Symbolic gestures may be important in establishing a sense of belonging in the public domain. But are they sufficient? This became evident at the Brit Awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Grammys, which had merged its categories for best male and best female artist of the year into one gender-neutral top prize a little more than a year ago. This year, the top prize had no female nominations. At a time when other major cultural award shows in the West, including the Tony Awards and the Academy Awards, are facing pressure to include non-binary artists and gender-neutral categories, the experience at the Brits reveals the challenges that can arise from instituting experimental, seemingly inclusive, sections. Of course, the need to appear unbiased cannot be understated given the overwhelming gender bias of entertainment industries around the world. Women make up only about 20% of artists and 14% of songwriters signed to British record labels and publishers. The patterns of discrimination, it can be argued, are certainly global: India is not immune to them either.
The momentum towards adopting gender-neutral language — be it on the cricket field where the word, batsman, is being replaced with ‘batter’ or in the dictionary which is now acknowledging the fluid lines of gender — is welcome; the intention seems to be to shed the trappings of a binary imagination. But these labels can also be cosmetic. For instance, the European Parliament was one of the first international organisations to adopt guidelines on gender-neutral language. But an inclusive language has not airbrushed reality. On average, European women have to work an extra 51 days per year to earn the same amount as their male colleagues and only 20 out of 47 European nation states cover discrimination based on gender identity.
The world, albeit with notable exceptions, becoming less reactionary to gender is heartening news. But there is a real possibility that the urgency to create a level playing field is leading to the generation of newer forms of exclusion. Moreover, gender neutrality implies a blindness about gender: what does this mean for cultural tolerance for diverse gender forms and expressions? What is needed perhaps for a more equitable world is visibility, not blindness. There is an attendant — broader — question: can gender neutrality be synonymous with gender equality?
This is not an argument in favour of bringing back gendered categories. The argument is one against the myopia which imagines that placatory gestures are enough to level the playing field for all.