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Androgyny and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

February 16th, 2011

Since cultural norms define the dichotomy of conventional fashion nothing feels more disturbing than androgyny.  Indeed, androgyny subverts the patriarchal roles of man and woman because it resists clinging to such static identities.  Androgyny reminds the individual that male or female designation is social artistry rather than natural impulse.  As Nancy Cervetti interprets it, gender is but “a repeated stylization of the body that congeals over time and produces the appearance of substance” (174) thereby manifesting itself as an inherent code of conduct that guides the sexes into accurate behavior.  Yet androgyny, which seeks to unite and navigate freely between the genders, “continues to hold fast to and maintain the very binary system it would seem to escape (173).”   Virginia Woolf’s Orlando begets a complex discussion of gender and androgyny.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf addresses the concept of the androgynous mind where “two powers preside, one male, one female” (96) with the gender of the biological sex typically dominating.  Woolf insists, though, that both sides should “live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating” (96) in order to cultivate a “fully fertilized” (97) mind in control of its creativity.  In Orlando, Woolf writes, acutely aware of gender, but her approach is more humorous and straightforward in comparison to her other fluid narratives that produce a free-formed plot through an androgynous voice.

The novel begins with “He,” (Woolf 11) an assertive proclamation of Orlando’s gender.  Furthermore, Orlando’s very action, a masculine and destructive occupation, “slicing at the head of a Moor” (Woolf 11), correlates to the prosaic representation of maleness.  However, Woolf comically undermines this opening detail by quipping “for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it” (11).  In one sentence, Woolf confirms and teases Orlando’s gender, and suggests an arbitrary designation that fluctuates with popular opinion, reinforced by fashion.  Initially, Orlando’s apparel, “crimson breeches, lace collar, waistcoat of taffeta” (Woolf 16) indicates the similarities in gender in regard to the sartorial.   Although Orlando’s regimen uses violent verbs such as “scoured”, “pared” and “thrust” (Woolf 16) and he manages to dress in under ten minutes, Orlando still demonstrates an unwavering dedication to proper dress, even for items like “shoes with rosettes on them big as double dahlias” (Woolf 16) that verge on the ridiculous.  Such foppish garments mock the overlap between and the very fickle attitude of fashion, which constantly mutates a conflicting etiquette of gender-appropriate attire.

Sasha’s introduction into the text reveals Orlando’s commitment to a heteronormative relationship and how androgyny generates a sense of obscure entrancement.  Woolf hardly camouflages the mystery of Sasha’s gender.  Her “oyster-coloured velvet” (Woolf 26), possibly an encoded reference to female genitalia and aphrodisiacs, along with a parallel of Sasha’s eyes to the sea, a feminine symbol, permits the reader to determine Sasha’s gender in advance of Orlando.  The application of the feminine pronoun, “her” (Woolf 26) functions either as an obvious admission of Sasha’s femaleness or as Orlando’s own speculation and desire for her anatomy.  After all, he stands, “ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex (Woolf 26), and thus ineligible as a romantic target for him, a man firmly situated in a patriarchal structure.  At this point, Orlando operates according to his ordained position.  Still, that same frustration attracts Orlando to Sasha.  The pursuit of classifying the unknown and reinstating it to its allocated space excites Orlando. Because Sasha’s dress, which customarily assists in gauging interest and formulating opinions, cloaks her gender, Orlando turns to her physical attributes.  Yet, when he disassembles her body, Orlando cannot reach a conclusion.  Instead, he wavers between delight and despair after detecting evidence of each sex.  Woolf acknowledges the biological likeness within the different sexes and the disconnect between clothing and the body.

