Just People, An Alternative To Gender
The trouble started because we were raised as People. The Barbie-loving sister whose role model was the Famous Five’s George; a little brother with a temper and a love for baking; the other brother whose pyro phase (R.I.P. Barbies) belied a green thumb that made delicate flowers flourish; and the littlest sisters, twins, one of whom always assumed a boy’s role whenever we played Dress-Up. And myself, who, at age 12, dismissed a new boy from our BMX gang when he told me I couldn’t be in charge, because I was a girl. (Later, his mommy begged us to take him back.)
To our parents, though, we were People. Not Boys or Girls – Just People.
We were lucky. By the time most kids are 4 or 5, they’re bombarded with gender-typing cues from everyone — the media, teachers, extended family, peers, and yes, often parents. “There’s a girl’s toy inside the chocolate egg with the pink wrapper.” “Sit with your knees together in class, you’re a girl.” “Boys don’t cry.” We never heard phrases like these in our home. And it saved us a lot of time, not worrying about conforming to our gender.
Then one day, a stranger (a woman) told me I should stop playing on the street because, “you’re getting bigger and you’re not a boy.” And suddenly, it was binary. A one-or-the-other choice.
For a while, I chose to prove her wrong. I playacted at boy-dom — short hair, shapeless shirts and jeans, ‘tough’ mannerisms. Then puberty presented in the burgeoning form of a woman’s body. I was given a bra, but nothing to contain my new self-loathing and sense of loss.
As I got older, despite growing my hair out and wearing more ‘feminine’ clothes, I endured, confusingly, both intended insults (“closet lesbian,” “that dyke”) and intended compliments (“you think like a man,” “you’re one of the guys”). This continued until a friend and colleague said someone called me androgynous behind my back. I remember the word feeling like an epiphany.
But it wasn’t as freeing as it felt.
Androgyny is still dominated by maleness. While there’s recently been a welcome resurgence of discussions about androgyny, thanks to Bowie and an 80s revival, that talk has really only resulted in visual cues that skew masculine, or, at best, toward a pre-pubescent neutrality: short hair, defined jawlines, flat chests, nude lips, combat boots and slouchy trousers on the runways. A ‘look androgynous’ tutorial suggests compression vests or binders to disguise breasts. But surely you could be androgynous even if you had massive boobs or loved to rock a cool tunic? Even if you’re a woman who “thinks like a woman” or is “one of the girls” sometimes?
Of course you could be. Because we’re not playing Dress-up Androgyny.
True androgyny – androgyny of the mind – isn’t about what you wear. It isn’t about thinking like a man, if you’re a woman, or thinking like a woman, if you’re a man. It’s about not conforming to stereotypical male-female assignations of emotional responses, skill sets, instincts.
My first exposure to the androgynous mind was in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The protagonist, born a man, turns mysteriously into a woman. But throughout the book, actions, thought processes, and even sexual proclivities are never defined by the gendered body. Woolf put it quite simply, “It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame. It is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age… when the writer used both [male and female] sides of his mind equally.”
But even Woolf was bound by the thinking of her time. Using both male and female ‘sides’ (which are constructs only) isn’t to be lauded because these are internalized perceptions that need to be discarded entirely. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes androgyny succinctly as “a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities.” Notice Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t say “a person’s ability to be at the same time masculine and feminine,” because androgyny isn’t about embodying both genders; it’s about embodying opposing traits and being a more well-rounded person.
In his book, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi presents a compelling reason to make this version of androgyny a goal. He cites research that shows creativity thrives in an androgynous mind: A 1980 study found that above a certain intelligence threshold, IQ didn’t help predict creativity (measured by the ability to form remote associations or generate associative uses), but androgyny did. The authors noted that in typically sex-stereotyped societies, “a person would need to be open to experience, flexible, accepting of apparent opposites, unconcerned about social norms and self-reliant.” Traits that creative people display. Traits you possibly want your kids to have.
Another study linked androgynous adults to an upbringing that encouraged curiosity and independent thinking. Kids encouraged not to be contained by gender-typical behaviours showed higher self-esteem, satisfaction with life, adaptability to new ideas, cultures and situations.
This topic is incredibly faceted, ripe for nuanced discussion, and its scope is far greater than the word limit of this column. But to start with, psychological androgyny can render ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits obsolete. It can eliminate the current, inherent prejudices of dress-up androgyny, making the concept more inclusive and, possibly, less threatening or strange.
It can also allow our creative, adaptable, problem-solvers to take gender equality for granted and get down to far more important tasks, like saving the planet and ending poverty. Using every faculty available to them. Not as Boys or Girls, but as people. Just People.