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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > December 2016 > Playing with gender

Playing with gender

The question of “trans” is at the heart of a new culture war. But centuries of box office history reveal that the line between male and female has always been clouded

If William Shakespeare were alive today and picked up a copy of Time Out, he might find himself pausing over the theatre listings. At a pop-up space in King’s Cross, the Donmar Warehouse is currently hosting a season of his plays Julius Caesar, both parts of Henry IV and The Tempest. No doubt he’d have been thrilled to see that he remains in fashion, albeit a little thrown that in these all-female productions not one male actor appears on stage. In November, at the Old Vic, former Labour MP Glenda Jackson will make her long-awaited return to the stage as King Lear. She will definitely not be Queen Lear: the production is billed as “gender-blind.”

It’s not just on stage that gender roles appear to be more fluid than they used to be. Jill Soloway’s Amazon Prime sitcom Transparent follows a retired professor named Mort Pfeffermen as he ponders gender-reassignment surgery and tries to find a new life as Maura. Two years ago, Laverne Cox, who plays a fireman-cumhairdresser in Netflix’s prison drama Orange is the New Black, became the first transgender woman to be nominated for an acting Emmy. Even more strikingly, mainstream British television has started to explore trans issues. Rebecca Root’s turn in the BBC’s Boy Meets Girl was the first starring role for a transgender actor in a prime-time series. There is also Annie Wallace in Hollyoaks, and Riley Carter Millington’s ongoing role in EastEnders, the latter a rare example of a female-to-male transgender actor.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is loosening up. In September, its editors added the phrase “gender-fluid,” alongside other recent entries including “cisgender,” “genderqueer,” “gender identity,” “trans” and “Mx” (a form of address that leaves gender unspecified). The OED defined “gender-fluid” as either “not clearly or wholly male or female; androgynous,” or “designating a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender.” They point out that the first, faintly negative, usage dates back to 1987.

Gender is the story of the moment—perhaps of our age. Barely a week goes by without its boundaries being redrawn. Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover in July 2015 felt like a watershed; so too does the bitter controversy about “bathroom rights” in the United States, with some states passing legislation to make people use the bathroom that matches their birth gender. LGB has evolved into LGBT, then LGBTI, the “I” standing for “intersex,” defined in 2015 by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights as anyone born with “sex characteristics… that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.”

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.