As a man, Orlando thinks little of gender.  However, his bewildering transformation requires him to consider a foreign perspective.  Suddenly, Orlando’s legs, which once “moved like a stag” (Woolf 89) without hindrance of skirts and endless layers of petticoats, feel the constraint of femininity.  As a woman, Orlando reassesses her previous model of the ideal female: “obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled” (Woolf 110) as she comes to understand the difficulties in maintaining a feminine appearance.  Additionally, she discerns the danger of female sexuality, how the sight of an inch or two of flesh might mean “‘death to an honest fellow’” (Woolf 110) and she carries the responsibility of covering one of her “chiefest beauties” (Woolf 110), consequently modifying her physical and figurative motion within society.  The more Orlando wears women’s clothing, the more she becomes “a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person” (Woolf 131), thus as clothing envelops our form, it shapes our character.  Or, as Woolf’s narrator contends, “it is the clothes that wear us and not we them” (Woolf 132).  Furthermore, Orlando observes how anatomy dictates demeanor. During her interactions with Nell, a prostitute, Orlando adorns herself as a man, and Nell’s feigned fragility arouses a masculine desire within Orlando.  However, Orlando soon sees that Nell’s “hesitating answers” (Woolf 150) and “the droop of her wrist” (Woolf 150) were attributes displayed merely “to gratify [Orlando’s] masculinity” (Woolf 150).  Once Orlando confesses her masquerade, Nell deserts her “plaintive, appealing ways” (Woolf 151) almost instantaneously in favor of a casual attitude.  Gender is a performance cast at birth, and Orlando feels “awkward in the arts of her sex” (Woolf 128) at her rebirth, but as the centuries pass, she gradually becomes versed in the skills of womanhood. In contrast, Archduke Harry treats Orlando with excessive chivalry as he courts her and disregards Orlando’s cheating during an absurd round of Fly Loo with the excuse that she is “only a woman” (Woolf 129).

But is Orlando ever a true androgyne? At least, an androgyne in the sense of the word where she can traverse gender boundaries at whim without fear of upsetting either force, masculine or feminine.  Near the conclusion of the novel, Woolf refers to Orlando with wardrobe updates by the hour that suit her activities.  Over the course of a single day, Woolf documents Orlando:

“…spending her morning in a China robe of ambiguous gender among her books; then receiving a client or two…in the same garment; then she would take a turn in the garden and clip the nut trees – for which knee-breeches were convenient; then she would change into a flowered taffeta which best suited a drive to Richmond and proposal of marriage from some great nobleman; and so back again to town, where she would don a snuff-coloured gown like a lawyer’s and visit the courts to hear how her cases were doing… and so, finally, when night came, she would more often than not become a nobleman complete from head to toe and walk the streets in search of adventure” (Woolf 153).

While Orlando selects and sheds her genders as she pleases, she doesn’t quite transition to androgyny.  With each outfit Orlando acquires the associated posture and plays out a series of neatly compartmentalized genders in place of the overlapping harmony Woolf envisions with the androgynous mind.  Although Orlando gains a heightened awareness in terms of gender, she is never able to bypass the enduring question of male or female.  Despite that Woolf’s removed narrator notices “different though the sexes are, they intermix” (Woolf 132), other voices wondered how Orlando “is excessively tender-hearted” (Woolf 133) yet “she detested household matters” (Woolf 133) or how she was ”bold and active as a man” but “would burst into tears on slight provocation” (Woolf 133) with incessant curiosity.  In fact, Orlando herself “seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman” (Woolf 113) but found in both sexes guilty of “the most deplorable infirmities” (Woolf 113).  Orlando’s court case, established to verify her gender and rectify the ambiguity surrounding her inexplicable shift of sex, operates out of a fear of confusion.

Ultimately, the affirmative ruling for Orlando as a woman “indisputably, and beyond the shadow of a doubt” (Woolf 176) is shortsighted.  I am hesitant to call Orlando man, woman or androgyne.  Cultural biases fracture her unique biological position.  Perhaps Orlando could become an androgyne, if the law permitted her to deny categorization.  If anything though, she appears to submit to femininity in the end, particularly with the reversal of her scorn and dismissal of marriage upon her quick engagement to Shelmerdine with a “wedding ring on her finger to prove it” (Woolf 182). Orlando and Shel’s relationship has a farcical chime to it, especially since Shel has undergone the inverse of Orlando’s situation, a woman mutated into a man. But Orlando’s waffling underscores her acceptance of a womanly personality that she starts to favor.  Moreover, as Archduke Harry sobs in her presence she realizes though “men cry as frequently and as unreasonably as women…women should be shocked when men display emotion…so, shocked she was,” (Woolf 127) consequently fulfilling her expected performance.  While Orlando’s feminine behavior increases, she still belongs to no one group.

