views updated May 21 2018


Androgyny is the combination or blurring in one being (not necessarily limited to the human) of certain identifiable sex-differentiated traits. The androgyne may display both male and female characteristics at once, but often remains overall so sexually ambiguous that these traits blend into each other and sexual identification is impossible. Androgyny is found in art and in religion, and is constructed in various ways in social life and culture. The distinction between these realms is drastic, as the incorporation of androgyny in the representation and imagination of divine figures in a given culture by no means guarantees that gender-ambiguous appearance or behavior among humans will be acceptable. Ambiguity, indifferentiation, mixture, fluctuation, and uncertainty are fundamental features of the androgyne, whose body, unlike the hermaphrodite's, need not permanently display symmetrical and opposite sexual organs. True androgyny is thus neither hermaphroditism proper, nor can it be rendered by the juxtaposition of essentialist sexual principles, nor represented by the sexual conjoining of male and female. Such conflations have, nevertheless, been the norm in much discussion of androgyny (Zolla 1981).


The incorporation of androgyny in religious representations and mystical practices is most evident in Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as in religious systems such as that of the Lakota, in the United States, or the Dogon, in Mali. In such systems, the essence of the godhead is precisely the ability to manifest its divinity through transformation and the abolition of the laws of nature, by eschewing physical limitations inherent to human beings, and by incarnating the wholeness of being and the world. Such is the case with the Hindu god and Ŝiva—who-becomes-mother (Ŝiva Mātŗbhūteśvara) and the Buddhas Avalokiteśvara (who becomes the Lady of Mercy) and Ŝakyamuni (Zolla 1981). Many Egyptian gods were androgynous at least at times: the goddesses Isis, the Moon, and Neith, and the god Yama (Krappe 1945). Androgynous deities of the ancient Greek world are connected to either the moon or the planet Venus who takes the form of two stars, worshipped as double Iŝtar, a bearded morning warrior goddess, or Iŝtar of Akkad, the masculine Iŝtar (ziqarat), and the evening goddess of love Iŝtar of Erech, equivalent to Aphrodite Ourania; Dionysos seems to have been androgynous before being effeminate and was a former moon god, while Aphrodite of Cyprus is bearded and both female and male.

The Western view of androgyny is informed by Plato's (c. 428–348 bce) Symposium, in which the original human beings made of two bodies are, because of their rebelliousness, cleft in half by an angry Zeus's thunderbolt. From then on, the two halves search for each other and seek to be reunited through love and sexual union! While this foundational myth includes different sexual combinations of bodies, the separation of the male-female one, originally an androgynous figure, signals the disappearance of androgyny in a punitive context and its permanent replacement by a binary separation of the sexes, now propelled towards a ritual and obligatory practice of heterosexual sex. The Western tradition privileged this sexual binary to the exclusion of same-sex possibilities; thus in French Renaissance texts, such as Rabelais' (c. 1483–1553) work, the term androgyne à deux dos (androgyne with two backs) references Plato's myth to designate the sexual coupling of a man and woman, and inscribes androgyny normatively within language.

A clear demarcation between the sexes is prescribed by the Bible in such texts as Deuteronomy, which inveighs strongly against any mixture of distinct natural substances or entities. Gnostic movements contemporary with early Christianity have, on the other hand, freely incorporated variations on androgyny in their mystical texts, such as The Apocryphon of John whose teachings were known by or before 185 ce and in which Christ appears as Father, Mother, and Son all in one (Nag Hammadi, 104-105). In the Gospel of the Egyptians a Gnostic work preserved in Coptic and claiming Seth as its author, from an "ageless, unproclaimable Father," proceed the androgynous Father, the Son, crown of Silence, and the Mother, "ineffable," and endowed with the power of autogenesis (Nag Hammadi 1988, p. 209). Christian devotional movements have also made way for many forms of androgynous ambiguity (Cloke 1995; Davis 2001, 2002; Kitchen 1998; Minghelli 1996; and others). Passing as male, whether a temporary state or reversed at death, is extolled for women saints, who thus protect their virtue. Further, historians of medieval Christianity such as Newman and Bynum have suggested that there was an implied, veiled, androgyny of divinity in the person of Christ as incarnated God, who becomes Christ-the Mother or Christ as tender, nurturing being, inflected towards the feminine (Newman 1995; Bynum 1982). Caroline Walker Bynum has defined the move towards the feminization of Jesus and the mystical expression of God as Mother as initiated by some of the leading male theologians in the twelfth century and later amplified by the anchoress Julian of Norwich (1342–c.1416). Bynum points out the ambivalence of some of the most male-centered authors, such as Anselm of Canterbury, who sways between objecting "… to calling God 'mother' because male is superior to female and because the father contributes more to the child than the mother in the process of reproduction …" (Bynum 1982, p. 113) but, in other texts, compares Jesus and Paul to mothers. Christian attitudes towards androgyny in devotional texts remain ambivalent, because of the danger to the doctrinal gender order posed by equalizing male and female. As Shawn Krahmer puts it in a study of the virilization of women in Bernard of Clairvaux's (1090–1153) commentary on the Bride, this image of the Bride "… startles, challenges, and inspires precisely because of the tensions that remain in the reader's mind between the normally negative connotations of the feminine and the positive connotations of virility that are paradoxically also associated with a feminine figure …" (Krahmer 2000, p. 321). Thus in many cultures the devaluation of the feminine and of women has been a durable obstacle to a total fusion of male and female through androgyny, a quandary too easily ignored by those who seek to normalize the androgyne (Zolla 1981). In alchemy as well, some symbols are completely androgynous—for instance the Rebis, or personification of cosmic wisdom, with a male and female head, one red and one white wing as represented in the sixteenth-century German manuscript of the Splendor Solis by Solomon Trismosin (reproduced in Zolla, p. 61)—while others involve the calcification of the material female dross to attain the superior male element.


Literature has treated the ambiguities of androgyny with varying degrees of suspicion. The greater value of the male being and masculinity is underscored in several narratives of Ovid's (43 bce–c.17 ce) Metamorphoses. In the story of the nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, the latter's excessive beauty incurs an ill fate. When he dives naked into the waters, the nymph Samalcis is blinded with lust, jumps in after him, naked as well, and fastens her lips to his, clinging to his body with hers. In the end, with "… weakened members and a girlish voice," he is made one with her "so two became nor boy nor girl/neither yet both within a single body" (Book IV, 121-122). Of Atalanta, the brave huntress who joins the chase of the wild boar with Meleager, it is said that "her lovely face seemed boyish for a virgin/and yet was far too girlish for a boy." Meleager is smitten by her courage and ambiguous beauty, but, when he honors her over the others, all ends badly with the murder of his uncles and his own death (Book VIII, 224-225). The girl Iphis, brought up as a boy, is married to Ianthe and laments the womanly state that, in her view, will not allow her sexual concourse with her bride, until her mother calls upon Isis to transform Iphis into a man (Book IX, 265-269); a story that was taken up again in medieval literature.

In medieval texts such as the fabliau and some romances, androgyny was cast in a negative light through such tropes as the beardless youth and the female virago. Yet other texts, such as the Thirteenth-Century Ide and Olive and Roman de Silence efficaciously displaced the category through cross-dressing and narrative devices that required the suspension of disbelief. In these texts, maidens are disguised or brought up as knights and seen as credibly male until the disclosure of their natural sex or their full sexual transformation (Sautman 2001).

Literature has availed itself of a claimed relationship to the divine through inspiration and of its privileged negotiation of the symbolic to represent the androgyne positively even when society condemns it. Artists and poets can praise the androgyne as an inspired, superior, divinely-infused creative being while, applied in the social arena, the term may remain hostile. Thus the limits of androgyny at both extremes were evoked by the nineteenth-century poet Theodore de Banville: The woman with a beard, he wrote, was caged like a beast, with a sad, resigned expression on her face, while the artist Rosa Bonheur, who dressed as a man to paint daily but posed in portraits in austere female clothing, was the apex of androgynous achievement. The French author Francis Carco's 1914 novel Jesus La Caille stresses the sexual power exercised on both men and women by the androgynous street urchin. Several Works of modern literature seize upon the allegorical and gender-breaking potential of androgyny, ranging from Honoré de Balzac's Seraphita (1835), to Rachilde's Monsieur Venus (1884), Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities (1930–1943), and to Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), where androgyny rejoins shape-shifting. A more recent work, Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body (1993), imbeds androgyny in writing itself through devices such as the elimination of gender-defining pronouns.


Resistance to androgyny's denaturalizing effect was evident in European medical and criminological discourse of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Experts in those equated androgyny with underdevelopment, degeneracy and sexual confusion, men with physical female traits (gynécomastie), women with male traits (masculisme), and the promiscuity and violence attributed to lower-class women. Androgynes and hermaphrodites were frequently lumped together in discussions of deviance, labeled 'inverts' and were most bothersome when they did not simply hide in laboratories or circus cages. The hermaphrodite who attempted to live as an integral part of the community attracted distinct hostility, or could not adapt easily to another sex. This was the case for example with Herculine Barbin (1838–1868). Known also under the name Alexina, she was declared a girl at birth, lived twenty-two years as a woman, trained as a schoolteacher, and then was reassigned as male, her birth certificate being legally rectified in 1860 to designate her as a man with the name of Abel. However, Abel found it too difficult to live with this new identity and eventually committed suicide (Foucault 1978). Yet androgyny could be highly marketable as well, as shown by the life of Madame Delait, the bearded lady of the Vosges in the early 1900s. Married, she lived fully integrated in her community and was a local celebrity, producing postcards of herself for sale, in which images played with gender interchangeability and with emphasized gender-conformist traits. Her corpulence, physical posture, and language were completely masculine when she posed as a man, but as a woman, she juxtaposed delicate feminine clothing with her startling dark beard (Nohain and Caradec 1969). In the late nineteenth century, androgyny was feared as a social disrupter and unnatural, mannish women were suspected of being lesbians (Sautman 1996).

Since the twentieth century, in European and North American cultures, society has had a more positive view of androgyny. It is often associated with the culture of desire in the lesbian and gay male world. In lesbian cultures in particular, androgyny has acquired a high valuation as a strong expression of beauty, erotic pull, and physical self-assuredness against masculinist canons of body appearance. The androgyne is a specific identity category within the spectrum of lesbian gender identifications, distinct from butch and passing. Even when not physically evident and complete, androgyny remains a dynamic category of the performative and of lesbian consciousness in response to which many lesbians shape their own identity. While identity categories and their political messages shift over time within lesbian communities, androgyny has remained a durable category of bodily identity and personhood.

Mainstream heterosexual culture is not impervious to the attraction of the androgyne, cultivated in the public eye especially through the self-fashioned persona of popular music stars. David Bowie, Boy George, and Michael Jackson garnered solid followings by combining lyrics, musical style, and stage performance with a carefully crafted androgynous appearance that created the spectacle of illusion and ambiguity at the safe distance of the stage. Boy George has combined this cultivated ambiguity with the acknowledgment of different sexual identity, and come out as a gay man. K. D. Lang, a lesbian performer with a clearly androgynous appearance, has also effectuated a successful crossover into mainstream culture. However unlike the male performers mentioned above, it is Lang's voice, not her androgynous appearance that appealed first to the mainstream, although it is certainly a strong factor with a lesbian audience. This subtle difference speaks to the different ways the androgyny of men and women continues to be perceived today and to the higher value placed on the feminized male over the virile female.

Commercial film has tapped into the androgyne's erotic power of attraction, but has also carefully contained it by returning androgynous performance to normative safety, for instance in the very popular Shakespeare in Love (1998). The sexual aura of androgyny permeates the screen temporarily, but normativity is reaffirmed offscreen, a function filled by television shows, tabloids and "people"-oriented publications. Thus publicly heterosexual actors provide a social safety net by playing queer roles that queer actors cannot comfortably perform, and by reminding audiences of the fictional and transitional nature of their performance of androgyny. The presence of androgynous women on screen can remain a scripted negative type simply recognizable as a lesbian (A Rage in Harlem [1991]), or revert to heterosexuality to further complicate sexual and identity tensions (Bridget Fonda in Single White Female [1992]). The deeper signification of androgyny for women remains largely the purview of lesbian cinema (Go Fish [1994]). While male androgyny is frequently seen as a locus of sexual fulfillment, it is hardly any more acceptable to mainstream audiences. One film that successfully made that crossover is Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), with its compelling portrayal of a young transvestite who, reverting to his "natural" garb and body styling becomes deeply androgynous. It is however to be noted that what made that film so effective was in part its incorporation of matters of race and contemporary politics into the representation of sexual androgyny.

Androgyny, thus, is not only an ambiguous body appearance, but also an ambiguous function in a variety of societies where it can be at once rejected and embraced. It can be incorporated or appropriated by an extremely conventional, normative, discourse of sex and gender that, in the end, reasserts binaries and the primacy of the male (Zolla 1981). It can also be ascribed intrinsic value, and, viewed not as a temporary state or heterosexual teaser; it can challenge essentialist views of sex and gender and their binary gender scripts. Embraced in this form, and allowed to flourish, it refutes the precept that gender—and sex—are natural, unequivocal and thus inescapable.

see also Beard; Butch/Femme; Film, Gender and Eroticism: IV. Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Film; Hermaphrodites; Ide and Olive.


Banville, Theodore Faullain de. 1970. Les Camées parisiens [Parisian cameos]. Genève: Slatkine Reprints. (Orig. pub. 1866.)

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1982. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cloke, Gillian. 1995. This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, A.D. 350–450. London: Routledge.

Davis, Stephen J. 2001. The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, Stephen J. 2002. "Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men." Journal of Early Christian Studies 10.1: 1-36.

Foucault, Michel, ed. 1978. Herculine Barbin, dite Alexina B. Paris : Gallimard.

Kitchen, John.1998. Saints' Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender: Male and Female in Merovingian Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krahmer, Shawn M. 2000. "The Virile Bride of Bernard of Clairvaux." Church History 69(2): 304-327.

Krappe, Alexander H. 1945. "The Bearded Venus." Folklore 56(4): 325-335.

Minghelli, Marina. 1996. Santa Marina la travestita [Saint Marina the transvestite]. Palermo: Sellerio.

Newman, Barbara. 1995. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nohain, Jean, and François Caradec.1969. La Vie exemplaire de la femme à barbe: Clémentine Delait 1865–1939 [The exemplary life of the bearded woman: Clementine Delait 1865–1939]. Paris: La Jeune Parque.

Ovid. 1958. Metamorphoses: A Complete New Version, trans. and ed. Horace Gregory. New York: Viking Press.

Plato. 1983. Lysis; Symposium; Gorgias, trans. W.R. M. Lamb. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Robinson, James W. 1978; 1988. General ed. The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco: Harper and Row/Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Sautman, Francesca Canadé. 1996. "Invisible Women: Lesbian Working Class Culture in France, 1880–1930." Homosexuality in Modern France, ed. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryan T. Ragan, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sautman, Francesca Canadé. 2001. "What Can They Possibly Do Together: Queer Epic Performance in Yde et Olive and Tristan de Nanteuil." In Same-Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Francesca Canadé Sauman and Pamela Sheingorn.

Winterson, Jeanette. 1993. Written on the Body. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Woolf, Virginia. 1993. Orlando. New York: QPBC. (Orig. pub. 1928.)

Zolla, Elémire. 1981. The Androgyne: Reconciliation of Male and Female. New York: Crossroad.

                                 Francesca Canadé Sautman


views updated Jun 11 2018


Historically, psychologists have viewed femininity and masculinity as opposite poles of a continuum. The more feminine a person was, the less masculine that person could be. In the late 1990s, psychologists, including Sandra Bem, have asserted that femininity and masculinity are independent personality dimensions. Individuals, female or male, who exhibit high levels of both feminine and masculine personality traits are said to demonstrate androgyny. People who have many masculine but few feminine traits are termed masculine; those with many feminine but few masculine characteristics are feminine. People who show few masculine and feminine traits are designated as undifferentiated. Numerous studies indicate that androgynous persons are better adjusted psychologically, more popular, and have higher self-esteem than are masculine, feminine, or undifferentiated persons. In other research, individuals high in masculinity appear as well off as androgynous persons. These results suggest that it is the masculine component of androgyny (e.g., independence, confidence, self-reliance) that is most strongly associated with psychological well-being.



Bem, Sandra. "The Measurement of Psychological Androgyny."Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 42 (1974):155-162.



views updated May 21 2018

androgyny An androgynous individual is one who unites the characteristics of both sexes. Androgyny has been of interest to some sociologists who study gender because it makes problematic the taken-for-granted assumptions of what it is to be a man or a woman. Examples include Harold Garfinkel's case-study of ‘Agnes’ or Michel Foucault's historical dossier on Herculine Barbine. More commonly it provides the subject-matter of much science fiction (see e.g. M. Piercey 's Woman at the Edge of Time
). Some feminists advocate cultural or psychological (rather than physical) androgyny as an alternative to patriarchy.


views updated May 21 2018

an·drog·y·nous / anˈdräjənəs/ • adj. partly male and partly female in appearance; of indeterminate sex. ∎  having the physical characteristics of both sexes; hermaphrodite.DERIVATIVES: an·drog·y·ny / -nē/ n.


views updated May 11 2018

18. Androgyny

  1. Hermaphrodites half-man, half-woman; offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite. [Gk. Myth.: Hall, 153]
  2. Iphis Cretan maiden reared as boy because father ordered all daughters killed. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 143]
  3. Tiresias prophet who lived as man and a woman. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 255256]


views updated May 14 2018

androgynous hermaphrodite; spec. in bot. XVII. f. L. androgynus — Gr. andrógunos, f. anḗr, andro- man + gunḗ woman; see -OUS.
Also androgyne XVI. — (O)F. — L.