"The time is right for Michael Jackson, because American culture has gotten better at handling sex and playing with gender roles. He gives you the sense that you can play with anything--with being a man or a woman, black or white, scared or scary, or some funny combination of all of them." --Marshall Berman in All That is Solid Melts in the Air, 1982
"The ideal of androgyny in contemporary culture represents the breakdown of a healthy social structure...it is a reflection of the inhumanity of contemporary culture and a sign of its possible demise." -- The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson in Androgyny in Pop Culture, 1996
Back in the 70's, psychologist Sandra Bem argued that psychological androgyny--the extent to which a person crosses sex-typed standards of desirable behavior-- has important consequences (note that sexual preference isn't a criteria for psychological androgyny). She believed that traditionally, society has not encouraged the development of both masculine and feminine characteristics within the same individual but that psychological androgyny can expand the range of behaviors available to everyone.
Explicit displays of androgyny are everywhere these days, from the hip thrusting performances of Adam Lambert to the motorcyle riding feats of Lady Gaga. So let's take a step back and ask: Is such an expansion of behaviors good for society? Or, as some have suggested, will it cause the downfall of civilization? Is all this individual excess making us a more narcissistic society? What about the potential benefits for creativity?
First things first. Psychological androgyny has been no stranger to artistry. Let's take a little trip down memory lane. The 1984 Grammy Awards was a momentous occasion. According to the The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson, the first half of the presentations "underscored a dramatic shift in cultural consciousness that has place in the past twenty years." Highly androgynous musicians Boy George and Annie Lennox competed for the best new artist spot and Michael Jackson cleaned up with seven awards. According to Peterson, the nominations ""became a celebration of androgyny and sexual ambiguity."
Later that very same year, Boy George had a heated debate about androgyny with the Rev. Jerry Falwell on CBS's Face the Nation. Historian Gil Troy in Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980's had this to say about George and similar rock stars at that era:
"Dripping mascara and oozing attitude, Boy George reveled in his excesses...The British singer's group Culture Club was one of many 1980s acts that exploited the MTV-induced demand for striking visuals to accompany the song as well as the relaxed social mores that usually translates into consumption choices for America's youth...these celebreties challenged traditional social boundaries and protocols, to asserts their individuality, not to change the world. They championed inversions, crossed wires, mixed styles. Rock stars reveled in the violation of taboos...and watching as their devoted fans, dressed like them smeared lipstick or rouge as they did, coiffed their hair as they did, and yearned to match their seemingly prodigious sexual appetitites."
Other important androgynous male figures of that time included David Bowie, Prince, and Elton John. One of the earliest examples of Bowie's androgyny is depicted in his third album "The Man Who Sold the World", released in 1970. Bowie even created an androgynous alter ego: Ziggy Stardust.
Also, let's not forget important female androgynous entertainers such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics (when I was a kid, I used to have a big-time crush on Lauper, along with Debbie Gibson). Troy notes:
"Cyndi Lauper, improvised a unique, clashing, mishmash, bag lady look that combined frilly femininity with raw sexuality...Similarly, Madonna would begin with a virginal lavender hair bow, a delicate lace blouse with a flower motif, and a crucifix. But she cut the blouse to reveal her midriff, her black bikini bra, and the elastic to her fishnet underwear, with a strategic rip on the side..."
These women had an enormous influence on the youth of that generation. In January 1985, Lauper was named one of the women of the year in Ms. magazine, "For taking feminism beyond conformity to individuality, rebellion and freedom."
Artist Andy Warhol was also riding the androgyny wave. According to The Getty Museum, he often dressed in drag at parties and admired "the boys who spend their lives trying to be complete girls." In 1981, he collaborated on a set of pictures of himself in drag.
President Ronald Reagan was not impressed with all the excesses going on around him. He believed that "this nation must have a spiritual rebirth, a rededication to the moral precepts which guided us for so much of our past, and have such a rebirth very soon."
Present day androgyny and the promotion of individuality
Fast forward to present day. New President, and new cast of androgynous characters.
