April 25th, 2011
“Since wearers interact with a variety of others, their clothing becomes a complicated communication channel bearing many simultaneous messages, like a modern telephone cable, to individuals in their role sets. Complications ensue.” (152)
-Nathan Joseph, Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication through Clothing
Androgyny, or so it seems to me, at least of the course of this semester, is an unstable, slippery term that eludes standardized definition. And why? Well, largely because androgyny relies upon cultural concepts of gender, so it varies in concept and execution according to time and place. The Oxford Dictionaries Online, referenced in one of my previous blog entries, cites androgyny “as partly male and partly female in appearance; of an indeterminate sex,” (“Androgyny”) which given its fluctuating quality, sums up the term succinctly. The exact formula of general androgyny is indeterminate. In theory, as the term suggests, androgyny should be equally half man and half woman from the literal combination of “andro” referring to the man and “gyny” referring to the woman. In actuality, though, it seems easier and less hazardous to simply define, as I prefer in my own words, androgyny as a mingling of the two dominant genders, by which I mean ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in the Western sense. Locking androgyny to the body is a mistake because androgyny relates more to the performance of gender than the biology of sex. Androgyny manipulates sex. Furthermore, the specifics of androgyny get tangled between two distinct approaches. On one hand, the unisex provides a total merging, or even erasure, of genders, and on the other, the gender bricolage embodies a more playful, haphazard mentality. Problematically though, each mode supplies access to the androgyne but fails to quite reach the exact equilibrium. In this paper, or two-part blog entry, I intend to discuss both courses and determine the respective strengths and weaknesses through a fashion history perspective while also introducing outside disciplines, and then eventually conclude upon their relevance within contemporary society and explain why at least attempting or even acknowledging androgyny is worth the possibly self-defeating effort.
Although, as Marjorie Garber notes, the hermaphrodite relates to sexuality where as the androgyne represents gender (208), or the body and the performance of the body, the mention of biology is useful in a discussion of androgyny. The unisex androgyne seeks to fulfill that hermaphroditic ideal, or rather link an ideology with the physicality. After all, “the hermaphrodite presents insignia of maleness and femaleness at once,” (Garber 208) in perfect biological harmony. Essentially, the hermaphrodite “possesses one testis and one ovary” (Fausto-Sterling 39), though the exact frequency of hermaphroditism is difficult to determine since many doctors alter the ambiguously gendered infant upon birth so that the children “can slip quietly into society as ‘normal’ heterosexual males or females” (Fausto-Sterling 40) in what is seen as a “genuinely humanitarian” (Fausto-Sterling 40). For true hermaphrodites, the opposing sex organs grow independently but bilaterally and create “an ovo-testis” (Fausto-Sterling 40), where in theory alone the pure hermaphrodite could father (and mother?) a child but more commonly, “the appropriate ducts and tubes are not configured” (Fausto-Sterling 40) so that the appropriate ingredients, the egg and sperm, can combine.
Additionally, Fausto-Sterling documents that pseudohermaphrodites, who lean toward embodying one of the conventional sexes with the underdeveloped aspects of the other sex (40), are much more prevalent than true hermaphrodites. Ruth K. Westheimer and Sanford Lopeater of the Human Sexuality: A Psychosocial Perspective observe that humans tend to focus upon the “anatomical differences between men and women” (95) rather than distinguishing their striking similarities. In fact, they report that “no large, consistent differences have been found in the gross anatomical structures of the brains of men and women” (Westheimer & Lopeater 100) along with other physiological correspondences. Their assertion shows that people gravitate toward considering other bodies strictly in connection to their sex organs, and thus, their discrepancies. But the disparities do not really mean half as much “until social practices transform them into social facts” (Lorber 576) that cloud vision and separate the man and woman from the human. However, as Judith Lorber points out in “Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology,” in the physicals conducted among athletes more doctors more often find “significant within-group differences than between-group differences” (571). Humans see the gender constructed and rendered in appearance and action in order to deduce the sex. We operate on a level of biological primacy and mating, and distinctions like fashion, which symbolically function as a signifier of gender, aid in distinguishing reproductive partners.
