Explorations of Gender Roles and Presentation Through Androgyny

INTRODUCTION 

Andreja Pejic, James W. Quinn.

Androgyny has meant many things over its lifespan, and it will continue to evolve and change in the years to come. New understandings emerge as history happens and as society and individuals find new configurations and have new insights into the constructions of gender. Being androgynous doesn’t mean one thing to all people, making it a space within which many people have been able to explore their own relationship to gender presentation and embodiment. In this top ten list, you will see short snapshots of examples of androgyny, briefly from the Classical tradition, and more extensively from the 1970s and 1980s United States.

 

1. DEFINITION

“The Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” Arheon.

While androgyny’s meaning has changed over time and has different connotations based on the context it’s used in, it’s generally understood to be having both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine characteristics present, either psychological or physical, within an individual. It comes from the Greek ἀνδρόγυνον, a combination of the words “andros,” meaning man, and “gune,” meaning woman.

“The Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” Arheon.

Androgynes have often been confused with “hermaphrodites,” although they have very different histories and connotations. In the classical tradition, androgyne is often associated with origin, and a spiritual or psychological condition of wholeness based on the joining of masculine and feminine, which are seen as complementary. On the other hand, hermaphrodite is portrayed as the physiological combination of noncomplementary bodies brought together, or the displacement from origin. [1] 

 

2. ANDROGYNE IN GREEK MYTH  

“Aristophanes’ Symposium Myth,” Qicrystals.

An early depiction of the androgyne is in Plato’s Symposium, wherein the character Aristophanes spins a tale of the origins of human love. According to him, there used to exist three sexes, male, female, and a third “composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female.” [2] They all had four arms and four legs, and two faces looking opposite ways on one head; they walked upright in either direction, and did continuous cartwheels with all their limbs out straight when running. They were consequently very strong, and so, fearing overthrowal, the king of the gods Zeus decided to decrease their strength by splitting them in two [3]. Thus, they were all cut in half and spent the rest of their lives yearning to find their other half and be molded back together.

Cartwheeling, MMA Spot.

This is how Aristophanes explains how “mutual love [is] ingrained in mankind,” as humans are now constantly trying to “reassembl[e] our early estate and… combine two in one.” [4] According to Aristophanes, the androgyne is thus a perfect whole, an ideal to which all humans aspire. Everyone is just trying to get back to this perfect state, where male and female are shared equally in one body. 

 

3. SEX-ROLES 

Housewife meme, Pinterest.

In the early 1970s in psychology, androgyny started to become a popular alternative to “sex-roles” for understanding masculinity and femininity, probably largely due to changing norms at the time concerning gender and women’s rights. Sex-roles, now more commonly referred to as gender roles, are the personality traits, attitudes, preferences and behaviors that are learned throughout a person’s life based on society’s opinions on what attributes belong to their particular sex [5].

Iron Man ironing, Says.

Characteristics, and thus roles in society, traditionally associated with men are considered masculine, and ones traditionally associated with women are considered feminine. Thus, in the sex-role model, feminine sex-role identity for women and masculine for men was the “traditional sex-role ideal,” and depended on clear distinction between men and women. [6] The idea of psychological androgyny came out of a dissatisfaction with this model, as sex-roles began to be considered by some as restrictive to development rather than essential to the organization of society.

 

4. PSYCHOLOGICAL ANDROGYNY 

The concept of ‘psychological androgyny’ that was popularized in the 1970s is defined as the merging of positive traits associated with masculinity and femininity within an individual [7]. It’s the idea that people can embody the best of both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine characteristics psychologically, without prioritizing only masculine attributes as the ideal for men, and only feminine attributes as the ideal for women. Studies done during the 1970s suggested that a combination of masculine and feminine traits, rather than adherence to traditional sex-role expectations, provides maximum psychological “benefits” to a person. [8] These theories concerning androgyny allowed for new understanding of gender and more movement out of traditionally assigned gender roles than before, but it still faced feminist criticism.


4. FEMINIST CRITICISM
Despite theories of psychological androgyny having liberating effects compared to previous sex-role structures, many feminist critics did not feel it went far enough to undermine structures of patriarchal power. One feminist critic felt a dissatisfaction with this construction of androgyny because it only “shuffles sexual categories together,” and still thinks in terms of masculine and feminine, rather than in new categories free from patriarchal structures. [9] It still depends on patriarchal understandings of gender and patriarchal coding of certain characteristics as masculine or feminine.         

