Gender binarism probably wasn’t on the renowned Japanese photographer’s mind when he snapped this shot. But what I found most striking about it was the fuzziness of traditional gender constructs.
Kubota, Hiroji. Boy & Girl in front of Mandalay Hill. Myanmar (Burma), 1978.
I love this photograph for two reasons.
First, the title of the work. It informs us that we are looking at a boy and a girl. But who is who? Dressed in traditional Burmese garments, sporting buns and straggly long hair, the children’s genders are indeterminate – at least to someone like me, looking through the lens of a foreign culture. I love the neutrality of their facial features as well. While both of them are striking and interesting to look at, they do not carry traits that can be discernibly identified as either feminine or masculine.
Because, (say it with me now, so we can chime in to the sonorous chorus of social justice warriors reverberating through every corner of the internet, bouncing off every social media platform and echoing through every online magazine) gender is a social construct.
Without culture to limit our expressions of gender, there are no rules. The picture is proof that however an article of cloth is purposed on a person’s body – wrapped around a child’s waist like a sarong, or cut and stitched and folded into a button-up shirt – whether it is “meant for” boys or “more appropriate” for girls is arbitrary.
We already know this. Yet, we are still decidedly uncomfortable with sartorial choices that don’t seem “natural” to us. That don’t abide by the rules as defined by our own culture.
My mother recently stumbled upon FFC-Acrush, an up-and-coming Chinese boy band made up on ridiculously good-looking women who identify as genderless and adopt an androgynous style in their dressing (think typical K-pop pretty boy street fashion) and mannerisms.
Mortified, she told me (very earnestly I might add): “My goodness, this is going to turn more women lesbian!”
“No that’s okay, if we send enough bikini-clad, big-breasted women to the Pink Dot event, we’ll be able to make all the gay men straight and it’ll balance,” I replied. (Yeah, my mom was pretty pissed.)
It takes an image like this to remind us that the boundaries of gender are fluid. Those boundaries that our forefathers have set down for us have no biological underpinnings. This isn’t an idea planted by the progressive liberals to promote their agendas – just look at indigenous cultures from other parts of the world, each with their interpretations of gender.
The second thing I love about this is its timelessness. The dye-transfer print was made in 1978, but I’m only seeing the picture now, in 2017, hanging on the wall of a little gallery in Singapore.
And still, though decades have elapsed since Mr Kubota first snapped this shot, he managed to capture an intensity, in the eyes on the child on the left, and an innocence – the playful but timid smile of the child on the right, the slouching of the shoulders, fingers pressed tightly together, curious and cautious, waiting for permission to exist within the viewfinder – that transcend historical context.
I knew nothing about life in Burma in the 1970s, yet the photograph moved me deeply. So much that I thought about it for days. Because it showed me something familiar that I recognised and understood, and longed for: the quivering wonder about the world that one possesses in childhood and forgets with age. Great art will do that to you. At its finest, it is unencumbered by its origin or its artist’s intention. It is able to carry powerful imagery across time and space, plant them in hearts to germinate into fresh ideas that may one day, too, spread far and wide.