The ROM’s Most Thought-Provoking Exhibit

A Third Gender

Madeleine Anderson – CONTRIBUTOR


Given the current discourse of non-binary gender expression at this university, the exhibit A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints is especially important.

In the past month and a half, one professor’s refusal to use non-binary gender pronouns and the controversy surrounding that position has dominated the conversation on gender expression. It is in this debate about the rejection of “political correctness” that the exhibit A Third Gender is powerfully educating the public on the history of diverse gender expressions throughout the globe.

The exhibit showcases the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) of Japan when, in between puberty and adulthood, there was a stage in every biological male and some female’s life when they were neither man nor woman but wakashu. This is understood as a third gender with their own way of expressing themselves sexually and visually (the hallmark of a wakashu was a shaved patch of hair on the top of the person’s head and the hair in front of that bald spot arranged in a specific way).

A point that the curators stress is that this was not a subversive or marginalized expression, but something every man went through. Wakashu were such a prominent symbol of energy and excitement in their culture that they were major figures in celebratory prints, many of which were displayed in the museum.

In the museum’s introductions, the wakashu are described as young males between puberty and adulthood. It is true that every male went through the period of wakashu, but some males continued as wakashu long into adulthood. There were also females who lived as wakashu despite it not being a required period in females’ lives as it was for males. The museum’s choice to acknowledge these variations emphasizes an understanding that multiplicity is an integral part of this conversation.

The exhibit does not shy away from showing the sexual aspects of the wakashu. These young males and females, who sometimes worked as prostitutes, were subjects of desire for both men and women. The erotic print makers of the time depicted them in a wide range of sexual acts. These erotic prints include passionate embraces, intimate entanglements, and every pairing of man, woman, and wakashu.

The thought-provoking experience was not limited to the exhibit itself. Due to the layout of the second floor and the position of the exhibit, all patrons have to walk past two “all gender” washrooms on their way to A Third Gender. This choice was inspired in part by the exhibit and will continue to exist after the exhibit ends on November 27th to continue to normalize non-binary gender identities.

With gender at the forefront of many people’s mind, this dynamic and thorough presentation of gender being experienced in a way that challenges our cultural norms is invaluable for thinking about gender and sexual identity in a larger, historical scope.