By comparison, the androgynous figure has emerged at the forefront of contemporary fashion.  Fashion has a fascination with the gender-neutral figure.  And the fashion industry disorients the consumer with androgynous bodies.  Lanky women and pouty, baby-faced men often dominate the runways.  However, only women appear to own the right to androgyny.  Usually women don suits and crop their hair as tomboyish gamines.  Rarely, but with a few exceptions, do men soften themselves to the point of incorporating feminized practices and ornamentation such as long hair and nails, dresses and skirts or a noticeable face full of makeup.  Unisex, apparently to fashion, is male, not female.  Androgyny, for fashion, though, sometimes has less to do with gender and more to do with age.  Rather than a gender-equalized domain, fashion venerates the “awkwardly adolescent” (Arnold 123) phase of the body.  There is an implicit desire for the easy beauty of the form unblemished by age and a general repugnance for the developed adult body, which signifies the impending descent toward physical decline and death.  Where Woolf’s androgyny seeks to sort out the nonsensical relation of gender and sex, the androgyny of contemporary society carries with it subtle tones of ageism.

Works Cited:

Arnold, Rebecca.  Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Cervetti, Nancy. “In the Breeches, Petticoats, and Pleasures of Orlando.” Journal of Modern Literature. Vol 20, No. 2. Winter 1996, p. 165-175. Indiana University Press.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Group, 2000.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. London: Penguin Group, 1993.

Image Credits:

Ballingall, Tim. “Virginia Woolf.” Photo. 25 January 2011. 16 February 2011.

Curtis, Laurie. “Close-Up Elizabethan Orlando.” Photo. 22 July 2010. 16 February 2011.

Curtis, Laurie. “Orlando and Sasha.” Photo. 22 July 2010. 16 February 2011.

Curtis, Laurie. “18th Century Orlando.” Photo. 22 July 2010. 16 February 2011.

Curtis, Laurie. “Orlando and Shel.” Photo. 22 July 2010. 16 February 2011.

Seliger, Ralph. “Elizabethan Orlando.” Photo. 22 October 2010. 16 February 2011.

Weismann, Jork. “Androgynous Models.” Photo. 13 December 2010. 16 February 2011.

2 Responses to “Androgyny and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando”

  1. Clay says:

    It’s one thing for a novelist to use artistic licence and refer to a male character as ‘she’ when dressed in female clothing, but quite another when 21st century political correctness demands that trans-gendered persons – as opposed to transsexuals – be identified not by their sex but by their preferred gender (gender as masculine/feminine qualities rather than biological male/female). It hardly lends clarity to any discussion on gender in the current climate when ‘he’ is referred to as ‘she’ merely because he’s wearing a frock.

    There is no such thing as ‘gender neutrality’. Orlando’s plunge into femininity is a rejection of neutrality. And neither is it true androgyny. The popular, but infantile, Western concept of androgyny is the mistaken believe that one either has to display and exhibit cross-gender qualities to the utmost degree (the gender-bender) or simply to deny gender altogether (‘gender is socially constructed’ is the often parroted phrase used by adolescent feminists). Gender (masculinity and femininity) is symbolic of psychic and universal opposites, and is an essential part of human expression. The person who considers him/herself to be ‘neuter’ and/or superior to the rest of humanity (who have to make do with gender ‘fictions’) is clearly self-delusional.

    To clothe oneself in the apparel of the opposite sex as Orlando does is a celebration of ‘otherness’, and a necessary concreteness of otherness within oneself. Orlando’s core maleness remains, but is directed by femaleness – he is clothed in the femaleness of creation, no less.

    The more culturally civilised a society the greater the gender division. In modern times we’ve seen the narrowing of this division, now it’s widening again. Clearly, gender IS age-driven. Gender is intimately connected with sexuality, and the most pronounced division of masc/fem qualities is during those times when sexual reproduction is a priority. It is therefore associated with youth and vitality. And like the true androgynous being which combines the perfect masculine and the perfect feminine in spiritual unity, so too is androgyny combined with youth and immortality – a deathlessness and timelessness that transcend the mere wearing of petticoats.

  2. Kevin says:

    Of much interest here is when androgyny is presented in fashion it usually (historically) a female in males clothing, if you will….so then consider the fact that it is socially permissible to dress females as men and not the other way….

    I think that it is even as you suggest that we have a cultural acceptance of women in men and even a fetish of seeing them dressed as men and they maintain sexual object status, but men in women’s clothing is a fetish of a different issue…is a man in women’s clothing every a fetish object of a man?

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