chapter
Androgyny
Pages 3

The belief that androgyny is a liberation from limiting and polarized gender and sexual roles led to its embrace by both feminists and gay liberationists in the early 1970s. Carolyn Heilbrun opened her influential feminist text on the topic, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1973), by arguing that androgyny “suggests a spectrum upon which human beings choose their places without regard to propriety or custom” (xi). In a chapter in the equally important Homosexual Oppression and Liberation (1972) entitled “Liberation: Toward the Polymorphous Whole,” Dennis Altman called for “freedom from the surplus repression that prevents us from recognizing our essential androgynous and erotic natures” (83), including our “bisexual potential” (94), a sentiment echoed by

Gayle Rubin in her muchcited 1975 essay, “The Traffic in Women”: “The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (204). However, androgyny quickly came under fire from some of the very feminists who had endorsed it, including lesbian feminist Adrienne Rich, who excluded her poem about it, “The Stranger,” from her collected poems and later wrote a critique of it in Of Woman Born (1976). For Rich and others, androgyny had come to be complicit with, rather than critical of, patriarchy. Androgyny seemed to be a personal, rather than political, solution to the problems of the sex-gender system, and in any case, it did not recognize gender inequity as crucial to that system’s institutions and functioning. The androgyne, as the word itself suggested, was most often a man perfected through the addition of some femininity; this only reinscribed the masculine as the norm and ideal and consolidated the construction of the sexes as opposite and complementary without exposing that fabrication. As feminists pointed out, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, androgyny was little more than a fashion statement that signified a generalized eroticism congruent with new youth ideals of gender. The basic heterosexual appeal (and sexism) of male glam and heavy metal rockers and of female body-builders was generally supported, rather than subverted, by their assimilation of some cross-gender elements of character, costume, or physique, as long as it was not explicitly bisexual, as with David Bowie, or too “butch” and potentially lesbian, as with Bev Francis, one of the lead female weightlifters in the film Pumping Iron II.