Gender is a huge topic and, until a few years ago, I didn’t realise just how big it is. Back then, I had no idea that many people don’t view it as binary, that some men don’t realise it applies to them, and that thinking about how society expects us to act based on what gender others perceive us to be can utterly infuriating… at the very least! So, when somebody from Taschen asked if I would be interested in reviewing a book about “the differences between the two sexes”, I was intrigued. The blurb sounded interesting in places but rather problematic in others, so I figured I just had to take a look for myself. This is a snippet about the book on Amazon:
Imagine a setting in which a man wearing a dress might be as habitual as a woman in trousers. Where a woman exposing herself in public wasn’t sexy, but as creepy as a male flasher. Where professional status and success presented the same prospects for both sexes.
In this first in a new series for TASCHEN, leading graphic designer Yang Liu tackles one of the hottest, and one of the oldest, topics of all: he and she. Drawing on the experiences, challenges and many perspectives on men and women she has encountered in her own life, Yang Liu distils the vast, swirling question of gender to bold, binary pictograms.
Dealing with a whole host of situations from the bedroom to the boardroom, Yang Liu’s designs are as simple and accessible in their presentation as they are infinite in the associations, evocations and responses they elicit. Combining age-old stereotypes with topical discrepancies, this fresh approach to the roles and relationships of men and women is above all an effort to synthesize a notoriously thorny issue into a fun and refreshing graphic form, and so to lighten and enlighten our mutual understanding and tolerance.
My first problem with the book is the colour scheme. OK, so it’s not the now ubiquitous “pink for girls, blue for boys”, but the feminine perspective is still represented by pink. Don’t get me wrong, I really love bright fuchsia and magenta colours… I just loathe the way that so many products aimed at women are now coloured pink for no apparent reason. Of course, this book may be attempting to draw attention to that fact in its use of the colour pink, but replacing blue with green doesn’t make this sea of pink any less obnoxious. To me, at least.
In the first part of the book, we are shown that men love tools and women love clothes. Women talk for hours on the phone and are good at multitasking. Men never ask for directions and keep stuff in their pockets rather than a bag. So far so fucking infuriating. Its only when Yang Liu starts to tackle issues surrounding the workplace and society’s expectations that things start to get a bit interesting, and that’s two thirds of the way through the book. Her illustration of society’s double standards around a number of different issues does actually go some way to show that this kind of gender bullshit is a problem to us all. Yes, gender is not just about “women’s issues.”
However, when viewing the book as a whole, I can’t help but think that reducing complex discussions about gender to a pink covered stocking filler of a book has merely resulted in rehashing the same tired old stereotypes. It’s like every sexist cliché from every women’s/men’s magazine has simply been distilled into a very pretty format, and I’m not entirely sure what this was supposed to achieve. The artist says in her introduction that she wants to encourage people to look at things from the viewpoint of the “opposite sex” (yup, I used the quotes because I don’t think that gender is binary), but I’m not convinced that these illustrations will make people think about or modify their own behaviour in any way.
It’s worth mentioning that Liu does also say this book is “a visual documentary of my personal views on the subject of communication between men and women.” I’m sure what is contained in these pages will resonate with some people, but I really can’t recommend it. If you’re genuinely interested in looking at gender issues from another perspective, I’d suggest reading what Juliet Jacques has to say on the subject and watching CN Lester’s My Genderation video. Now that will get you thinking.
DISCLOSURE: I was sent a copy of Man meets Woman free to review by Taschen.