Obama is no Reagan. But the contemporary androgynous glam-rock king and queen Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert do bear a striking resemblance to the androgynous artists of an earlier era (and whether or not Gaga is androgynous in both the physical and psychological sense, does it really matter?). This present-day androgyny/artistry link is no surprise-- both Gaga and Lambert have stated the influence of the earlier androgynous artists on their careers.
According to an article in the Yale Globalist about "The Androgyny Revolution", androgyny (especially in men) is big in East Asian popular culture-- in film, fashion, music, and animation. Apparently, critics in these fields often say that "androgyny is the key to success." The author sees this as a reflection of the empowerment of women in in a Confucian society.
A main message coming from these androgynous artists is individual expression. No doubt, this message holds a lot of appeal to fans-- those who want an excuse to rebel as well as those who genuinely want to be appreciated for just being different. "I don't want to call it a split personality - but sometimes, I feel like a girl. So I put on the costume, what feels comfortable," says an 18-year-old boy from Chicago, who refers to himself as "tranny boy" (see MSNBC article: Boi or grrl? Pop culture redefining gender: From metrosexuals to Ellen, gender-bending goes mainstream").
Recently, Lady Gaga told Ellen DeGeneres that she wants her fans to know that "It's OK" to be a "freak":
"I didn't fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with and they don't feel alone...This is really who I am, and it took a long time to be OK with that...Maybe in high school you, Ellen, you feel discriminated against. Like you don't fit in and you want to be like everyone else but not really, and in the inside you want to be like Boy George--well, I did anyway. So I want my fans to know that it's OK. Sometimes in life you don't always feel like a winner, but that doesn't mean you're not a winner. You want to be like yourself... I want my fans to know it's OK."
Controversies still abound over public displays of androgyny and sexual excess. The very androgynous American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert (who has just released his first album "For Your Entertainment" which depicts a very androgynous Lambert on the cover) is getting a lot of slack for his recent American Music Awards performance. His entire performance, from top to bottom, was as explicitly sexual as you get, sexually gesturing with both the male and females on the stage, and engaging in a full-on kiss with a male keyboard player (oh, the horror!).
Some expressed their love of his performance (which Lambert unapologetically claims was unplanned and "in the moment"). Then again, some did not. ABC is even reconsidering how it prepares for live broadcasts and plans on holding performers to stricter standard (see story here). Lambert argues this is a double standard. "There's a lot of very adult material on the A.M.A.'s this year, and I know I wasn't the only one." (see New York Times article here).
Critics of the promotion of androgyny in society such as Rev. Peterson argue that:
"Rather than creating a radically new environment where people are loved, accepted, and celebrated for their differences, the lack of social norms is a reflection of a society in which people are valued not for who they are but for what they do. As a result, the social network of relationships is battered to the point of potential extinction."
There might be something to this. There is no doubt narcissism is running rampant these days and these androgynous artists may just be fueling the fodder of excessive individuality at the expense of social connection and traditional family values.
Or maybe not. Maybe the new wave of androgynous artists coupled with a new liberal political administration is just the combination needed to make our society more creative, productive, and able to bring out the best in its inhabitants. Let's explore this issue deeper by seeing what the research has to say on this issue.
Gender bending and positive outcomes
Research studies have shown a bunch of positive associations between androgyny and wide range of outcomes such as self-esteem, satisfaction with life, marital satisfaction, subjective feelings of well-being, ego identity, parental effectiveness, perceived competence, achievement motivation, cognitive complexity when evaluating careers, cognitive flexibility, and behavioral flexibility. Kelly and Worrell (1976) found that androgynous individuals were raised by parents who stressed cognitive independence, curiosity, and competence.
And then there is the link between androgyny and sexual attractiveness. What is so sexy about androgynous people (particularly musicians)? There is no doubt there is a sex appeal there. Speaking about Michael Jackson, Troy notes that "while appearing neither gay nor straight, there was something smolderingly sexual about him." Paradoxically, perhaps it's the sexually non-threatening nature of androgyny that is sexy. Michael Jackson also had the modest, shy, and religious persona going on early in his career. As one commentator puts it in an article about Jackson: "Michael's sexually ambiguous and non-threatening facade (at least early on) probably played a huge part in his crossing over..."
