JANUARY WAS NOT a good month for the Biochemistry 10a students, the Miami Dolphins, of Gos Ec majors with four exams and two papers due. January was a good month, however, for anyone who had been waiting for an intellectual apologia for cross-dressing as a cultural phenomenon. Androgvny has ostensibly moved from a more fashion had to bona-fide sociological thanks to endorsement, by two Harvard-linked journalist organs: Harvard Magazine and The New Republic.
Ordinally a disconcerting sight, a dose of Boy George in the morning is potentially deadly, a fact my mother was unaware of a month ago when she plopped the current issue of Harvard Magazine onto my stomach as I lay in bed recovering from New Year's Eve festivities. "Look what's on the cover," she said. "What," indeed. At least the contents behind that now-infamous cover of England's Best Advertisement for Fashion Euthanasia couldn't make me feet any worse than I was feeling already, so I took the plunge into "Androgynous Zones" by Peter Engel'81.
After running down a Who's Who of 1980s personalities undergoing sexual identity crises. Engel consults various social scientists whom only the victim of a bad Social Studies seminar would ever have read. The androgyny rating is a reflection of the quality of our society, their spiel goes, and an admirable result of the breakdown of sexual barriers. Some blithe comments on Calvin Klein underwear, David Bowie, Boy George, and Harvey Fierstein are marshalled to support his belief that the sexes are converging, but Engel blows it in a big was when he use Prunce as an example of androgyny: Prince is not interested in becoming a woman: he is a 5'4" flamboyant pansexual pervert who would make it his motorcycle if he could reach the throttle at the same time.
Engel has blurred the lines among sexual different social trends, trying to demonstrate that male plus female-androgyny-is the wave of the future. Admittedly, male and female role models, and the clothes that express then personalities, do change because of other social factors; as women and men perform increasingly, similar tasks in society, it is natural to expect that their uniform would also become similar. But that does not imply that androgyny, the conscious mixing of masculine and feminine characteristics, is at play here, rather, the sartorial symbols declaring male female have changed.
THIS LESSON was brought home to me five years ago when I was in Austria. Salzburg is both the Mozart and the precipitation capital of Europe: you'll see more umbrella shops on one street in Salzburg than in all of London. One afternoon it was raining katzen undhunde, so I bought myself a nice dark gray umbrella, only to attract some strange commands from passing natives. An English-speaking Austrian finally told me that I had bought a woman's umbrella. Since I couldn't tell the difference between the one he was carrying and the one I had bought, I asked him to explain the distinction. The gent showed me the slightly different shapes of the two handles. Later I compared it to some American men's bumpershoots, and several of them had very similar handles to my American umbrella. The fact that the distinction between men's and women's outfits is becoming more subtle does not mean it is disappearing.
Even if one accept the contention that androgyny is about to sweep through the heart of Middle America, the timing of all this interest in androgyny betrays Engel's masculine frame of reference. Since the Dior look of the 1940's, women's clothing has become increasingly masculinized. Designers have gradually eschewed the classic Marilyn Monroe shape. Sometimes in the name of making a woman less of a sex object, but the alternative clothes and silhouettes have almost always been masculine. Broad shouldered jackets, business suits, ties, women's briefs; all were taken from the classical men's look, and the word androgyny rarely described there innovations. But if a man wears makeup-Holy Praxiteles! The sexes are becoming confused! Women adapting to masculine modes is a sign of their freedom, but men adopting feminine characteristics becomes role-model miscenegation.
The second important movement that Engel sweeps under his journalistic rug is the gender-bending by pop icons like Michael Jackson and Boy George. Anne Hollander gives a provacative, hit-and-miss analysis of these male musical mannequins who are "Dressed to Thrill" in the January 28th edition of The New Republic
The rise of Michael Jackson into the ranks of the masculine ideal has set back sex more than 40 years. Jackson and Boy George style themselves on a prepubescent standard of asexuality: George's clothes are designed to hide his pudgy, awkward body, and it is difficult to imagine Jackson possessing any genitals at all. Jackson and the Bov (impossible that the could become Man) George have warmed their way into widespread public acceptance because they are so innocuous. Something similar was at work with the early Beatles; they would never had won America's hearts had they not looked like cute little moppets.
Hollander acknowledges all of this, but continues to stretch the popularity of children to its Freudian extreme.
"Meanwhile, the more glittering versions of modish androgyny continue to reflect what we does in fantasy. Many of us seem to feel that the most erotic condition of all could not be that of any man or woman, or of any child, or of a human being with two sexes, but that of a very young and effeminate male angel...Such a being may give and take a guiltless delight, wield limitless sexual power without sexual politics, feel all the pleasures of sex with none of the personal risks, can never grow up, never get wise, and never grow old.
Suitably qualified, Hollander's point is reasonable, Large numbers of men and women are wimping out of the battle of the sexes. The unrestrained competition for the head of Milady Fair is being slowly superceded by the ideal of two individuals discovering each other through romance. Even rock and roll and rhythm and blues, the ultimate expression of romantic attack, have been modified by the cooperative image of romantic attack, have been modified by the cooperative image of romance. One of the real secrets of hip-hop's appeal is its overt recognition that love is question of beating out your romantic rival and dazzling your lover.
But rap still hasn't garnered mainstream approval: its combative and arrogant aura puts off those who have opted out of the drag race of love. There individuals, the Alan Aldes and Meryl Streeps of the world, may well want to de-sexualize sex, to remove it from a primarily monogamous market to a system of universal human intercourse. The nostalgic memories of childhood, without all those sexual anxieties, form an attractive model, but by and large these memories are incomplete. Childhood sexual neuroses not only exist but in one sense are even more insidious than those of adult, because children are not supposed to acknowledge these feelings.
THE FASCINATING TRAP for intellectuals is that by thinking about sex and fashion, you 'crew yourself up. Modern men and women would like to obliterate the differences that appear to be the cause of sexual competition. Hence the ready acceptance of an androgynous ideal by people who make a living thinking about these things.
The trendsetters of the world, narcissists constantly fine-tuning their images, are always susceptible so any intellectual defense for self-display. The irony of the androgynous ideal is that a contradicts that basic purpose of careful dressing: attracting the admirable sexual partners. The 1980's androgyny fad is merely a brief fashion span of the anxious and the outrageous, one that will go the way of leather miniskirts and spiked hair does.