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Androgyny: Just a Bunch of Women in Suits?

March 16th, 2011

Much like the beginning of the semester, since I’ve decided to examine androgyny exclusively, I’m returning to the basics again: a definition. But androgyny is an expansive concept, and believe me, my head is spinning.  My vision of sartorial androgyny is the detached woman in a suit of a slippery and impenetrable sex.  Men aren’t completely missing from androgynous images in high fashion, but I don’t readily associate them as an iconic image of androgyny.  Men, in the position of power, have nothing to gain from androgyny so they seem to engage in it less frequently. Before I deliberate on androgyny through the perspective of fashion, I want to review it through different disciplines, including biology and gender, for a more complex rendering.  Oxford Dictionaries Online lists the adjectival form of ‘androgyny’ and describes it as “partly male and partly female in appearance; of an indeterminate sex” (“Androgynous”) with a bullet point under it that states, “having the physical characteristics of both sexes; hermaphrodite” (“Androgynous”).  That explanation seems straightforward enough, but upon further scrutiny that definition becomes problematic.

Biology provides the most literal interpretation of androgyny, if associated with hermaphroditism.  The term ‘hermaphrodite’ originates from Greek mythology.  Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite whose body fused with a nymph named Salmacis (Brisson 42).  Pure hermaphroditism, or the possession “of one testis and one ovary” (Fausto-Sterling 39) remains relatively rare.  With pseudo-hermaphroditism, in contrast, the individual has a more marked identification to a particular sex with aspects of the opposite incorporated. Yet a male pseudo-hermaphrodite lacks ovaries and a female pseudo-hermaphrodite lacks testes (Fausto-Sterling 39).  Thus, Anne Fausto-Sterling concludes that although “Western culture is deeply committed to the idea that there are only two sexes” in reality “there are many gradations running from female to male…along the spectrum lie at least five sexes” (39), if not more.  Hermaphroditism erodes the male/female binary.  Fausto-Sterling recounts the story of Levi Suydam, a twenty-three year old citizen, who wished to vote in an election.  At first, Suydam cast his vote but the town board subjected him to an examination that eventually classified Suydam as female since s/he had a vagina, menstruated regularly and “felt occasional sexual yearnings for women” along with “‘a fondness for gay colors’”(Fausto-Sterling 38) despite the presence of his/her penis.  Biologists note, though, that females and males, with the exception of reproductive organs, have a strikingly similar bodily composition (Lorber 569), and Ruth K. Westheimer and Sanford Lopater remark that while people recognize the difference between the sexes, they often aren’t as aware of the shared traits (95).  Consequently, the average person interprets androgyny as “having the psychological attributes of both females and males” (Westheimer and Lopater 95), thereby assigning androgyny to the mind and behavior rather than the body.

Throughout history, though, biology has functioned as the determining factor for social order and agency.  Ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, viewed hermaphroditic humans “as monsters…by the gods to manifest their anger or announce the destruction of the human race” (Brisson 2).  These “primordial beings” (Brisson 2) represented the body before “the split” that generated two different sexes.  For classical antiquity (and most other eras for that matter), sex ordained one’s personal role and status within society.  As a result, “to possess both sexes was to possess neither” (Brisson 3) because “dual sexuality” (Brisson 5) disputed the ruling gender dichotomy, and therefore the very reality upon which it was instituted.  Still, Greek society differed in its approach to gender sanctioned etiquette.  Although they carved out the standard positions of nurturing woman and warrior man, the Greeks practiced a “transitory participation” of cross-dressing so individuals could “enter definitively into their true natures as men or women”(Brisson 64).  Achilles, for example, was raised as a girl around other females.  Brides in Sparta wore men’s clothing on their wedding day and those in Argos donned a beard on their wedding night (Brisson 64). However, any woman who rejected marriage forcibly became a warrior because a renouncement of one’s birth gender indicated a refusal of those duties and occupations in favor for those of the opposite sex. Furthermore, the term, ‘androgyne’ “was applied to a man who had proved himself to be a coward” (Brisson 64), especially those who failed to fulfill their expected military service.  Biology has outlined proper roles, though history alters the exact protocol.