So, how does the hermaphrodite connect to the unisex androgyne then? Well, Maithreyi Krishnaraj argues in “Androgyny: An Alternative to Gender Polarity?” that “the primary identity of a person in a human society is gender” (9), which social interaction fixes early in childhood. Androgyny functions as a way “to overcome the conventional typecasting of each gender” (Krishnaraj 10), and the unisex androgyne embraces a fissure of the sexes, therefore it is an ideal that bolts itself to the physical. The unisex androgyne has a historical association as “an enduring religious symbol” (O’Flaherty 283) and constructs its philosophy on highly spiritual terms “as a creature simultaneously male and female in physical form” (O’Flaherty 283). Within early Christianity, the androgyne illustrated the opportunity for a “reunified mankind” (Meeks 166) with “the unification of opposites” (Meeks 165), thereby bringing people closer to a state of divine salvation. Two would become one in a state of transcendent symmetry nearer to God as one complete and perfect being rather than separate halves. Concepts become slippery here, though, because the ascetic ethos fortifies itself in the quest for the immaculate anatomy in order to eclipse human imperfection while jointly disregarding the physical self as “itinerant” (Meeks 196) and comparatively inferior to the final divine union with God.
Yet the prospect of nirvana appears troublesome and skewed toward the masculine image, since Adam was the original being sketched from Imago Dei, and Eve merely plucked from Adam’s body. In any case, the unisex androgyne straddles boundaries in a purgatory state. Many cultures throughout history, such as the ancient Greeks and Christians, have engaged in brief, experimental ceremonies of cross-dressing in order to better understand the gendered role of the opposite sex, and thus, perform their role with accuracy. The unisex androgyne best epitomizes the truly “liminal figures” (O’Flaherty 284) poised between the genders, such as the eunuch, because “…true androgynes have no erotic possibilities” (O’Flaherty 291) they rejoice in the sexual merging of the male and female yet aim to strip it of its sexual emblems like temporal stains.
Moreover, many of these same scholars that concentrate upon notions of the unisex androgyne are quick to diagnose the trouble with such a model. Krishnaraj, for example, agrees that the marriage of the masculine and feminine components can achieve a “psychic unity” (11) but the “unisex limbo” (13) of the male/female body misguides since the androgynous asserts “that to define attributes as masculine or feminine is wrong because these traits are found in both sexes in varying degrees” (13). In physical traits alone this holds true: female supermodels, the supposed contemporary epitome of beauty, are admired for their chiseled bone structure and svelte, willowy physiques while their male counterparts are esteemed for their pouting lips or doe eyes framed by enviably long eyelashes. Indeed, Fausto-Sterling supports this belief when she argues that five sexes, at the very least, rest upon the spectrum of the human body and sexuality. She rules that “hermaphrodites have unruly bodies” (Fausto-Sterling 43) in the way that they evade “binary classification” (43). Yet, the pseudohermaphroditic body is more prevalent and grounded in its subversive inequalities toward a particular sex.
One of the main problems with the unisex androgyne revolves around the point that it observes gender similarly to the current gender dichotomy: it endeavors for one definitive idea, rejecting all other possible definitions. Unisex androgyny ignores, as Fausto-Sterling suggests, that sex comes in multiple, indeterminate “gradations running from female to male” (39) in favor of one body, one image and one performance. Garber also derides the unisex “exalted state of being” (207). She claims that this symbol of presumed wholeness centralizes around a utopian “snare and delusion” (215) supported by psychologists such as Carl Jung who made androgyny “a vacuous term which…fails to represent the richness of being” (217) because it celebrates the archetype and not the reality of humanness. Such androgyny, according to Garber, invents a hierarchical division between good and bad androgyny, or the “spiritual, mythic, ‘archetypal,’ and productive of intrapsychic oneness” (218) and the “physical, sexy, and disturbing…which was likely to lead to bisexuality and group sex…” (218). Such fears have more to do with human sexuality it appears than human gender. By denying gender, they deny sexuality. This type of highbrow, proselytized androgyny does not celebrate liberation and diversification of sexuality and gender, it condemns it. The unisex androgyne paradoxically latches onto the biological aspects of the body in order to fuse, or more appropriately nullify such distinctions to enact a performance of genderlessness that conveys sexlessness.
