Gender Bende 1

Can We Think of a World without Gender?



The documentary Genderbende (2017, HALAL docs) opens up different ways of thinking about gender.  How does gender influence our daily life? What does it mean to think beyond the box?



“When I go to the bakery, I go to buy a bread, I don’t go to have a ‘gender-experience’ or anything like that,” says Selm, one of the main characters in Genderbende.
But the conversation usually evolves as follows:

Salesperson: “How can I help you, madam?”
Selm: “A bread please.”
Salesperson: “Oh, now I hear it, you’re a man, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, oh how embarrassing.”

The main characters in the documentary Genderbende do not feel male or female. For them, it is nothing special, but people around them get confused. In the third episode of the series Movies & Science: Hidden stories, we talked about the movie with dr. Christine Quinan (Gender Studies, UU). How is gender embedded in our everyday lives? Can we also think ‘outside the box’?

Gender Bende 2
(c) Genderbende,

Not a man, not a woman, but also not transgender

Lisa, Anne, Lashawn, Dennis and Selm do not fit the standard boxes of male or female. Neither do they identify as transgender. They do not feel they have been born in the wrong body, yet they cannot conform to the standards for appearance and behavior that most people associate with either a male or a female body. This was also new for documentary maker Sophie Dros, she tells in an interview with DocTalks (in Dutch). “I always thought you had male, female or transgender. But that there was anything in-between, was totally new for me.” “‘Gender-fluid’, they sometimes call it,” Selm says. “But I don’t like that term. It sounds like you wake up and decide: this morning I’m a guy, but maybe this afternoon I’m a girl. And switch outfits as well.” Selm and the others portrayed in the documentary, do not feel the need to identify as a man or a woman. Society, however, often forces them to. Selm: “I always thought I can decide myself who I am. But I can’t change the way people look at me. You have already decided in your head whether I’m a man or a woman.”

Doing gender

Gender is everywhere. When you visit a public restroom, get a haircut, enter a clothes store, or step on your bicycle. With every paper you fill in, or newsletter you subscribe to, the first question is: are you male or female? It is also in places you maybe haven’t thought about. For example: airport security is gendered. When entering a body scanner, the officer behind the computer actually has to press a button designating whether you are male or female.  Christine Quinan: “Gender is something we do everyday. When we address people, we use male or female pronouns, and when we approach people we make a quick decision in our head: is this person male or female?”

Genderbende shows that being diverse and inclusive is not always smooth, but can also be painful and awkward. People who do not fit the boxes continuously have to explain themselves and answer curious questions. “So, what are you?” “Which box do you tick when you have to choose?” The main characters are happy to explain things, but at the same time, they, like everyone else, just want to be normal.

Quinan studies the effects of sex registration and possible alternatives, mostly in relation to travelling and mobility. Many countries now give the possibility to put an X in your passport, rather than an M or an F (for male of female). Quinan: “Many people I spoke with in my research say it only causes more problems, since it puts them under more scrutiny. Some of them have even changed their X back to M or F.” An X only seems to work when the whole population would get an X, but that seems like a far-fetched dream. In light of current discussions on privacy of information registration, Quinan states: “I think the Netherlands could potentially be the first country to implement this.”


Gender Bende 3
(c) Genderbende,

Let’s talk! 

Not everyone is convinced that gender identity is an urgent issue. Initiatives concerning gender neutral toilets, children’s clothing or the use of neutral pronouns, have been topic of fierce public debate. Quinan: “Why do some people object so strongly to such decisions? It shows that people are personally connected to the topic.” Rather than getting stuck in discussions on toilets or clothes, someone in the audience of the Studium Generale documentary screening suggests, we could use these topics as entry points for a larger conversation. When the Dutch national railways had started to refer to their customers as ‘dear travelers’ instead of ‘ladies and gentlemen’, many people asked: do we really have to make changes to comfort only a very small part of the population? The same question is asked in other discussions about diversity, for example when talking about making buildings accessible for wheelchairs. But maybe it is not the right question. Perhaps these discussions can help us to reflect upon ourselves, and what we find normal. And maybe lead us to get a bit of a broader perspective.

For those who are curious about the omnipresence of gender and the way we use it every day (whether conscious or unconscious), I propose a behavior experiment: try not to use any gendered pronouns for an entire day. Are you able to do so, and does this change the way you look at people?


The documentary Genderbende can be seen entirely on NPO. (Language: Dutch, no subtitles).


Nienke de Haan works as a program editor for Studium Generale, the public platform for knowledge and reflection of Utrecht University. Besides that, she teaches civics and social sciences at a high school in Utrecht. De Haan obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University. Her focus within the field of anthropology lies on prisons and the criminal justice system.

This article is brought to you by Studium Generale, a public platform that organizes public events with scientists and thinkers at the interface of science and society, including lectures, talk shows and movie screenings. Studium Generale poses thought-provoking questions beyond the borders of disciplines. With state-of-the art academic knowledge and reflection, they address an audience of students, professionals and other curious people.