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The Ideal (Wo)Man: Part Two

April 25th, 2011

Androgyny, in a Western context, relates more to women and their subjugation by patriarchal systems of power. Tracing a few moments in history will exemplify this point before switching over to a discussion of the “sexiness” (Garber 233) in alternative vein of androgyny.  In ancient Greek and Roman society, those androgynous figures, as illustrated through hermaphroditic bodies, were considered genetic “monsters” (Brisson 2).  In ancient Greek and Roman society, sex was pivotal in defining which gender role a person belonged to as that determined “above all, status in society” (Brisson 3).  Thus, to occupy both sexes, and therefore both genders in an ambiguous body, meant that such an individual was in effect cancelled out or in possession of neither, rendering him/her reproductively (and socially) worthless. Such biological mishaps were interpreted by these societies “as foreboding signs sent to human beings by the gods to manifest their anger or announce the destruction of the human race” (Brisson 2).  In short, they were the so-called harbingers of doom.  Also, curiously, the word ‘androgyne’ was employed to scorn cowardly men on the battlefield (Brisson 61), as an affront to their masculinity.  Yet, Greek society in particular presents contradictions.  Women “who challenged the institution of marriage [were] forced into the direction of warfare,” (Brisson 61) whereupon they became warriors.  Furthermore, aside from transitory cross-dressing traditions, Greek men schooled young boys in the social practice of sexual arts, to learn “how to enjoy the pleasures of life in the right way and with correct moderation” (Brisson 65) in a sort of regulated homosexuality for educational purposes, not just for the sake of pleasurable debauchery.

The Renaissance period in England features the same sort of restraint of women and the feminine.  Men in power penned moralistic literature and pamphlets with the aim of “castigating women” (Henderson & McManus 17) who did not assume conventional, submissive feminine behavior, and even more crucially, dress.  They turned to classical and biblical figures of yore, from masculine directed texts, like the Bible, to depict women as weak-willed, meddling Eves and Pandoras.  One influential writing, Hic Mulier, The Man-Woman, derides mannish costuming for females as “an outward sign of woman’s attempt to usurp masculine aggressiveness, authority and sexual freedom” (Henderson & McManus 8), which demonstrates that men authored these pamphlets out of fear of shifts in power.  By maintaining crisp delineations, the patriarchal balance could remain unquestioned.  Manly women and womanly men were met with extreme distaste.  Playful androgyny was unacceptable because for Renaissance thinking, and during other periods in Western history for that matter, “in a truly ordered society men and women accept entirely different roles (of which clothes are the symbol)” (Henderson & McManus 52). Such androgynous flip-flopping only shows that the assignment of such roles is random and would thus potentially awaken pandemonium.

Later, around the 17th century, when exploration to foreign and tropical lands became increasingly popular, apes fascinated explorers.  These men returned with detailed accounts of “rude, lascivious” (Schiebinger 99) male apes in contrast to the female apes who “were distinguished by their very great modesty” (Schiebinger 99).  According to reports, female apes hid their faces and their “secret parts” (Schiebinger 99) from the men and displayed highly emotional human sentiments.  This type of portrayal became popular among naturalists to convey such “ideals for middle-class European women” (Schiebinger 99).  Madame Chimpanzee, who arrived in London in 1783, manifests the zenith of these ideals.  Reports circulated that she grew attached to a man on board and covered herself, expressing “‘great Discontent’” when the gown was taken off her.  London Magazine declared her formed “‘in every Part like a Woman except… [her] Head” (Schiebinger 99) and she had the very best of table manners reportedly.  Associating human behavior with primates seems appropriate given our genetic bond but these accounts possess a certain amount of ludicrousness in the manner in which they venerate behavioral characteristics for female apes and female humans.  Another technique to uphold gender stereotypes of the savage, robust and competitive male and the controlled, timid and demure female, and other such distinctions is kept in order by whom else? The masculine system of power.