Elaine Showalter, Goodreads.

Other feminist critics in the late 1970s spurned the idea of androgyny as an ideal, seeing it as just another way of rejecting feminine identity in favor of maleness as the standard. Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own in 1977 argues for identifying “female experience,” particularly related to the body, in female literature, in order to establish a different “female tradition.” [10] She claims that Virginia Woolf, who discusses having an androgynous mind, uses androgyny to “evade confrontation” with her own femaleness, and that it “enabled her to choke and repress her anger and ambition.” [11] Showalter feels that androgyny is a way of subordinating female experience and anger, and that women should identify more strongly with what makes them women in order to not be subsumed under male interests. Showalter herself also faced criticism, as many considered her to be essentializing women’s experiences without consideration for other intersections of identity.   

5. OTHER CRITICISM 

A common discomfort with androgyny is the desire to uphold traditional gender roles and desire for “difference” in heterosexual relationships. A piece by Michael Norman in the New York Times Magazine from December 11th, 1994, voices the “dark side” of androgyny. He describes a Swedish study that shows women being more likely to be dissatisfied in their marriages if their husbands take on equal child-care duties. He attributes this to women becoming bored with and losing sexual interest in their husbands because of their androgynous gender roles. 

Ellen Degeneres scoff, The Odyssey Online.

Thus, he “love[s] the stranger” his own wife is to him, and “thrive[s] on the tension [their] differences create.” He believes that gender difference is what keeps relationships interesting, and must be preserved or else more people will be unhappy in their marriages. He feels his wife’s maternalism is essential to his wanting her, as it sets her apart from him. This represents a frequent criticism of androgyny theory, wherein anxiety about gender hierarchies and male supremacy are expressed, and gender difference is positioned as an essential part of romantic relationships and attraction, of course completely ignoring the existence of non-heterosexual sexualities. [12]

6. AS LIFESTYLE 

AzMarie Livingston, Rolling Out.

Some scholars in the 1970s promoted the idea of an androgynous “lifestyle,” constructing androgyny not as a static identity, but as a state of being to which one must work toward. Forishay describes androgynous people as neither strongly masculine nor strongly feminine, and thus able to fully access the “full range of human emotions and behaviors,” and “able to choose the most appropriate response” to any situation. [13] She constructs androgyny as a process rather than a static identity, a dedication to rebellion against fixed expectations and embodiment of who we are based on our experiences instead. So for a person living an androgynous life, masculinity and femininity would represent a range of human characteristics and emotions to which they can refer to at any time to best, and most authentically to themself, react to a situation.

7. QUEER MOVEMENT

‘The Bi-Monthly,’ Newsletter of the Bisexual Center Dec. 1976, Queerest Library Ever

Many scholars who wrote about psychological androgyny insisted that androgyny was completely unrelated to bi- or homosexuality. However, an early goal of the queer movement was the creation of an “androgynous individual, who was not defined in terms of limits, but in terms of expanded potentialities.” [14] The 1977 philosophy and objectives statement for the Bisexual Center in San Francisco stated that “the Bisexual Center is united in struggling for the rights of all women and men to develop as whole, androgynous beings.” [15] Similar to theories of androgyny as a lifestyle, in the early queer movement androgyny represented a wide range of possibilities to an individual, more than just in terms of characteristics or social roles, but also in terms of deconstructing the categories of male and female themselves.

8. DAVID BOWIE

Ziggy Stardust. The Star.

In popular culture, there have existed many androgynous icons, not least of which is legendary rockstar David Bowie. David Bowie played with accepted ideas of gender identity throughout his career through “ostentatious gender presentation” and by “inhabiting conflicting [gender] norms.” He combined elements traditionally coded as masculine and as feminine into his style, sometimes being photographed in dresses and often with makeup, other times in “hypermasculine” leather jackets, as well as more unisex clothing. As psychological androgyny was being developed in the realm of theory, Bowie was showcasing it physically in public, exemplifying an over the top, exaggerated version of androgyny, wherein he dramatized masculinity and femininity as part of his persona. He wasn’t subtle about his androgyny, instead embodying it to maximum effect. [16] 

9. GRACE JONES

Grace Jones’ album ‘Nightclubbing.’ Clash Music.

