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Are the two genders converging? Are we witnessing the dawning of a new era of androgyny?

| November 21, 2012

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Androgyny is a term that is derived from the Greek words andros (meaning man) and gyné (meaning woman). It refers to the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. One may distinguish these characteristics in fashion, sexual identity or sexual lifestyle. These aforementioned masculine and feminine characteristics are used to differentiate gender. Gender tends to discriminate characteristics belonging to two sides of a ‘spectrum’: masculine and feminine being the two poles. Androgyny is to be found in the middle of this spectrum. Gender may also refer to something more biological (when talking about plants, for instance).

Sexologist, John Money was the first to differentiate biological sex and gender as a role in 1955. He coined the term “gender role” as a ‘set of social and behavioural norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex in the context of a specific culture’ (Money, 1955). In our Western culture, there are two genders: masculine (male) and feminine (female). Androgyny has been proposed as a third gender. The term ‘third’ is understood as ‘other’ and many sociologists and anthropologists have described fourth and fifth gender (Roscoe, 2000). For instance in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Hijras are the most well known and populous third sex type in the modern world. They may be born from either sex, dress effeminately or in a feminine style and genuinely see themselves as neither male nor female. They have gained a status of legal identity in their countries. Some societies have accepted five genders (Sharyn, 2001).  Contemporary gender theorists usually argue that a two-gender system is neither innate nor universal (Towle, Morgan 2002).

Androgyny in popular culture has been on the increase in both fashion industries, as well as pop culture. The “androgynous” look is an accepted trend set by current pop stars like Bill Kaulitz (of Tokyo Hotel), being hailed as creative trendsetters. The rise of the metrosexual in the 2000s has also been described as a related phenomena associated with this trend. Traditional gender stereotypes have been challenged as well as reset in recent years dating back to the 1960s and the hippie movement and flower power (Wendlandt, 2010). Artists in film like Leonardo DiCaprio sported the “skinny” look in the 1990s, a departure from traditional masculinity which resulted in a fad known as “Leo Mania’’ (Hartlaub, 2005).

This came long after musical superstars like David Bowie, Boy George, Prince, Marilyn Manson (appearing as an androgynous substance-addicted alien called Omēga in his album Mechanical Animals) and Annie Lennox as well as Michael Jackson challenged the norms in the 1970s and had elaborate cross gender wardrobes by the 1980s.

The astronomical rise in popularity of “pretty” boy-bands in the late 1980s and 1990s like New Kids on the Block, Take That, the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync “redefined masculinity’’(Patten, 2010). These entertainers were known to have started trends of becoming increasingly conscious of their fashion and looks, and inadvertently raised trends as celebrities in the limelight that males were now increasingly interested in traditional female interests like clothing, fashion accessories, hairstyles, manicures, spa treatments and so on, which have seen the societal redefinition of traditional gender fashion norms, due to the popularity of these artistes with many people in the world today.

These trends have arguably then gone on to reshape fashion, and clothing houses like Top Man, and designer labels have then seen an increase in sales in relevant “androgynous” merchandise (Kundnani, 2007; Lewis, 2009). While the 1990s developed and fashion developed an affinity for unisex clothes and the rise of designers who favoured that look like Helmut Lang, Giorgio Armani and Pierre Cardin, the trends in fashion only hit the public mainstream in the 2000s, which saw men sporting longer hair, hairdyes, hair highlights, wearing jewellery, make up, visual kei, designer stubble, or the like, all of which been a significant mainstream trend of the 21st century, both in the western world, and in Asia (The Himalayan Times, 2010). Japanese and Korean cultures have been featuring the androgynous look as an ideal in society, as depicted in both K-pop, J-pop  and in Anime and Manga (Tokyo Top Guide, 2010), as well as the fashion industry (Webb, 2005). However, in 2010, reports state that the fashionable androgynous look in Europe and the West may be a trend on the decline (, 2010).

In our culture, tattoos used to be a form a body art specifically reserved to men in the army or the navy (soldiers and sailors). It is now however, completely androgynous. Many sports have now become socially acceptable to be practised by both sexes such as rugby (in Iran, women can be seen respecting the dress code of the long skirt and Hijab but at the same time, disrespecting their gender role by playing rugby). The role reversals aren’t only specific to the west.

Advertisements 50 years ago would display the extremely obedient wife whose main focus was making sure the clothes were clean and white for her man to wear. Now she can set rules in the house, although the husband may still be ‘the working man’ role. Not long ago, the women would retire from dining and sit in a separate room so that ‘men could talk’. Women are becoming more authoritarian and emancipated as men do not speak for them anymore. Political correctness could also be making the lines between men and women a lot fuzzier. For instance, a man-hole cover is now person-hole cover; a fireman or firewoman is now a fire-fighter; and policeman is now a police officer (etc.).

One could argue that men are gender victims of their own time. As they become more fashion orientated and start to wear perfumes, once could argue that they are constantly breaking social boundaries. Eddie izzard is a transvestite comedian who has reached mainstream attention during his career. He plays with the idea gender reversal in many of his acts (though he is a self described ‘executive transvestite’ and male tomboy’).

