January 7, 2009

In Praise of Androgyny
by Miriam

I’ve been accused of “thinking like a man.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but if I did, chances are I wouldn’t be offended. I’m in favor of intellectual and emotional androgyny. Some of the most astonishing people I’ve met had one thing in common: she or he combined within one personality all the best qualities of both sexes.

The other side of that coin is, other people combine the worst qualities of both sexes, a recipe for disaster. But let’s stay with the positive. Mental androgyny is a very good thing. The positively androgynous person is the most highly evolved form of human.

Furthermore, humanity in general is headed for androgyny. It is the next major adaptation of the species for survival. No longer is it necessary for men to fight wars or women to nurture children. We have no need for the division of sex roles and personality characteristics, and these anachronisms will eventually wither like the appendix. Gentle men and strong women are the hope of the future, the probable next-in-succession saviors of the world. This may be known as the Apotheosis of the Mentally Epicene.

Epicene? Yes. It’s a useful and abused word for gender that’s uncertain or blended, ambiguous, indeterminate, with characteristics of both sexes: intellectual qualities, and emo stuff too.

Women in the Western world have always found it easier to adopt allegedly male ways and roles, than vice-versa. On the other hand, it seems to have been easier in places like the Middle East and the Orient for men to adopt women’s roles, at least if they were entertainers or sex workers. It must be rough to be male in a society where testosterone poisoning is accepted as normal. It’s a wonder more men don’t become voluntary homosexuals, if their only alternative is to live 24 hours a day behind the macho mask.

Anais Nin in her essay “In Favor of the Sensitive Man” describes a new type of man: natural (in the sense of unposing), sincere, unassertive, gentle. He hates falsity and war; is more concerned with human values than ambition. This new man is not alarmed by awareness that both he and his partner have both masculine and feminine traits. He knows that neither weakness nor strength is a fixed quality – we all have our strong days and weak days, and he can adjust to this with “rhythm, suppleness, relativity.”

Actually this type of man is not so new. Andre Breton wrote that androgyny “offers man a view of himself as he had been in the past or as he will be in the future: more luminous, more close to harmony and to power than he is in his present condition.” Jean Cocteau wrote, “Art is born of coitus between the male and female elements of which we are all composed, and they are more balanced in the case of artists than of other men. It results from a kind of incest, of love of self for self, of parthenogenesis.” I hasten to mention that this “love of self for self” that Cocteau mentions is what we now call self-esteem, which is generally agreed to be a good thing.

“He’s the freest person I ever met,” wrote David Payne in Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, “because he has the strength to accept the pain of his own doubleness, without murdering either half for the sake of a false peace.”

The theme of freedom is echoed by Sheila Sullivan, who says the feminine male is the truly liberated man, first because he recognizes that men and women are basically no different. Particularly, he knows that men don’t rank higher in the great scheme of things, simply for being male. Sullivan says, “The man lacking the qualities of gentleness, emotionality, personal charm, and grace is as unliberated as the woman possessing only these ‘feminine’ qualities.”

Actors and entertainers of the male gender have always been more in touch with their female side. Cat Stevens, in the mid-Sixties, told an interviewer that he envied the completeness and fulfillment of being a woman. “I have an amazing feeling of wanting to have a kid.” One of the most blatant androgynous beings of our time is Boy George, who always maintained that his image was not a theatrical, professional ploy. “I want to look like this. I think I look great.” “I’m just not sexy in the way David Lee Roth is,” says the Boy. “I’m not Tarzan beating my chest. I’m a different kind of sexy, far more interesting, I think.”

Clint Eastwood and John Wayne made careers of one-sided machismo, but it takes multifacetedness for someone like William Hurt to play the role he did in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Jon Voight told an interviewer, “I’m aware of the feminine aspects of myself. I’m encouraging them. It’s very positive to me. And I respect it in other men, because to me it makes other men more trustworthy, because they are more aware of themselves, and they’re stronger because they bend. They are less brittle.” Bob Hoskins freely admitted, “I learned most of my trade from women, because women can make you know what they’re thinking very quickly; men can’t. I love working with women.”

In the great Steppenwolf of Hermann Hesse, the character’s hallucinatory adventures bring him to an encounter with a woman who reminds him of his childhood friend. She suggests that perhaps she is a boy in woman’s clothing. The novel prophesies every one of the major preoccupations of the Sixties, when unisex clothing and bisexual behavior flourished. There is talk of the years of childhood when “love, in its first youth, embraces not only both sexes, but all and everything, sensuous and spiritual, and endows all things with a spell of love and a fairylike ease of transformation.” Pansexuality: very Sixties…

Poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West was spectacularly androgynous, so much so that Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando to celebrate the complex personality of her friend and lover.

Poets, of course, have always been stars in the androgynous firmament. Several years ago Shocks, a west coast poetry journal, published an androgyny theme issue which illustrates this point very well. In a Dick Lourie poem addressed to his anima (the Jungian term for the female part of the soul), the premise is that he keeps forgetting where his anima lives, keeps mistaking one woman after another for her. He asks his anima if it is too late for reconciliation – afraid that “the panic I feel in my stomach lately is you, trying to kick your way out, hoping that you come find someone more loyal to himself.” Stephen Vincent admitted, “There is a woman in me who keeps writing poetry.” William Talcott echoed this with “The woman in me is emerging as I write these poems.” Emmett Jarrett described his anima:

in me there is a woman
who thinks she is dark-haired
slender, with mysterious eyes…”

Anthony Burgess made a statement that about sums it up. “No artist will say, “I am a man” or “I am a woman;” he will say, “I’m a kind of hermaphrodite.”


Earlier version published in Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #13


Hedwig and the Angry Inch

“Today, we either want our men tough or cuddly. We want them to be either gangsta roughnecks or sensitive emo boys. The third way, the middle way, no longer exists.”
— Nick Marino

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: