READ| 19 April 2020

Text: Zoe Oreopoulos
Pictures: Kao Saephan
Teaser: Celine Lika

Zoe is a bachelor student at Humboldt University of Berlin, with a minor in gender studies. In this essay, she reacts to the most common questions she gets when she tells someone what she’s studying and how people’s reactions have changed lately. Zoe also writes about how Beyoncé inspired her to pursue gender studies, why this research area is important, and that she’s convinced the future is female. 

Come again?
You're studying what?
Well isn't that … interesting.
So, are you a feminist?
Never heard of it!
Can you earn a living with that?
Are you gay?

Those are just some of the replies that I receive when I answer the age-old question of ‘So, what do you do?’ I’m pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the Humboldt University in Berlin, with a major in American studies and a minor in gender studies.

The first part most people don’t really seem to care about. A select few, who apparently never fulfilled their dream of becoming a stand-up comic, immediately assume my support for the Tweeter-in-chief currently gracing the Oval Office, but that's about it. 

On the other hand, the topic of gender studies seemingly invokes a deeply rooted confusion and humorous belittlement in most. The term seems to hit a wall in people´s minds, they don’t know what to think or feel about it. Some seem unsure whether they really want to know more about my studies and fill their follow-up questions with puzzlement and some sort of fear. In a career driven society that’s based on competition, the notion of studying diversity seems pointless and unimaginable.

The subject of gender studies in Germany is still accompanied by a certain sensitivity. And to a degree, I understand why: Humans seem to possess a fear of the unknown. In the United States, gender studies have been a part of the college curriculum since the late 1960s and the Netherlands followed soon after in 1976. In Germany, however, only 6 universities offer gender studies. For a bachelor’s degree, it is only offered as a minor. At least if you choose to pursue gender studies for your master’s degree, you are presented with some more opportunities. A part of the bewilderment that I am so often met with derives from the fact that most people living in Germany have simply never encountered gender studies. 

Now why did I choose this controversy-sparking minor? Well, to tell you the truth, it came about as a snap decision. After graduation from school, I had no freaking clue what was coming for me next. I knew that I wanted to attend a university, I wanted it to be in English and if it had to be in Germany, then I wanted it to be in Berlin. So, one morning, my mom and I sat down, looked through all the courses that fitted my admittedly specific criteria and stumbled upon gender studies.

My interest in women's and LGBTQ+ rights had grown significantly throughout my adolescence, fuelled by the #MeToo movement, the United States and Germany legalizing same-sex marriage and, obviously, Beyoncé telling me that I run the world. When you boil it down, I have a very simple reason for choosing gender studies. It seems to offer me the opportunity to be a part of the positive transformation of our global society towards inclusion and openheartedness. Being a white, middle-class, straight girl (I mean, never say never, but for the moment at least), I can navigate my future much more easily than many other women and girls. So why not use my privilege for the greater good? Cheesy I know, yet true.

What do you even learn about? Another frequent question. To summarize, we learn about the role women and members of the LGBTQ+ community play in every single part of the work force and social life, how important it is and how we can expand it. Things like showing people respect by using the correct pronouns or no pronouns at all, recognizing the discrimination many still face in their everyday lives, how it varies from person to person and how we can work together towards minimizing it and learning about the history, significance and cultural appropriation of vogueing.

Admittedly, sometimes certain points seem so overly politically correct that it is difficult to accept them, and I catch myself laughing at them. But I am taught how to respect and deal with it. I´m not training to be a part of the political correctness police force, but I am learning to not accept discrimination just because it is wrapped up into a funny joke with a bow on the top. 

I'm aware that many shake their heads and let out a judgemental sigh at my course of study, but just like Marty McFly, I know the future and it is female, it is colourful and it is diverse. In the last couple of years, large companies, the movie industry and the political sector have re-evaluated their lack of representation and diversity and have taken some appropriate measures to fix their own mess. In the world of medicine, Germany has distanced yet not abolished itself from forcing intersexually born children to undergo a gender assigning operation.

The economic sector, which was able to fool my parents into buying the same unnecessary items all over again after my little brother was born (but this time in ocean-blue), has begun to evolve. Now toys aren't preparing girls for their futures as housewives or showing boys their future careers as engineers, and Barbie doesn't resemble the unrealistic body ideal that was Cindy Crawford in the 80s. In recent years, more and more gender-neutral items have hit the market and have made consumers more aware of their actions.

To ensure that these developments continue to stay intact and grow further, the different sectors will rely on people with my (and I do not mean to quote ‘taken’) set of skills to be on the frontlines of change. This way, society will slowly but surely open up to accepting people of all genders and sexual orientations as leaders and valuable members of every community.

While the beginning of the text might make it seem like I have only received negative responses at the mention of gender studies, I need to tell you (and myself repeatedly) that it is not all bad. Spanning generations, race and class I’ve earned positive feedback for following my interests and not choosing one of those subjects that are as traditional as the British monarchy – no offense.

It’s been a little over a year since I first started telling people about my study plans, and I’ve noticed a shift in the responses. Lately more and more 40+-year-olds have told me how important gender studies will be in the years to come and how they have witnessed the movement towards diversity in our society as positive and necessary.

The same goes for people my age. Some still laugh at me, some judge me, but some also tell me how they thought about studying it themselves and find it very interesting. I have come to terms with the fact that I will not please everyone.

At the very least, sometimes I like knowing that I can shock certain ignorant people with two simple words.