Below the cut is my first essay, on the subject of androgyny.
In this essay I seek to explore the concept of androgyny, in western countries and eastern and how it is defined, and by whom. The way masculinity and femininity are presented, and how they overlap and the way people’s perceptions of gender changes based on what someone looks like, and how this differs in two different parts of the world.
Androgyny is defined by the oxford dictionary as partly male and partly female in appearance, or indeterminate sex. Some examples of people who are androgynous include Ruby Rose (model and actress) and Conchita (Eurovision Song Contest winner).
Recently, the way fashion is presented has become more and more androgynous and pushing the boundaries of what was previously acceptable in society, however there is still a pressure to conform to beauty standards. This includes adhering to the gender binaries in the way one dresses- women usually have longer hair and men short hair, though of course there are always exceptions. This phenomenon, wherein people feel like there is always the possibility of them being seen, and therefore mocked and ridiculed, or isolated, is called the panopticon. Any deviation from the norm is seized upon and quickly scorned, as often presenting oneself differently has implications towards one’s sexual identity, and therefore is a point of derision.
The gender binaries differ in parts of the world that aren’t western, such as South Korea and Japan where bishounen or ‘pretty boys’ are much more common to find in the media; Lee Taemin from the popular boy group SHINee, for example, or from a western perspective, almost any boy band in Japan or South Korea. The way gender is presented in South Korea specifically can be particularly androgynous, and sometimes westerners have difficulty determining whether they are male or female. Amber, from the girl group f(x) is considered to be very androgynous simply because many of the men in the industry dress the same way as she does, wear makeup to enhance their appearance, and have cosmetic surgery to fit the ideal of beautiful. These men are often called kkonminam or ‘flower boys’ and this phenomenon may have originated from the hwarang or ‘flowering knights’ of the Silla dynasty, an elite club made up of men who were renowned for their beauty.
In Japan, the concept of kawaii, meaning ‘cute’, is not reserved only for women and children but increasingly men as well. Since the 1980s, effeminate men as a trend has been growing, using more extreme styles such as manba (characterised by darkly tanned skin with white highlights on the face, and colourful hair and accessories), decora (bright colours and overloaded accessories, particularly hairclips) and gyaru (big doll-like eyes and ultra-feminine accessories), which are worn by both men and women. The beginnings of this trend recently may have started with the rise of visual kei, a genre of goth music wherein the members of the band wear androgynous and wild fashion, however the fluidity of the presentation may root back to the 1600s theatre. Much the same as western theatre, women were banned from acting alongside men in kabuki plays. These parts were instead given to men, but they did not play the the role of a ‘woman’, moreover they reproduced femininity as it relates to men (Botz-Bernstein).
Popular culture has been fascinated with the concept of ‘gender bending’ since the beginning of time, from productions like 12th Night- in which a woman dresses as a man to for her own safety- and Tootsie – in which a man dresses as a woman to get a role in a trashy soap.
In a popular comic book, or manga, called Ouran High School Host Club the main character is mistaken for a boy, and then when her ID card is discovered, she admits that she is ‘biologically’ female, but that it doesn’t matter to her, so many fans take this to mean that she is genderqueer. Throughout the rest of the story, she wears the male school uniform and very few people are able to tell that she is a girl just by looking at her. That being said, they way one understands the gender binary in the western world is not flexible enough to explain the spectrum in Japan (Bots- Bernstein) as while one may see femininity and masculinity as two separate things in europe, they are often seen as overlapping.
While in Japan and South Korea the idea of androgyny appears to be more a more feminine style of presentation, in western countries androgynous fashion usually means loose fitting suits and masculine affectations- Vogue’s Blurred Lines article by Tonne Goodman and Peter Lindbergh for instance depicts models wearing such clothes. In fact, with the rising popularity in women’s fitness and bodybuilding, the binaries are blurred even more as more muscular and athletic women, like Jessica Ennis and Serena Williams, are more accepted in society (Adam Geczy, Vicki Karaminas). This is especially good news for transgender people, as the growing acceptance for new kinds of fashion and body types makes it easier to live. In the past cross dressing, when not related to theatrical performance, has been attributed to homosexuality, such as butch lesbian fashion, but more recently, as changes in the fashion industry and more styles and subcultures are presented, the integration of androgynous fashion into mainstream media is imminent.
To conclude, Japanese and Korean culture is different to Western culture in that East Asian countries, such as androgyny leaning more towards femininity in the East and more towards masculinity in the West. Furthermore, the gender binary in Eastern countries is more obviously a spectrum, and is more separated from one’s sexual identity than in the West.
Botz-Bernstein, T. (2011) The Cool Kawaii: Afro-Japanese Aesthetics and New World Modernity, Lexington Books
Geczy, A., Karaminas, V. (2013) Queer Style, Bloomsbury Academic
Dworkin, A. (1974) Woman Hating, E. P. Dutton
Vetterling-Braggin, M.(1982) “Femininity” “Masculinity” & “Androgyny” A Modern Philosophical Discussion, Rowman & Littlefeild
Bilal, M. (2014) “Our Heroes were Always Androgynous”; An Interview with Ashis Nandy, Routledge
James, P. (2008) Twins, Hermaphrodites, and an Androgynous Albino Deity: Twins and Sculpted Twin Figures among the Bamana and Maninka of Mali, African Studies Center
Barbara Hochstetler, M. (1995) Marguerite de Navarre and the Androgynous Portrait of Francois Ier, Renaissance Quarterly, 48(2), p.287
Demarchelier, P., Goodman, T. (2015) Blurred Lines, 205.5(192, 193, 194, 195, 196, 197, 198, 199, 200, 201), Vogue