Early Christianity saw the androgyne as “the unification of opposites” (Meeks 165) with particular regard to the masculine feminine dichotomy as a “prime symbol of salvation” (Meeks 166).  Although that high-reaching goal for “reunified mankind” (Meeks 166) was less a motion toward piety and more of a method of Christian relation to co-existing societies and an urge for Christians to identify themselves as “a new genus of mankind” (Meeks 166).  In fact, Wayne Meeks observes in his article, The Image of the Androgyne, that Christians would engage in cross-dress, along with other ritualized changes in clothing, as a figurative marker of a interruption from the quotidian (170).  A change of dress could reposition the wearer “in a liminal state…momentarily transcending the division between male and female” (Meeks 184).  Truly, though, the aspiration for the merging of sexes rests in the ascetic mindset of denying the “itinerant” (Meeks 196) body in order to gain spiritual transcendence; to re-connect with God on a spiritually transcendent level (Meeks 183).  Still, that yearning, as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, “The task of ‘making two one…’”(Meeks 193) becomes complicated with Creation in mind.  If Adam was crafted in God’s “divine image” (Meeks 185) then is that ultimate body masculine? And how does Eve, and femininity for that matter, fit in, if extracted from Adam’s rib?  The very belief of Genesis appears skewed toward a masculine finality rather than a metaphysical blending of sex.

In Renaissance England, satirists, preachers, and other public and moral figures espoused pamphlets “castigating women who adopted a masculine…style of dress” (Henderson and McManus 17), writing in favor for the obedient, submissive female.  They referenced classical and biblical figures, such as Eve and Pandora, as meddling women whose prying behavior wreaked havoc on normative masculinity (Henderson and McManus 7).  One pamphlet, Hic Mulier, The Man-Woman, addresses masculine dress with vigor, stating that such a sartorial display is “an outward sign of women’s attempt to usurp masculine aggressiveness, authority, and sexual freedom.” (Henderson and McManus 8).  Although the androgynous body is not absent from this period, the general consensus of Renaissance thought preferred a clear delineation between the sexes; womanly conduct on the part of men prompted disgust as well.  Overall, the woman, as portrayed by these writers, either fit into the category of proud and vain, ensnared by trappings of ornamental finery, seductress or the shrew, associated with “moral weakness” (Henderson and McManus 50).  However, at this juncture, women began to emerge and publish their own works in response.  Therefore, the concern of the masculine woman is attributable to the fear that by gaining a voice, and thus agency, ”the possibility of a general female rebellion against male dominance” (Henderson and McManus 52) might occur, at least in the minds of those men ensconced within patriarchal roles of power.  Moll Cutpurse, the heroine of The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, attracts much ire and distrust for her confident manner and androgynous countenance.  In actuality, she is a virgin and “the moral revealer of truth” (Henderson and McManus 125). Renaissance society, and for that matter, most societies, felt that “in a truly ordered society men and women accept entirely different roles (of which clothes are the symbol)” (Henderson and McManus 123), but either way, an decloration of strict gender rules or a denial of gender, misses the fact that real bodies and real appearance is messy and unstable.

Within the field of psychology, androgyny depends on high levels of both masculine and feminine characteristics (Kilmartin 41).  This notion of androgyny “is derived from a view of masculinity and femininity as independent dimensions” (Kilmartin 41). That means a person can exhibit high masculinity or high femininity in contrast, either of which match the traditional gender ideals, regardless of the person’s actual sex.  Additionally, a person can demonstrate low levels of either attribute and register as “undifferentiated” (Kilmartin 41).  Yet psychology has largely eliminated androgyny as a credible idea as it depends upon the unpredictable personality trait theory (Kilmartin). Christopher Kilmartin observes that the gender identity model conceives “gender roles as emerging from within the individual” while the androgyny model in comparison “sees gender role prescriptions as imposed through socialization” (42).  Moreover, he proposes that androgyny makes analogous, if not equal, demands upon humans as masculinity and femininity (Kilmartin 42).