Once, men and women partook fashion with more ease and equality.  Although they still share fashion in a general sense – because everyone has fashion – “truly ‘unisex’ fashion is rare (Eroticism 25), historically, since the 17th and 18th century (Wilson 117), fashion delineates the genders. The sartorial domain is the feminine domain. When it comes to modern androgyny, women can adapt male ornamentation with the clarification that they “do not attempt to disguise their biological sex” (Hegland 181) but with males, the allowances are even more restricted.  Men who adopt feminine dress “are viewed – at best – as humorous and peculiar, and – at worst – as an abomination” (Hegland 181).  Female engagement in androgyny throughout history has aroused ire, but now as permissions in gender roles slide, dress codes become comparatively more relaxed in regards to formality and women.  For men, such investment is never appropriate, and “any deviation from conventional male attire is viewed with great unease” (Arnold 111) because that anomalous behavior calls masculinity into question, and “within a strictly patriarchal society threatens the existing balance of power” (Arnold 111).  Attendance to male clothing, then, is appropriate only within a few settings “where it can be read as a sign of duty, discipline and devotion to a just cause” (Arnold 114).  Men simply do not need androgyny. By engaging in androgyny, they relinquish their power.  The effeminate man has been detailed in a past blog entry.  Two of the examples of the effeminate man stand out, however.  Glam and Goth bestow interesting insight into the effeminate man because they show that when men do engage in androgyny, they do so more for the sake of theatricality than power.  Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure, incorporated an “unashamed and deliberate display of androgyny” (Geryhalter 219) into his brooding look.  Yet such posturing was “remarkably unconventional, even for the music business” (Geryhalter 219) where most cases of androgyny can be found in eccentric performers including David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Prince, Boy George and others. Androgyny, like fashion, rests in the feminine domain.

In real application, androgyny is not so much a fissure of two halves, but a chance for women to perform the male; it is the only opportunity for women to gain power and it is wholly one-sided. Truthfully, androgyny does not dismiss gender conventions, though it might revise them in that the female can acceptably occupy the masculine dress in order to assert limited dominance.  Today, the business woman “declares symbolic allegiance to the professional, white, male world” by “playing ‘male’ (almost always with a softening touch to establish traditional female decorativeness” (Jacobus et al. 104-5) so that she not frighten her male co-worker with any “serious competition (symbolically, that is)” (Jacobus et al. 104-5).  For women toying with the masculine indicates liberation “from a reproductive destiny and a construction of femininity seen as constraining and suffocating (Jacobus et al. 105).  Anyway, the woman in shoulder pads with cropped hair more likely, or more regularly, exists in everyday life than the man in silver spandex with a full face of make-up. One flirts around and into the accepted mainstream while the other inhabits the subversive peripheries of anti-fashion subcultures. Androgyny is not about finding egalitarian footing in society between the genders. Rather, it is about accepting that one must assume the masculine to gain control.

Judith Halberstam explores the inequities of such masculinized appearances in women in her book, Female Masculinity.  She perceives the arbitrary disparities in tomboyism.  Just as past cultures and communities practiced ritualized and transient cross-dressing, parents tend to overlook tomboyism, “an extended childhood period of female masculinity,” (Halberstam 5) as a natural, benign phase in a little girl’s life.  Halberstam associates tomboyism with female androgyny “as a sign of independence and self-motivation” (5), or, in other words, young girls openly desiring the same assertion and agency that other young boys command.  However, parents punish this conduct either when the child carries the gender confusion to extremes, like “taking a boy’s name or refusing girl clothing of any type” (Halberstam 6) or when the youth “threatens to extend [tomboyism] beyond childhood and into adolescence” (Halberstam 6) instead of rebuking the routine in place of more ‘fitting’ feminine comportment.  To Halberstam, the age of adolescence for girls is critical and conveys “the crisis of coming of age as a girl in a male-dominated society” rather than a celebratory rite of passage, as reserved for boys and venerated by men in literature as a great ascension to dominance. On the contrary, female “adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and repression” (Halberstam 6).  As Halberstam argues, gender conditioning commences in infancy, immediately after the child is born.  Yet, Halberstam claims that femininity requires intensive costuming and illusion, whereas “it is relatively difficult to not appear masculine (28).  Her assertion presents, problematically, that femininity is easy to impersonate but masculinity is the natural state of being.  Apparently, femininity is a state of smoke and mirrors, negotiating artificialities.

