In an article for WIRED magazine, Bruce Sterling describes design fiction: “[it] doesn’t tell stories — instead, it designs prototypes that imply a changed world.” In connecting design fiction, fact, and fiction, Julian Bleeker has a different stance, arguing that design fiction does actively tell stories: “design fiction tells a story, fiction and fact coming together, conversation pieces.”
My impossible project is one that combines Sterlings understanding with Bleekers. It is a design fiction product that imagines a changed world but also tells a story that has both fictitious and real components.
The recent North Carolina HB2 law inspired me partly, as an anti-queer piece of legislation that revokes queer discriminations protections, but also — in a weird moment of fear-mongering and mis-information — mandates that transgender individuals use the bathroom associated with their birth sex.
I see misinformation about sex and gender being reproduced in the media, by politicians, and even otherwise critical journalists all the time. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine. To break it down: sex is biological and refers to the type of genitalia a person is born with, whether a vagina, penis, or an intersex rendition. Sex is referred to male, female, or intersex. Gender is completely socially constructed and exists in myriad expressive forms, on a spectrum from masculine to feminine, as man or woman or other. In the US and many, many other countries world wide, the type of gender expression that is socially acceptable is typically linked to biological sex, even though expression of your gender does not have to (and in many cases is not) linked to what kind of genitalia you have.
For example, in the US is it socially acceptable for women to participate in a gendered processes of feminine adornment, whether with make-up or dresses and highheels. However, the queer movement has been steadily attempting to de-link sex from determining gender expression, to allow people more choice in their expressions of gender no matter what their sex is. Your sex no long has to determine your gender expression. We see this happening when women started wearing traditionally masculine clothing, like pants and suits. We see this happening when Young Thug wears dresses or Jayden Smith models feminine clothing, or when Jeffree Star wears bright pink hair and beautiful make-up.
We also see this happening with growing acceptance of trans individuals: trans people actively transgress the ridged marriage of sex and gender, breaking down traditional understandings of what being a woman means, or being a man means. Womanhood doesn’t have to require a vagina and manhood doesn’t have to require a penis. A male doesn’t have to be a man, a female doesn’t have to be a woman.
Legislature like HB2 is an attempt to stop the spectrum movement and relegate sex and gender back into a binary (male/man, female/woman). A binary system is significant because is allows for easy reproduction of power differentials and inequality since “less than” members of the system as easily identified in a binary. (In this case, obviously, males/men/masculinity cling to the power the binary affords them, as individuals possessing a penis, while females/women/femininity is demeaned and exploited). Breaking into a spectrum method of thinking about gender is a threat to this power binary, so it becomes understandable (though not justifiable) why politicians and the conservative right would want to quash trans and queer movements.
My impossible project is the absurdist extreme of the bind between sex and gender the conservative right so desperately wants to preserve. It is a door handle that can be installed in any bathroom; it functions like a thumb-print door handle, but actually looks into DNA and determines the sex chromosomes of the person; if the sex chromosomes don’t match the gendered bathroom, the person is not allowed access. So, a transwoman would be barred from the women’s restroom (as would a transman be barred from the men’s restroom), even if they have been living as wo/men, had hormone therapy, etc. It is a way for the right to “guarantee” that men (by their understanding, people with a penis) can only use the men’s room and women (by their understanding, people with a vagina) can only use the women’s restroom. This is why it is called “THE KNOW” — so that the right can know when it’s a “real” woman or “real” man. (again, the importance here being that they link the “realness” of gender expression to sex).
The project also alludes the larger absurdity of the gender binary and even suggests an element of absurdity to gendered bathrooms in general. It was mentioned in class that many countries in Europe only offer gender neutral restrooms, seeing no need for the distinction. In his article, Sterling argued that objects represents more than themselves: “a fork exists so that aristocrats could avoid staining their fingers with gravy. The fork is a tool for class distinction.” My door knob is more than just a door knob: it is a tool for gender/sex distinction.
The project itself took shape as a marketing brochure I made in Adobe InDesign. Visually, I took cues from bad, corporate medical-device type brochures. (This was also a somewhat ironic element of the piece — that the same groups/party that decries evolution is totally willing to embrace “only the most modern advances in science” when it comes to enforcing the gender binary). For the written pieces, I actually read through several blog posts from conservative right groups Family Research Council and American Family Association blog posts regarding HB2 and trans rights. I also took real quotes from Senator Ted Cruz and the president of American Family Association regarding the “bathroom bills.”
In this way, I was able to weave Bleeker’s idea of fact and fiction: H2B is a real bill, and trans people using bathrooms that associate with their gender rather than their sex is apparently a “problem” the conservative right views as relevant. The quotes and organizations are real. The discrimination is real. This massive effort to continue enforcement of the gender binary is real. The door handle that can tell your sex by reading your chromosomes is not real — but its design fiction serves to imply a changed world, a world where who you’re able to be, where you’re allowed to go, and what you’re able to do is controlled by something as arbitrary as an X or Y chromosome. It also suggest the other possibility: the spectrum based approach discussed above.
In this way, I think achieved what Bleeker characterized as a pinnacle goal of design fictions, “[they] speculate, reflects and extrapolate, looking at today from the side, or sideways and forming a critical, introspective perspective that can project into new (future) forms.” By calling out the absurdity of the bathroom bills and forced connection between sex and gender, it opens the possibility for the opposite. The possibility of a genderqueered world that breaks the binary and allows for a myriad of empowered choices in self expression.