Most importantly, even though the unisex androgyne is obsessed with the body, almost to the extent of puritanical devotion, in practice it simply does not work. This branch of androgyny bases itself in thought and subsists in “the thin, flowing, sexless bodies” (Sontag 4) of art, religion, philosophy and other ethereal –isms and –ologies. Such immaculate bodies do not exist, and fashion can testify to that accusation. Unisex androgyne is a state affiliated to the past, “today androgyny has ceased to be sacred” (Wilson 122), and contemporary fashion values androgyny for its sexualized, playful possibilities. However, the best case of the failure of unisex lies in uniforms and other utilitarian garments. Fred Davis refers to the Utilitarian Outrage movement within fashion in his book, Fashion, Culture and Identity, which “castigates the wastefulness, frivolity, impracticality and vanity associated with fashion” (168) and proposes modular or surplice dressing as an alternative to “the vanities of egotistic dress and adornment” (168). Such an approach would appeal also to the feminist protest against fashion, which begets an “unending succession of styles” (Davis 175) for women as designed by men to reinforce traditional female roles. In theory, such dress would equalize the genders and help the buyer save money as the same garment can be converted for wear for all seasons. Despite these positive factors, utilitarian dress never caught on, probably because consumer investment in fashion is compelled by novelty. Elizabeth Wilson, in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, observes that the inherent purpose in “dress is never primarily functional, and…certainly not natural” (244); people do not approach clothing from the stance of efficiency and economy because the basis of dress relies on fantasy. But, even if such a utilitarian mentality caught on in the marketplace, it could in no way result in a unisex androgyne fantasy. Firstly, gender distinctions function pragmatically in the sense of sexual interest. Without attraction there is no repopulation, and the unisex androgyne body seeks the airier pursuit of celestial sexlessness expressed through a kind of castrated gender over the carnal and the pleasurable. Secondly, there’s no way that such dress could effectively mask the true form of the male and female figures. Simply put, a man and a woman enrobed in the same cloth have different bulges and concavities. For practical reasons alone, unisex androgyny does not work.
Furthermore, uniforms, maybe the most standardized apparel possible, struggle in balancing the genders. Policewomen’s uniforms, for instance, “tried to neuter the women” (Craik 87) mostly out of fear of provoking “connotations of sex and sensuality” (Craik 87), and in fact, many sexually charged items, such as cosmetics, jewelry and undergarments are strictly taboo. Moreover, female police officers are often required to wear culottes rather than pants like their male counterparts, which places them in an ambiguous sartorial limbo. The culottes index them “as neither male (not quite trousers) nor female (not quite a skirt),” (Craik 88), but in any case, the women are still treated uneasily in a field traditionally designated for men. It’s hard to take the ‘sex’ out of unisex. Paradoxically, such unisex fashion calls attention to the body and its sexual discrepancies. Uniforms appear to be the route to exact the militant demarcation of the unisex androgyne, but in actuality, they are dysfunctional, and our gender binary does not allow it. As Jennifer Craik asks in Uniforms Exposed: From Conformity to Transgression “do people wear uniforms or do uniforms wear people?” (7), the question appears evident: the choice to wear a garment is ours, but we cannot control how others read our bodies. And no matter how much we bind our bodies, shear our hair or paint our faces, our bodies will not and cannot be identical replicas, at least not without the aid of some sort of surgery. We are different, and clothing highlights that distinction, although clothing alone does not imply that we should treat each other so; humans have devised such signs and symbols to deprive marked or othered bodies of their humanity.
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