Carrie Paechter of “Masculine femininities/ Feminine Masculinities: Power, Identities, and Gender” finds gender terminology troublesome since people have a mutual “inability to define either masculinity or femininity except in relation to each other and to men and women” (254).  According to Paechter, humans attribute masculine and feminine traits on a broad, generalized continuum without considering such attributes on a smaller scale, where behaviors are more likely to be fractured and individualistic (255).  Moreover, masculinity is the practice of enacting manhood while “femininity is the Other of that” (Paechter 254), which explains why neither unisex androgyny nor male/female androgyny ever work.  Femininity is “constructed as a variety of negations of the masculine” (Paechter 256), it is not a free and independent entity because it refers to the subordinate state, “a lack, an absence of masculinity” (Paechter 256) without equality between the masculine and feminine characteristics, androgyny is nearly impervious.  Thanks to the formation of gender, the woman is bracketed to the man. She remains secondary as she must inhabit the feminine and not the masculine on a wholly meaningless basis but she upholds a twisted authority in a self-denigrating way in that “man must have woman to make sense” (Paechter 257). Returning to the model of Fausto-Sterling’s five sexes, the pure hermaphrodite is rare, but the gradations of male/female pseudohermaphrodites proliferate on the sex schema.  Similarly, pure androgyny is a fanciful concept filled with delusions of gender equality.  No unisex androgyne can live for sure and the male/female gender bricolage surfaces in unstable, fickle waves.   People fail to acknowledge it, but the androgynous is present and has existed throughout history.  As Paechter states:

“Once we understand that not all masculinities are entirely masculine, or femininities feminine, we may be able to think of ourselves as humans who construct our identities in various ways, some of which are related to ideal typical forms of masculinity and femininity, and some of which are not.” (262)

Sometimes a drag queen might mimic the images and actions of femininity more astutely than a natural-born female, and the same holds true for drag kings and natural-born males. Freud suggested that for women “a residue of the masculine survives (and in all men something of the feminine)” (Wilson 120), gender writes people in absolutes. Rarely do people consider themselves and others on a human level.  They notice all the minute differences.  We are trained to classify and rank from the very beginning, and we are reinforced and rewarded by mainstream society for our efforts.

Sharp lines, tailoring and bifurcated garments personify the masculine woman.  Woman seized the suit around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. During the 1920s, spirits and hemlines ran high.  The young, especially the young women, rejoiced in a “revolution of morality” (Tortora & Eubank 449) and amended the code of proper conduct for women, along with its wardrobe.  Women of the twenties revealed their legs or covered them with pants.  Previous attempts “had utilized bloomers, which were cut differently from a man’s trousers” (Tortora & Eubank 449) but now women donned those assembled like men’s.  For one of the first times in fashion history, women cut their hair short like men and aspired to look like adolescent boys, although it should be noted that these flappers delighted in heavily applied rouge and lipstick as well as dresses.  Nevertheless, a notably vivacious, effervescent play with gender began in this decade. Women idolized the physiques of gangly, prepubescent boys.  James Laver of Costume and Fashion: A Concise History declares that “there was now nothing to distinguish a young woman from a school boy except perhaps her rouged lips and penciled eyebrows” (233), yet this description renders the female wearer not with an androgynous authority, since they appear more like boys than full-grown men, but with more of a whisper of subversive sexuality. They aspire “to inscribe masculine power upon the female body” (Arnold 122), however, these women are no threat to men in their sartorial display with the bodies they intend to echo.

For the woman in a suit, though, that incendiary sexuality is heightened.   Indeed, Valerie Steele remarks upon the Freudian symbolism behind many articles of clothing in Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. For instance, the necktie, along with several other aspects of the suit represents the phallus (Eroticism 25), which makes the masculine woman a masquerader according to the mainstream.  She has an uncomfortable sexuality.  Anne Hollander in Sex and Suits declares that the women of the 1920s “resemble dashing youths or cheeky urchins” (145), which imparted freedom and autonomy for the wearer. The level of androgyny depends upon the fit of the suit: whether the suit emphasizes the feminine shape or whether it fits like a man and resembles more of an attempt at hetero-normative cross-dressing.  The more the suit proclaims the woman openly, the more it elicits a heterosexual reading of desire whereas the closer it ventures toward concealing the woman totally, the nearer it steps toward a homosexual reading of desire.  Androgyny oscillates in the distance between the two. Androgyny, somehow consequently, as Garber observes, gets “conflated and confused with bisexuality” (207) because it inhabits the realm of duality and opposites.

