highly visible targets of gender envy are (mostly) cis, white, emotionally vulnerable men — Harry Styles, Heath Ledger, Gerard Way, Bruce Springsteen, Dean Winchester, Will Graham — who have in common an ability to perform femininity and show vulnerability without fear of being harmed because of it. This is echoed in a subset of curated genders that fall under “intentionally botched femininity” — women in suits and suits of armor, the gothic heroine and the final girl in horror — someone who survives by assuming and rejecting femininity and masculinity.

These genders are impossible to attain, much like it’s impossible to sustainably embody gender as inherently ephemeral affects and modes of relationality. It’s something that can only be approximated, through the limited means of expression and perception afforded to a physical body through fixed sociocultural criteria. There’s a certain flavor of loss attached to saturating yourself in images of an ideal — in looking so closely and extensively at an imago that it almost becomes akin to gazing into a mirror, providing an elusive reflection of the self that is negated as soon as you look away.

But the state of being envious is in itself productive — because in the act of coveting what we cannot have, we acknowledge that we do want to be something other than the static conception of self that has been prescribed to us. Ultimately, what gender envy covets is a body that is no longer shaped by social and environmental factors out of our control. A body that is not beholden to congealed notions of what is considered “natural” and punished for deviating from it. A body that can reclaim possibilities of expression that it has been dispossessed of. We are invited to question the reasons why these modes of existing in the world have been foreclosed to us and can begin to strive towards them, even if the closest we can reach is asymptotic at best. 

And in the act of curating an assemblage of desired forms of embodiment, we allow the boundaries of our selves to become more porous — to no longer filter our experiences and encounters through an externally imposed sieve of normality or congruity that adjudicates what is valid, meaningful, or worthy of attention on our behalf. Gender-as-vibe, much like gender envy, admits a self that is in flux — that generates a multiplicity of embodiments by simply being in the world.

Anne Carson posited that eros, or desire, is a verb — something that cannot be fixed or held without losing its essence, a state of perpetual triangulation between the desirer, what is desired, and that which prevents their joining. Gender is also a verb — it is a state of constant yearning and transition, a straining of the imagination to realize a state of being that can only be partially achieved by abandoning at least a part of the self as it stands. And it’s in this self-annihilation that self-creation becomes possible. 

To begin to transubstantiate gender as the expansiveness it has manifested online is to revel in instability. To no longer forsake your own complexity out of fear of being unintelligible — even to yourself.

Gender is inherently transient — something that maintains a guise of stability by hiding its entropy. Its changes have been recorded throughout history, reflecting shifting values, beliefs, and norms. On the internet, this process of continuous transformation manifests in the pathos of mood boards and the bathos of memes — in how we keep our IRL identities close to our chests yet share our most intimate and inchoate desires in a bid to be seen and understood.

Gender as it has been reconfigured online is much like vibes in the sense of vibration — in other words, like music (unsurprisingly, there are also plenty of genders that are songs). It is always in media res — simultaneously ephemeral yet persistent, composed of moments of consciousness that continually renew themselves; as each moment dies, another rises to build off the echoes. And while it lacks a tangible past or future as it is experienced, it still contains memory — it can be invoked, kept in the archives of an infinite scroll. It is something ineffable but inhabitable — something that suffuses and transfigures. Gender is a resonance between self and world achieved by instrumentalizing the ether of the internet — a rarefied form of self that is no longer stymied by the limits of the body and the looking glass.

Gender-as-vibe, much like gender envy, admits a self that is in flux — that generates a multiplicity of embodiments by simply being in the world

During 2020’s Trans Awareness Week, ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio wrote in an Instagram post that he “dream[s] of a future where we recognize that there is no such thing as irreversibility when it comes to how we inhabit our bodies,” where “the capaciousness we bring into the world” is no longer constrained, and “[e]ach engagement with our body is part of a journey in which pain, trauma, joy, pleasure and everything in between and beyond are mapped onto the story of how we see and embrace ourselves.” 

What it means to say that gender is a social construct is to acknowledge the power we have to determine what makes it “real” — to shape what it means to us and the people around us. It means that gender is not a binary, or even a spectrum of characteristics, but a network of ways to understand ourselves and relate to each other that shifts and transforms over time. It’s a never-ending process of discovering the multitudes we contain, and the multiplicity of possible ways to express them. As Tumblr user unknought notes, the question is no longer “What am I, really?” but “What do I want?” and “What will make me happy?”

This is one way we can “make gender trouble” — to delight in the act of creation, and to refuse to be intelligible. Because in a year when an unprecedented number of anti-trans bills are moving through state legislatures, when entrenched notions of gender continue to be used to justify violence, having a space where gender lies not in physicality but in pith, where we can craft and share the vision of a life written, directed, and produced by our own hands, is vital.

Vivian Lam is a writer, editor, and unrepentant shower singer based in San Francisco. They currently serve as the assistant health and biomedicine editor at The Conversation US.