What is Androgyny?

Androgyny is derived from the Greek roots of andro meaning male and gyne meaning female (Heilbrun, 1974). Androgyny has been defined through various studies and research for the past several decades. “Androgyny refers to the possession of both masculine and feminine characteristics by a person” (Cook, 1985) and as “a condition under which the characteristics of the sexes...[as defined by society] are not rigidly assigned” (Heilbrun, 1974). The positive characteristics of men and women are almost always the focus of studies involving androgyny. “Androgyny is a gender identity that is distinct from the sex of the body. It is not biological nor is it synonymous with sexual behavior, nor necessarily indicative of sexual preference” (Woodhill & Samuels, 2004). It attempts to defy the traditional gender roles that men and women are assigned since birth. Sex is the inherent biological difference between men and women’s reproductive organs whereas gender is learned as social, psychological, and cultural traits associated with one sex or the other (Bond, 2011). Androgyny attempts to blur the lines between traditional gender roles and to combine masculine and feminine traits in order for a person to reach an ideal state.

David Bowie performing in his effeminate glam rock ego

Androgyny vs. Traditional Gender Roles

Androgyny has been seen as a psychological state of mind although there are several examples of physical manifestation and portrayal. Those who possess a healthy balance of masculine and feminine traits are for the most part found to have higher levels of self-esteem (Cook, 1985). The “flexibility to engage in both masculine and feminine behaviors as the specific situation warrants” is shown to have “advantages not available to those who do not possess the masculine/feminine balance” (Cook, 1985). In today’s society, women are beginning to take on more masculine traits like assertiveness, competitiveness, and confrontation (Epilogue, 2010) and men are accepting feminine traits like compassion, affection, and tolerance. The progressive idea that men and women are now interchangeable at home and work promotes androgyny and works as a modern definition (Epilogue, 2010). This mindset is seeking to break the Social Roles Theory that men and women have been brought up to assume. Whereas men are expected to fulfill the masculine gender role and women are expected to fulfill the feminine gender role, androgyny seeks to blend them together (Bond, 2011).

Traditional gender roles have promoted the segregation of characteristics according to each sex. This has been exemplified in the Different Cultures Theory where boys and girls learn different rules and norms according to their gender (Bond, 2011). Androgyny seeks to unite the two different communication groups’ values to promote humanistic goals like self-actualization, a healthy sense of self, and flexibility (Cook, 1985). Androgynous persons generally perform in a superior manner on a number of tasks related to overall personal adjustment” (Cook, 1985). These include self-esteem like previously mentioned and interpersonal confidence and skills. Carl Jung also proposed that our subconscious holds qualities of the opposite sex. ‘Animus’ is within women as their repressed masculinity and ‘anima’ is within men as their repressed femininity (Woodhill & Samuels, 2004). The development and establishment of androgynous traits through gender identity are considered to be through the social process and not the biological process although this is what Jung may have suggested. Androgynous individuals have been found in various studies to be more skillful, less anxious, and more socially active than individuals of the traditional gender identities (Woodhill & Samuels, 2004).

Since androgyny is so complex, it is difficult for all findings to pinpoint to one conclusion. Several techniques have been used in order to best measure the ways in which androgyny manifests itself in men and women including the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, Personal Attributes Questionnaire, Australian Sex Role Scale, and the Extended Personal Attributes Questionnaire (Woodhill & Samuels, 2004). Due to the subject’s complexity, however, there have also been findings that “psychological well-being is more likely to be related to the possession of masculine characteristics” (Cook, 1985). Masculine characteristics in today’s society are still highly valued, which can explain the rise of women in high-standing positions within the workplace. Women showcase masculine traits related to independence, goal-directedness, and achievement, which ultimately brings them to the top (Cook, 1985). This illustrates the Male Dominance Theory where men have historically held more social power than women (Bond, 2011).

Male and Female Gender Symbols

Androgyny can be seen in many ways ideal. It combines desirable traits traditionally associated with either men or women. Woodhill & Samuels (2004) even go as far as suggesting that if all achieve positive androgyny, recognition of a true self and a move toward a utopian society will take place.

Positive and Negative Androgyny

Androgyny has typically been defined as referring to the integration of desirable masculine and feminine qualities. Woodhill & Samuels (2004), however, remind us of the undesirable traits that each sex can traditionally possess:
If femininity and masculinity are understood as consisting of both positive and negative traits and androgyny is a combination of feminine and masculine traits, then logically androgynous people could manifest any number and combination of positive and negative traits.
Desirable feminine characteristics are that of compassion, soft-heartedness, affection, sensitivity, expressiveness, peace lovingness, and tolerance. Undesirable feminine characteristics are timidity, mildness, passiveness, submission, modesty, temperament, and fragility. Desirable masculine characteristics are clear thinking, resourcefulness, ambition, practicality, activeness, and courage. Undesirable masculine traits are selfishness, vindictiveness, indifference, arrogance, vulgarity, aggression, and hard-heartedness (Woodhill & Samuels, 2004).

If a person possesses several desirable feminine and masculine characteristics he or she is considered to have a positively androgynous identity whereas a person who possesses several undesirable feminine and masculine characteristics is considered to have a negatively androgynous identity. There is the case, however, where a person incorporates many desirable feminine and masculine traits as well as many undesirable feminine and masculine traits. This person is considered to have an undifferentiated androgynous identity. In short, “both men and women should ‘learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some’” (Woodhill & Samuels, 2004).

Not only can positive androgynous identities improve individuals, but it could also improve groups of society as a whole. Prospectively, positive androgyny could reduce crime and violence through men’s acquisition of more feminine traits as they are the most prominent of the sexes to demonstrate traits that may induce crime and violence according to Social Roles Theory (Bond, 2011). Positive androgyny is more desired than negative androgyny and the rewards could be very beneficial according to the research that has been conducted over the years.

Androgyny’s Role in Past and Present Pop Culture

Throughout the years of popular culture, there has been a rise in the popularity of androgyny manifesting itself physically from 1970s’ glam rock through David Bowie and Lou Reed to 1980s’ Annie Lennox and Boy George to the current comeback through Adam Lambert and Justin Bieber. The view of androgyny by pop culture is not expressed as distinctly by masculine and feminine personality traits, but more by performers’ creative expression of their art. Garbage released a song entitled Androgyny which narrates the seduction of androgyny within our culture. It seems as though entertainers are succumbing to the androgynous force with very open arms. “Freud argued that creative people possess greater cross-sex identification than others” (Kaufman, 2010).

Justin Bieber poses for LOVE Magazine with his physically feminine features highlighted

Virginia Woolf also writes that “some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished” (Kaufman, 2010). Like that of Cook (1985), Kaufman (2010) agrees that androgyny requires flexibility, self-reliance, and freedom from social norms. Media is a strong communication channel and if the entertainers that are constantly appearing on television are endorsing androgyny, the message will most likely be viewed positively by the audience. Perhaps these musicians are largely apart of the movement toward the utopian society in which traditional gender roles will diminish and androgyny will prevail.

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