But to Hollander, women wearing such conventional male garb, including “tuxedos or tailored pants-suits with neckties, still give off the old flavor of female provocation” (171) hunting and competing for male attention.  Finally, in the Seventies, “trousers were really accepted as female apparel” (Fifty Years 88) in any domain, informal or formal, probably a reflection of the popularity of women’s liberation movements.  Pants, during this period, rivaled the long-standing popularity of the dress, sales in France in 1971 demonstrated that the number of pants sold spiked from eleven to fourteen million where the number of dresses sold declined form eighteen to fifteen million” (Fifty Years 87).  Scholars argue whether or not the androgynous form continued into the Eighties.  Steele contends that it does in Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now when she identifies the decade’s fascination with the naturally toned and athletic body that “was characterized by broad shoulders, muscular arms, narrow hips, hard buttocks, and a flat stomach” (124), most of which are features generally assigned to the masculine build.  Over the last century, women’s clothes have updated and modernized, which “has meant copying men’s clothes, directly or indirectly” (Hollander 181) for their own consumption. Now, with a new century underway, men are acquiring fashion habits from women, although most of what they are reformatting are “simply male trappings” (Hollander 182), such as earrings and long hair, which had gone extinct for male use.  Hollander disputes the association to androgyny, though, by arguing that “trousers and tailoring and short hair are now wholly female in themselves, and women wearing them no longer look masculine” (182) since the practice has become so ritualized.  She believes that women dictated “the total male scheme of dress, modified it to suit themselves, and…handed it back to men” (Hollander 182) with the chance for new reinterpretations, though she doubts that “ancient Western female effects” (Hollander 182), like veils or billowy skirts, will come into vogue for men, at least any time in the foreseeable future.  In the last century women have profited from the opportunity to express themselves and rebel through dress, though the exact details become complicated by notions of performance, purpose and sexuality.

From a careful analysis of androgyny, it appears that the term does exist but not in a completely formed and faultless standardization.  Unisex androgyny furnishes the best possible literal definition, but it has no place in concrete reality.  Male/female gender bricolage androgyny, then, is perhaps the closest humans can reach to sartorial articulations of androgyny, but the balance is off, rarely can men access androgyny whereas women are well versed on the subject.  Androgyny often confounds investigation in that each man and woman somehow embodies it to varying degrees, but no clear model has been set and many instances seem geared more toward the masculine or more toward the feminine rather than balanced between the two. Then again, androgyny excels in its threatening harmony; it exposes the fragility of gender. But, let’s be honest, even if it worked flawlessly, androgyny only takes gender out of the equation, and other factors like race and class, that are much less readily obscured, remain subject to human classification.  As scholar Elizabeth Wilson notes, “Human beings, however, are not natural. They do not live primarily by instinct. They live in socially constructed cultures” (234). Plus, it is highly probable that even if androgyny is successfully implemented in place of the male/female blueprint, we would in all likelihood invent a series of gradations along that androgynous spectrum anyway.  And why? Because differences create power for a few to control the rest. Yet, androgyny is an undeliverable promise worth the time.  Paechter notes that if we can stop thinking in limited gender terminology, “we will free ourselves…from binary conceptions of masculinity and femininity that constrain both what we can think and who we can be” (262).  Decentralizing gender from human consciousness might take our minds off of nonsensical and unattainable opposites and allow us to see the reality we are afraid to confront: most humans are androgynous (to some extent). What all humans are not though, are static translations of gender.

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One Response to “The Ideal (Wo)Man: Part Two”

  1. Kilimag says:

    To the author of this piece,

    We here at Kilimanjaro Magazine would be extremely interested in contacting you to discuss the possibility of republishing this essay within our publication – you can reach us at office [at], if this is something you would be interested in.



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