There is no doubt that a large part of Adam Lambert's appeal is sexual--which is interesting considering he spent the entire season of American Idol thrusting his hips at fans while keeping them in the dark about where he stood sexually (although no one was surprised when he finally came out). Indeed, one of the main tenets of the androgynous glamrock self-proclaimed "pickup artist" Mystery is to not signal sexual intent but instead immediately disqualify yourself from being a sexual partner until you have built attraction and rapport with the person. Let all this be a lesson to those of you who want to be attractive to someone: stay mysterious about your sexual intentions, at least in the beginning.
Androgyny and Creativity
What about creativity? Freud speculated when writing about Leonardo da Vinci that creative people possess greater cross-sex identification than others. McKinnon (1962) found that creative men and women have attitudes and interests considered typical for the opposite sex.
The famous giftedness researcher Ellis Paul Torrance published a paper in 1963 showing that creative boys possess more feminine characteristics than their peers, and creative girls are perceived as more masculine than other girls. Torrance said "creativity, by its very nature, requires both sensitivity and independence."
Helson (1967) found that the more creative the female mathematician, the more she displayed a combination of the following traits: "individualism, originality, concentration, artistry, complexity, courage, emotion, fascination, and self-orientation." Clearly a mix of both traditionally "masculine" and traditionally "feminine" traits. Abraham Maslow has remarked how creative people tend to often display a healthy balance of what appear to be opposites: selfishness-unselfishness, thinking-feeling, work-play, and maturity-childishness. In reality, these so-called opposites, like stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, can be viewed as two points on a single dimension and can be experienced in the same person at different stages of the creative process.
In 1980, Weinstein and Bobko found that above an IQ of about 115, IQ was no longer correlated with creativity as measured by a test of of the ability to form remote associations and a measure of the ability to generate associative uses. What was related to creativity? Androgyny.
The authors suggest a reason for this association:
"In being androgynous, especially in a sex-stereotyped society, a person would need to be open to experience, flexible, accepting of apparent opposites, unconcerned about social norms, and self-reliant--exactly those traits identified with creative persons."
They also acknowledge that "androgyny and creativity are not necessarily linked in a direct, causal way. Rather they are two concepts embedded in a network of personality variables and environmental histories."
In 1981, Harrington and Anderson found that participants defined as masculine or androgynous scored higher on a measure of creative self-concept and the ability to come up with alternate uses for an object (when instructed to "be creative") than those conventionally defined as "feminine" or "unclassifiable" (low in both masculinity and femininity).
Interestingly, psychological masculinity was correlated positively with these creative measures in both men and women but psychological femininity had negative associations with creativity for both men and women. The authors discuss this intriguing finding:
"Potentially creative women may be struggling against and suffering from the very social conceptions and traditions about what is and is not ‘sex-appropriate' that men find sustaining and supportive in their creative self-conceptions and endeavors. It remains to be seen whether current social trends permitting greater flexibility for both sexes will make it easier for men and, especially, women to develop creative self-concepts and to behave creatively."
More recently, Jonsson and Carlsson (2001) found that participants high in both feminity and masculinity (androgynous) and low on both scales (undifferentiated) scored higher on a measure of creativity than stereotypically female and stereotypically male participants. Interestingly, and similar to the Harrington and Anderson study, they found that men alone accounted for this interaction. In other words, increased masculinity in creative women was weaker than increased femininity in men.
Two other studies are worth mentioning. Norlander, Erixon, and Archer (2000) found that an androgynous group scored higher on a measure of creativity, creative attitude, optimism, and graffiti/scrawling than the stereotypic, midmost, and undifferentiated types. Interestingly, the androgynous group didn't score higher in creativity compared to the "retrotypic" group (men and women displaying anti-stereotypic behaviors). They raise the intriguing suggestion that retrotypic men and women might "possess similar penchants to their androgynic counterparts to cross the boundaries of traditional gender-roles, thereby accumulating experiential material with elevated flexibility and creativity as a consequence."