In terms of gender and sexuality, androgyny straddles two possible categories. Androgyny can either signify a total absence of gender or a combination of male and female genders, otherwise known as genderfuck (Richards).  Conversely, the notions behind cross-dressing and transgender oppose androgyny in that they seek to perform a normative representation of gender (Richards).  The androgynous figure desires to erase, harmonize or confuse gender whereas the transgender figure hopes to acquire and enact the opposite gender role in a conservative portrayal to blend into society. Drag serves as a parody of cross-dressing by inhabiting a gender role to a theatrical extreme thereby highlighting typed gender behavior (Richards).  In regards to androgynous sexuality, the image of gender and sexual orientation rarely match up. Genderlessness can exude a “sexual iciness” (Richards) while the genderfuck manipulates easy dichotomies and slips between desire for men and women (Richards).  Although Marjorie Garber argues that androgyny is too often “conflated and confused with bisexuality” (207).  Moreover, Garber indicates that “…the hermaphrodite is a figure of sex, the androgyne a figure of gender, and the bisexual…a figure of sexuality” (208). Garber expresses skepticism toward the archetypal view of the androgyne, which at the worst explodes the term into a transcendent ideal.  She critiques Jungian perspective of the anima/animus because “the human body and its desires necessarily took a back seat” (Garber 211) to the universal and the eternal. Jung, as Garber interprets it, actually reinforces the male/female separation, seeing the androgyne as a mythic and uninhabitable character.  The suggestion that sex might figure into spiritual androgyny insults Jung (Garber 218). But if dismantled, androgyny can confront the irrationality of West’s two isolating genders.  Judith Halberstam declares that physical ambiguity “is inevitable transformed into deviance, thirdness, or a blurred vision” (20) as illustrated by her troublesome encounters in public bathrooms where another woman called security fearing that Halberstam was a man in the incorrect bathroom.  According to Halberstam, these instances prove that “your gender seems at odds with your sex” and that “single-gender bathrooms are only for those who fit clearly into one category” (24).  Androgyny provokes anxiety because it dethrones established gender and calls our own desires into question.

With all this in mind, I wonder what androgyny can do for us.  Androgyny requires finding a balance, one that appears near impossible to negotiate.  To become an androgynous society, or perhaps just a less gender-oriented society, we would probably have to restructure our entire society.  We use appearance to read and codify the people surrounding us.  Stereotypes are unfair and damaging, but comfortable.  The acknowledgement of gender (or any sort of distinction) alone is not necessarily harmful but judgment based upon these categorizations solidifies damaging, limited viewpoints. So, is rebuking and revising gender norms more important than instating androgyny?  After all, it does get dull when everything looks the same.

Works Cited:

“Androgynous.” Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. 15 March 2011. <>.

Brisson, Luc. Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Trans Janet Lloyd.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough.” Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society.  Ed. Michael S. Kimmel and Rebecca F. Plante.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Henderson, Katherine Usher and Barbara F. McManus. Half Humankind: Contexts & Texts of the Controversy about Women in England 1540-1640. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Kilmartin. Christopher.  The Masculine Self. 4th ed. Cornwall-on-Hudson: Sloan, 2010.

Lorber, Judith. “Believing is seeing: Biology as Ideology.” Gender and Society. Vol 7 No 4, December 1993. pg. 568-81, Sage Publications. <>.

Meeks, Wayne. “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity.” History of Religions. Vol 13, No 3 (February 1974) pg. 165-208. The University of Chicago Press. <>.

Richards, Gary, Dr. Conversation with professor. 15 March 2010.

Westheimer, Ruth K. and Sanford Lopater. Human Sexuality: A Psychosocial Perspective.  2nd ed. Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2005.

Image Credits:

“Androgyne.” Photo. 11 September 2007. 16 March 2011. <>.

“Androgyne Diagram.” Illustration. 22 November 2010. 16 March 2011. <>.

“Hermaphroditus.” Photo. 15 July 2006. 16 March 2011. <>.

“Grace Jones.” Photo. 25 September 201o. 16 March 2011. <>.

“Milla Jovovich.” Photo. 6 January 2011. 15 March 2011. <>.

“Moll Cut-Purse.” Illustration. 21 March 2011. <>.

Cranach, Lucas the Elder. “Adam and Eve.” Painting. 21 March 2011. <>.

Pollock, Lindsey.”Bust of Athena.” Photo. 15 June 2010. 16 March 2011. <>.

Russell, Richard. “Androgynous Faces.” Photo. 25 October 2009. 16 March 2011. <>.

Wheeler, Alice. “Genderfuck Courtney.” Photo. 2002. 16 March 2011. <>.

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