Beware the BuzzFeed quiz-ification of our lives

In middle school, my best friend and I developed a tried-and-true Friday night routine. We spent hours lying on the couch in my basement listening to Fall Out Boy, demolishing a pizza, sipping cranberry Sierra Mist from wine glasses — rest in peace, Sierra Mist; you served two twelve-year-old girls well — and taking BuzzFeed personality quizzes on our phones until our thumbs cramped. We would take the same quiz at the same time, using each question as talking points in our endless quest to learn everything about one another.
Along the way, we ruthlessly debated which favorite colors and cities and animals we should pick. It was a good pastime for preteens, a gateway to deep conversation and a surface-level way to feel like we belonged. After all, there had to be plenty of other middle school girls out there who could proudly bear the stamp of being deemed just like Captain America or Gerard Way or Katniss Everdeen by 10 quick questions on BuzzFeed.
As the years have gone on, though, nobody has grown out of the categorization that occupied our young minds. In fact, it’s been ramped up and magnified. In a world where every thought is expected to be articulated in 280 characters and every person summed up in a 160-character bio to enhance their “personal brand,” categories are not only what we cling to — they sometimes feel like the only thing we have left.
We are all infinitely categorizable, and with the exponentially-growing number of categories available — from personality tests to esoteric TikTok aesthetics that require a decoder ring to understand — it’s no wonder that our lives have become increasingly centered around declaring our own and others’ categories.
In our brave new world, Instagram bios declare zodiac signs and political affiliations — beware, libertarian Capricorns, these selfies and cat videos belong to a democratic socialist Scorpio. The Steelers or Mets sticker on someone’s car can make or break your opinion of them. Even across our campus, office doors and dorm hallways are adorned with declarations of Hogwarts houses and Clifton strengths, and I, not immune to humanity’s craving for neat categorization and habit of in-group bias, admittedly feel more at ease when I knock on the door of a Ravenclaw who scored high in the “intellection” category.
But what is the value of categories outside of the small relief of finding a place where, in some small and ultimately hollow way, you fit in? Today, when strict factions and cabalistic debates reign supreme, it seems that our penchant for categorization only drives us further into the trenches, all while imbuing us with a misguided sense of supreme understanding — so-and-so is a Leo, political science major and “South Park” fan, and they campaigned for Bernie Sanders. Case closed. As is the case in most facets of life right now, any complexity is denied at the outset and replaced with an enumerated set of judgements that leave no room for individuality.
Human connection is built on more than taxonomy, empathy is more than an exercise in uniformity and relationships must eventually transcend lying side-by-side taking BuzzFeed quizzes. But the simplification of identity trudges further still into the dangerous territory of gatekeeping — and Gen Z is the prime culprit.
Gen Z is credited with busting the binary wide open, shaking up and occasionally eliminating altogether the stiff rules of gendered and sexual expression. But from my view at the eye of the storm, I’m doubtful. No — I’m convinced that this is fundamentally untrue.
Yes, one in five Gen Z adults identify as queer, according to Gallup. I’m sure that’s accurate; in fact, I wonder if the statistic is a bit low. Yes, these queer identities are generally accepted and even celebrated by Gen Z. But — not to sound like a conservative pundit — the number of highly-specialized categories that have sprung up and the rules of personal presentation and behavior that members of said categories must follow is, frankly, becoming a bit ludicrous.
“Gender and sexuality is a spectrum,” Gen Z agreed. “Now, line up single-file and point to where on this spectrum you land so we know exactly how to sort you.” Depending on your identity, you are expected to indulge in specific stereotypes — a practice which, if applied to any other aspect of identity, seems like a highly offensive approach to life. Bisexuals cuff their jeans and drink iced coffee. Lesbians wear cargo pants. Gay men are bad drivers — or at least make jokes about being bad drivers — and can’t sit normally in a chair to save their lives.
The list goes on and on, pervading the construction of identities and dictating the strictly-delineated permissible activities of certain identities until it finally infects public discourse. Just last week, for example, Harry Styles was at the center of a queerbaiting debate for, among other things, dressing flamboyantly and painting his nails, which are practices that supposedly belong only to queer men.
It is unclear if Styles identifies as queer, and if he does, he should not have to declare it publicly. There have been plenty of cases as of late in which a celebrity is “called out” for “queerbaiting” — holding hands with a woman, in the recent case of actor Kit Connor — only to be forced to publicly declare their queer sexuality to justify the permissiveness of entirely innocuous behavior to the blood-hungry public. Coming out is an intensely personal experience. Besides that fact, there are plenty of people who, far from being afraid to come out, simply feel that they do not owe anyone an explanation of their sexuality or gender. It is not a central fact to their identity but rather an incidental facet, the way that there is a difference between being a Parrothead and someone who occasionally sings “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at karaoke. Being shoved out of the closet is unacceptable, no matter how well-known or safe somebody is. Full stop.
If at the end of the day Styles buys into the BuzzFeed quiz culture and announces he’s completely straight and cisgender, he should still not be barred from flamboyant expression. Gen Z cannot seriously claim to be busting the binary when they’re also busting Styles’s chops for “stepping out of line” and wearing feather boas and sequins. All this does is reinforce a stricter, more complicated binary full of incomprehensible intricacies.
Demanding that anybody justify their actions or expression purely by virtue of who they prefer to sleep with or how they personally construct their gender identity is just absurd. Not only does it impede any sort of progress toward a more fluid, open and accepting society, it also shuts us all up in boxes with no room to breathe. I have had innumerable encounters with fellow Zoomers who worry that they do not look or act “queer enough” to be a member of the community. As one friend pointed out to me, there is a big difference between affirming one’s identity and conforming one’s identity, but nobody seems to recognize the contrast. They see a category, apply superficial expectations and move on thoughtlessly.
There are plenty of reasons why we rush into the warm embrace of categories. They give us a sense of self. A sense of purpose. A sense of belonging in a big world. But when communities turn to policing, gatekeeping and attacking others — when they make people feel inadequate or insecure and demand that everyone consent to the BuzzFeed quiz-ification of their lives — they turn sour. I fear this is the direction we are headed in.
The binary, for a long time, was a comfortable two-room house in which we lived. Everybody slept in one room or the other: male or female, gay or straight. Depending on the room, certain stereotypes were applied to you. But we became dissatisfied with this house, how one room always seemed better-insulated than the other, with softer beds and bigger windows. Instead of moving away or constructing anew, though, we just kept building additional rooms: an attic, a basement, a turret, a staircase or three. We all got lost in the Winchester Mystery House we built.
Now is the time to seriously consider tearing down the house altogether.