There is a trend now for researchers to align instrumentality with masculinity and expressiveness with femininity. (Although please note that researchers such as Alice Eagly prefer to think of the distinction as agenic and communal. And there are other criticisms of the masculine/femine distinction, such that the distinction strengthens gender stereotypes, and that the distinction should be abandoned altogether in favor of just using the instrumentality/expressiveness distinction).
In 2002 Hittner and Daniels looked at a wide range of creative behaviors. They found that androgynous individuals (those reporting high levels of instrumentality and expressive characteristics) tended to report more creative accomplishments in literature, theater, and video-photography than nonandrogynous indviduals. Regarding literature, Virgina Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own, that to be an ideal writer, one ought to be "woman-manly or man-womanly... Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated." In the essay, she praised a number of famous androgynous writers, including Shakespeare, Keats, Sterne, Cowper, Lamb, and Coleridge. She was unsure, however of the brilliance of Milton and Jonson, Worsworth and Tolstoy, saying that they had "a dash too much of the male", and Proust, since he was "a little too much of a woman."
Interestingly, when they controlled for creative theatre achievement, the researchers didn't find an association between androgyny and creative music achievement. This suggests to me that a crucial factor that determines the androgyny/music link is the extent to which the musical performance is theatrical. It would be interesting to see whether androgyny is as related to cello and flute performance as it is to rock star performance.
Also interestingly, the researchers found that instrumentality was positively related to business venture creativity as well as a flexible cognitive style, whereas androgyny was not related to business venture creativity (but androgyny was marginally related to cognitive flexibility). The researchers note:
"In order to obtain comparable levels of power and status, women who work within male-dominated environments typically have to suppress their expressiveness and demonstrate high levels of instrumentality."
They quote Lorber (1998) in saying: "in order to get support from senior men, a senior woman may end up in the paradoxical position of making a stand for women by proving that she is just like a man."
Their findings are certainly thought provoking and suggest that, due to societal expectations, it might be easier for an androgynous woman to display her creativity in more "artistic" domains than in more business-oriented domains.
Is our androgynous society going to hell in a handbasket?
What do you think? Is Rev. Peterson right? Is the promotion of androgyny the reflection of the possible demise of contemporary culture? Was Reagan correct, and we need a "spiritual rebirth"? Is all this individual excess making us a more narcissistic society?
I don't think so. All the data I have reviewed here lead me to the conclusion that androgyny is positively associated with a lot of positive outcomes, including outcomes relating to the ability to maintain social relationships (e..g, marital satisfaction), psychological well-being, life satisfaction, optimism, a secure sense of identity, and creativity. I understand and respect the call from conservatives and others for a more "traditional" social system. I do agree we need to do a better job of promoting the importance of relationships, and teach children not to let their ego get in the way of helping humanity.
But I also recognize that not everyone wants a more traditional network of relationships. In my view, the more we allow people to express their unique selves, the more we will get out of them. The more they will benefit society, not less. If anything, the data suggests that we may be limiting the full potential of our members, such as the case of androgynous women working in fields where it is frowned upon for women to exhibit masculine traits.
Therefore, I completely stand behind the main message of the androgynous greats-- dating back to George and Lennox and espoused today by the likes of Gaga and Lambert. Be yourself. Rock on.
© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved
Harrington, D.M., & Anderson, S.M. (1981). Creativity, masculinity, femininity, and three models of psychological androgyny. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 744-757.
Helson, R. (1967). Sex differences in creative style. Journal of Personality, 35, 214-233.
Hittner, J.B., & Daniels, J.R. (2002). Gender-role orientation, creative accomplishments and cognitive styles. Journal of Creative Behavior, 36, 62-75.
Jonsson, P., & Carlsson, I. (2000). Androgyny and creativity: A study of the relationship between a balanced sex-role and creative functioning. Scandanavian Journal of Psychology, 41, 269-274.
Kelly, J. A., & Worrell, L. (1976). Parent behaviors related to masculine, feminine, and androgynous role orientations. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44, 843-851.
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Torrance, E.P. (1963). Education and the creative potential. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Weinstein, J.B., & Bobko, P. (1980). The relationship between creativity and androgyny when moderated by an intelligence threshold. Gifted Child Quarterly, 24, 162, 166.