Another influential androgynous pop culture figure and queer icon from the 1970s and 1980s is singer, supermodel, and actress Grace Jones. Jones is often described as “confrontationally androgynous,” regularly portrayed with a flattop haircut, prominent cheekbones, and a muscled chest. [17] Like David Bowie, Jones also challenged normative gender constructions, as well as racial stereotypes, through exaggerated performance and gender presentation. She disputed traditional notions of gendered erotic performances, for Black women in particular, by “occupying and performing the image of the black female body as ‘strange’ or ‘eccentric,’” and was thus able to find “freedom of movement in an otherwise constraining situation.” [18] Using strangeness, she was able to explore across rigid gender and racial stereotypes and expectations, refusing to be cast in any one way. Royster sees Jones as inhabiting and then disrupting several Black female stereotypes, using controversial figures to examine questions of sexuality and race, and to forge a new identity distinct from original intentions of those stereotypes. [19] She was also not subtle about her androgyny, using it, often in theatrical ways, to challenge oppressive gender expectations and more authentically be herself. 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Weil, Kari. Androgyny and the Denial of Difference. UP of Virginia, 1992, 63.

[2] Plato. Symposium. Translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard UP, 1925, 135.

[3] Plato, 137.

[4] Plato, 141.

[5] Cook, Ellen Piel. Psychological Androgyny. Pergamon, 1985, 3.

[6] Cook, 5.

[7] Cook, 2.

[8] Cook, 113.

[9] Heilbrun, Carolyn. “Further notes toward a recognition of androgyny.” Women’s Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal, vol. 2, 1974, pp. 143-149, 148.

[10] Weil, 149.

[11] Weil, 149.

[12] Norman, Michael. “ABOUT MEN: Against Androgyny.” New York Times Magazine, 11 Dec. 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/11/magazine/about-men-against-androgyny.html

[13] Forisha, Barbara Lusk. Sex Roles and Personal Awareness. General Learning, 1978, 29.

[14] Paul, Jay P. “San Francisco’s Bisexual Center and the Emergence of a Bisexual Movement.” Bisexualities: The Ideology and Practice of Sexual Contact With Both Men and Women, edited by Erwin J. Haeberle and Rolf Gindorf. Continuum, 1998, 130.

[15] Paul, 134.

[16] Cauterucci, Christina. “Why David Bowie’s Androgyny Was a Rare, Precious Gift.” Slate, 11 Jan. 2016, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/01/11/why_david_bowie_s_androgyny_was_a_rare_precious_gift.html

[17] Royster, Francesca T. “‘Feeling Like a Woman, Looking Like a Man, Sounding Like a No-No’: Grace Jones and the Performance of ‘Strangé in the Post-Soul Movement.” Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, U of Michigan P, 2013, 147.

[18] Royster, 148.

[19] Royster, 155.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cauterucci, Christina. “Why David Bowie’s Androgyny Was a Rare, Precious Gift.” Slate, 11 Jan. 2016, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/01/11/why_david_bowie_s_androgyny_was_a_rare_precious_gift.html

Cook, Ellen Piel. Psychological Androgyny. Pergamon, 1985.

Forisha, Barbara Lusk. Sex Roles and Personal Awareness. General Learning, 1978.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. “Further notes toward a recognition of androgyny.” Women’s Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal, vol. 2, 1974, pp. 143-149.

Norman, Michael. “ABOUT MEN: Against Androgyny.” New York Times Magazine, 11 Dec. 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/11/magazine/about-men-against-androgyny.html

Paul, Jay P. “San Francisco’s Bisexual Center and the Emergence of a Bisexual Movement.” Bisexualities: The Ideology and Practice of Sexual Contact With Both Men and Women, edited by Erwin J. Haeberle and Rolf Gindorf. Continuum, 1998.

Plato. Symposium. Translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard UP, 1925.

Royster, Francesca T. “‘Feeling Like a Woman, Looking Like a Man, Sounding Like a No-No’: Grace Jones and the Performance of ‘Strangé in the Post-Soul Movement.” Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, U of Michigan P, 2013.

Weil, Kari. Androgyny and the Denial of Difference. UP of Virginia, 1992.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *