This is a paper I wrote for Women’s Studies on androgyny.
Androgyny is a concept of the self – a way of thinking, acting, and living – which combines both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine characteristics into one person. Originating from the Greek words for male (andro) and female (gyn), it was introduced in 1974 by feminist psychologist Sandra Bem. Bem created a “sex test” which showed androgynous people as displaying a fuller range of human emotions and personality potential. This way of being allows one the freedom to develop oneself as an individual, not limited to traditional sex roles, while maintaining one’s biological sexual identity (Franck, 1993: 51).
There have recently been some disputes about androgyny, as in a culture that supports male characteristics more than female characteristics, attempts at androgyny will be, according to some, more likely to be male-dominated (Kramarae, 1992: 49). It is also said that because it claims to incorporate both feminine and masculine traits, validity is given to the idea that there are distinct differences between men and women.
In “Androgyny Reassessed,” Roos Vonk and Richard D. Ashmore sought to raise questions about the validity of the current assumptions of androgyny and examine how subjects classified by standard sexual identity tests as androgynous identified themselves. Employing both traditional and newly devised methods for identifying individuals, they hoped to catch a glimpse into what androgyny looked like from the “inside” (Vonk, 1993: 279).
In order to accomplish this, Vonk and Ashmore classified subjects using the “median split method” and then asked them to describe themselves in their own words (Vonk, 1993: 279). These self-descriptions were then analyzed by the assigned attributes as well as by the terms that modify the attributes and interconnecting terms (Vonk, 1993: 281).
The main finding of the study is that androgynous persons do not integrate their male and female characteristics but display them separately, in different situations. This “situational flexibility” suggests a larger concept of self, or “the multifaceted self,” in which all attributes are viewed as situation specific (Vonk, 1993: 282-3). This is a vastly different view on individual traits from conventional personality psychology, in which a person’s attributes are seen are fixed (Vonk, 1993: 285).
In conclusion, a question is raised: is androgyny an independent concept or part of a larger concept of self?
The idea of androgyny has been brushed up against, if not discussed directly, in our class a number of times. In “Sexism,” Marilyn Frye discusses sex-marking, or how everyone in our culture must clearly identify their sex in all aspects of their lives – how they look, dress, talk, act, react, and think. To her, this is to clearly mark the distinction between men and women and the stereotypes of both, which perpetuates the system of sexist oppression. She states the theory that by eliminating such sex-identifying, “one’s behavior would be so odd as to precipitate immediate crisis of intelligibility and strenous moral, religious or aesthetic objections from others” (Frye, 1983: 21). In Frye’s perspective on the world of sexual identity, androgyny has no place – blurring the intensely defined lines of sex is ludicrous and unheard of.
In “The Five Sexes,” Anne Fausto-Sterling discusses hermaphrodites. Androgyny is often confused with hermaphroditism, which is a biological combining of male and female. This could be because both are largely ignored in our culture – tossed into a box labelled “different,” “freakish,” or even worse, “nonexistent.” This occurs in order to maintain the deeply enculturalized male-female, dominate-subordinate dichotomy.
Following our viewing of the film Tough Guise, we discussed the differences between “bio-men” and “bio-women,” and the stereotypes surrounding them. It seemed to be well accepted in the class that such lines could be crossed – most often in the cases of “butch” lesbians and “femme” gay men – but the idea of androgyny, of blurring or negating those boundaries entirely, never surfaced. Having identified as androgynous my entire life (even before I knew the term), I wanted desperately to bring up the topic. However, I found I could not articulate. I realized I’d never looked into androgyny academically before, which is the reason I chose the topic for this assignment.
Androgyny: truth or myth? Bizarre or ideal? Standing on its own or part of a larger picture? Definitive or flexible? Uncommon or just obscured? Pro- or anti-feminist? There are still many questions surrounding this concept, but for me, it’s the only way to live.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Five Sexes: Why Male And Female Are Not Enough.” [publication and date unknown]
Franck, Irene and David Brownstone. The Women’s Desk Reference. Viking, New York. 1993, page 51.
Frye, Marilyn. “Sexism,” The Politics Of Reality. 1983, pages 17-38.
Kramarae, Cheris and Paula A. Treichler. Amazons, Bluestockings, and Crones: A Feminist Dictionary. Pandora, London. 1992, page 49.
Vonk, Roos and Richard D. Ashmore. “The Multifaceted Self: Androgyny Reassessed By Open-Ended Self-Descriptions,” Social Psychology Quarterly. Vol. 56, No. 4, 1993, pages 278-287.