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The Future Is Androgynous, But WTF Does That Even Mean?

It’s not just enough for women to dress like men. Men need to dress like women, too.

You know that thing where it’s way more socially acceptable for a woman to wear pants than for a man to wear a dress? That’s about misogyny. In case you were wondering.

Patriarchal boundaries tell both genders to stay in their lanes, and while we’ve made progress over the past 100 years at kicking holes in the guardrails that keep the genders apart, it makes sense that the first areas to give way were the ones that let women be more like men. At best, it’s women breaking down the boundaries of exclusion. At worst, it‘s society giving its tacit approval because a woman being more like a man is considered an improvement (wump wump).

Freeing up men to be more like women, however, has been a tougher slog. Because for men, being more like a woman is still seen as ridiculous and demeaning — again, because of misogyny. There have been studies to back this up (96 percent of men would not wear women’s clothing, while 88 percent of women would wear men’s), but those aren’t really necessary for anyone living the gender divide firsthand in Western culture every day. It’s one of the many things that I suspect we take for granted not just because it’s everywhere, but because pausing to look too deeply into it is a fairly pessimistic enterprise.

For the longest time, even self-proclaimed “androgynous” fashion has just been about putting models of all genders in some vaguely Star Trek–looking functional pants and tops — perpetuating the less than great idea that male equals default. Of course, there are some feminists out there who take the hard-line view that all feminine garb has actually been artificially foisted onto women by the patriarchy as a means of control, which I suppose would make what we currently call men’s fashion the default neutral style for everybody.

Except that’s silly. Humans have spent thousands of years proving that we’re wildly expressive and creative animals. And just because the patriarchy spent a long time making dresses mandatory for women and off-limits for men doesn’t mean both genders wouldn’t have been pleased as punch to simply have everything as an option.

As it happens, we’re drawing closer to this ideal, as our progressive and creative society gains more headway against these aesthetic dogmas than ever before. Some of the recent self-described androgynous looks from the major fashion houses haven’t just included those usual utilitarian trousers and shirts for women, but also traditionally feminine garments like skirts and blouses for men. It’s still on the bleeding edge, but it’s creeping toward the center.

The steady uptick in headlines about androgyny in fashion has had me thinking a lot about the nomenclature. It crystallized in my brain a little while ago, when I was talking to a friend of a friend about the men’s skirts that debuted in Nicopanda’s 2015 collection, and the conversation about androgyny somehow drifted into a mention of RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Right,” my friend said, “but drag queens aren’t really androgynous, are they?”

Huh? But didn’t drag queens have both masculine and feminine characteristics (when they’re actually in drag, obviously)? Sure, she agreed. But she felt like the word “androgynous” referred to a different, very specific aesthetic. One sort of skinny and prepubescent, like a tall, pretty alien. And I instantly knew exactly what she was talking about; this oddly narrow idea that the word “androgynous” conjures vividly for us, regardless of what it’s supposed to mean literally. A look defined by 1970s David Bowie and high-fashion models.

The same study I linked to earlier actually covered this perception as well; people report that the term “androgynous” makes them think of somebody not resembling both genders so much as resembling neither. I didn’t convene my own focus group to further prove this point, but a Google image search of “androgynous” delivers top results that are a mix of high-fashion models who generally fit this description. Search for “androgynous icons,” and that initial flush is all Ziggy Stardust–era Bowie, Annie Lennox, Tilda Swinton, and the original one-name supermodel, Twiggy, along with a smattering of lanky models and an appearance by Grace Jones, whose killer bone structure and frequent emphasis on her broad shoulders absolutely lends her the appearance of both genders rather than neither, though, at least to American audiences, her fame never made the leap from legendary cult status to mainstream.

So, yeah, there it is. The most prominent visually androgynous people to graduate from cult status to cultural ubiquity have fit this description squarely, their gender-bending status rooted more in the features they don’t have than the ones they do. These aren’t people who mix a full mustache with an ample bust. Or pouty lips with a hulking jawline. Apple-like cheekbones with a body-builder torso. No, they mostly have slim, straight bodies and the delicate, neutral features of a face not yet shaped by puberty. They all look like attractive tweens stretched up to adult size.

I think part of the reason this genderless rather than gender-mixed look has become the standard for how we conceptualize androgyny is definitely because it evokes youth, and we really like youth. We can’t help looking at an adult whose face somehow evokes the nubile glow of a 12-year-old and think, “They must be magic.” It lends people like Tilda Swinton and David Bowie a particular specialness so distinct that it has affected the meaning of the word “androgynous.” But of course, at the same time, it would be ridiculous to act like the stickier implications have nothing to do with this phenomenon at all.

Considering how many centuries it took our culture just to let women wear pants, I think it’s safe to assume 20th-century society wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to see people express both fully formed masculine and feminine characteristics together. When the term became linked to this idea that you can eschew gender norms as long as you sort of eschew gender altogether, I’d bet the puritanical ghost that just sits around American households all day frowning at our sexual mores breathed a sigh of measured relief.

But now, despite the shitshow political climate, we’re demonstrably closer as a society to accepting mixed-gender androgyny — along with more or less all expressions of gender nonconformity. And hey, insofar as our icons are concerned, I’d also like to think thinness and whiteness will also fall away as prerequisites for this phenomenon in the public consciousness. But as we slowly open people’s minds to abandoning the “stay in your lane” system, I can’t help but feel a shitty, low-grade sense of dread about not just the standard ongoing blowback from pearl-clutching conservative society but also the threat of circular, emotional haranguing from within my own ranks.

I imagine a glorious future where people dress and act and live as whoever the fuck they are, and within a heartbeat I’m picturing the inflammatory critiques of a small but deafening handful of familiar women for whom the term “feminist” means something very different than it does for the rest of us — something very exclusive and backed by a hairball of terrified, byzantine logic. I’ve spent more minutes than I’d like to admit contemplating my future writing open letters to Elinor Burkett or Germaine Greer, explaining how, no, the existence of people who identify partly but not exclusively as women does not “cheapen” the female experience, they just threaten your constructed sense of identity, ladies.

Even research into my original discussion about RuPaul’s Drag Race inevitably pointed me toward one embarrassing feminist’s poorly advised assertion that drag culture was cultural appropriation against women, as offensive as a blackface minstrel show, she claimed. No, I’m not kidding. Cultural appropriation is a very real thing that’s about to be overdiagnosed into irrelevance, but putting aside for a moment the fact that appropriation happens when a group with a lot more power bites the style of a group with dramatically less power (pretty much taking drag out of the running from the jump), I dare the author of that fucking nonsense to watch Paris Is Burning and then try to tell me drag isn’t a culture rooted in a sense of tribute, family, and love.

But maybe I’m letting my aforementioned deep look into these issues become too pessimistic. I am imagining a pretty egalitarian future here, after all. If our society can ever manage to dump this many of its prejudices about gender out the car window like so much shitty gas station coffee, maybe that’ll mean we’ve finally done it. Finally figured out that every made-up source of cultural division, from racism to LGBTQ phobias to arbitrarily enforced gender norms, is a scam that hurts all of us, even those trying to cling to their privilege over the most marginalized. Just a tool to keep the middle and lower classes divided. Because, united, we cannot be stopped.

I’m feeling more optimistic already.

Writer. Musician. Maximalist.

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