The physical specialization of the sexes is considered to be the cause of the gender roles (Eagly et al., 2004). A man’s physical advantage in term of body size and strength provides him with an edge over women when there is a demand for such physical attributes such as manual labour and warfare. On the other hand, a woman’s biological capacity for reproduction and child-bearing has been proposed to explain their limited involvement in other social activities. This divide in our society in the hopes of achieving optimal efficiency as a species led to the division of labour between sexes. Men were to be therefore raised as ‘masculine’ which would entail them to be the providers for their family. Because of social roles, masculinity would go hand-in-hand with a muscular stature, aggression and confidence (etc.). Femininity would complement masculinity by being associated with elegance, gentleness and motherhood (etc.).

‘’Families are the cornerstone of any society. Their supply of paid labour is vital to the economy, as is their unpaid labour in raising the next generation. The dynamics of who does which type of labour within families continue to change’’ (Marshall, 2006). Women’s expanding economic role has been the main impetus for eroding the cultural idea that men should be primarily responsible for paid work while women look after unpaid household and family duties. ‘’Today’s couples have a much more equal partnership in the sharing of financial, child care and household responsibilities’’ (Marshall, 2006). In all family types, daily participation rates for housework continue to be significantly higher for women than for men. However, the gap is narrowing. For example, among married men with children, the participation rate rose from 54% to 71%.

Furthermore, while the presence of a wife lessened men’s involvement in housework in 1986 (single men had a participation rate of 61%, and married men 53%), 2005 saw roughly 7 in 10 married men, both with and without children, participating in housework (Marshall, 2006). The increase in husbands’ participation is a logical reaction to the reality that most wives are now engaged in paid labour, and for longer hours, and therefore have less time to do housework. The significant increase in participation among men living alone may be partly attributable to changing cultural norms, whereby both men and women have been taught life skills formerly reserved for the opposite sex (Marshall, 2006). “It is likely more acceptable for men to cook and clean, indeed, welcomed, for men to show competence at making a home-cooked meal, for example” (Bianchi et al. 2000).

‘Men’s jobs’ are now being occupied by women such as working in a factory, being a vicar or even becoming prime minister. After the war, women could all of a sudden wear trousers. It has been said that women personally feel more confident and active when wearing men’s clothes (such as jeans) and feel more effeminate and decorative whilst wearing skirts. It isn’t hard to prove men’s clothes are more practical for manual task. Nowadays, clothing is changing on men side. Wearing slim jeans and tighter tops that show off more of their figure, cosmetics (facial creams) and hair spray or gel are now fashionable and considered socially acceptable whereas just 70 years ago (before the appearance of Brylcreem) this was something that wasn’t done let alone available to the public. Consumerism is also shaping the men of our time. Society being the main factor behind the formation of gender roles,  one could argue that gender role association is but mere social constructionism. Up until the early 20th century, children used to be considered ‘small adults’. A child’s clothing was in fact a smaller version of a man’s clothing. Could there be similar social constructions about men and women?

‘These socially constructed gender roles are considered to be characterized as a male-advantaged gender hierarchy’ (Wood & Eagly, 2002). The activities men were involved in were often those that ‘provided them with more access to or control of resources and decision making power, rendering men not only superior dispositional attributes via correspondence bias’ (Gilbert, 1998). However, as society goes through the process of modernisation, gender roles are now being changed.

Androgyny being a term denoting the display of both male and female behaviour, one could argue that women are slowly moving towards the androgynous part of the gender spectrum as they are currently experiencing more power. At the same time men are being forced to fulfil roles that were once considered feminine by for instance (with the appearance of paternity leave), taking care of the children or cooking for their family. Single mothers have to learn what is considered ‘a man’s role’, which is provided for the family. Single fathers have to learn ‘women’s roles’ such as changing nappies, shopping, washing and picking the children up from school. One could argue that single parents are truly androgynous (when specifically talking of gender roles, of course).

While women’s entry into the job market has been dramatic, Cooke has argued that men’s entry into housework has been gradual, prompting some to call the latter a ‘stalled revolution’ (Cooke 2004). However, this study shows that, although gender differences persist in the division of labour, they are steadily diminishing. Since 1986, of the total time spent on paid and unpaid work, women aged 25 to 54 have proportionally increased their average daily time at a job (4.4 hours of 8.8 in 2005), while men have increased their time on housework(1.4 of 8.8 hours in 2005).

An alternative to androgyny is ‘gender-role transcendence’, the view that when an individual’s competence is at issue, it should be conceptualized on a personal basis rather than on the basis of masculinity, femininity, or androgyny (Pleck, 1995). In ‘agenderism’, the division of people into women and men, in the psychical sense, is erroneous and artificial. It negates the biological sex (or lack thereof) as a carrier of specific features and tendencies of personality, and as a yardstick to determine the human inside, the Ego. In the category of ‘transgenderism’ (literally, being “beyond gender identity”), a person like a gender can be included in a sense which rejects functioning under of any psycho-cultural gender (Pleck, 1995).

In a cross-cultural study by David Buss, men and women were asked to rank certain traits in order of importance in a long-term partner. Both men and women ranked “kindness” and “intelligence” as the two most important factors. Men valued beauty and youth more highly than women, while women valued financial and social status more highly than men (Buss, 2006). Androgyny has become not only a fashionable trend but an ideology by which people lead their lives. Some androgynous characteristics are considered socially acceptable if not desirable. It is even considered a legitimate gender in Pakistan (Maqbool, 2011). Women’s increasing hours in paid labour (and thus income), combined with “normative changes in the direction of equality and sharing” (Beaujot, 2006) is likely to ‘’further reduce gender differences in the division of labour in the future’’ (Marshall, 2006). The gender convergence has only just begun.



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