I made a mistake when I was nine years old. Flipping through my neighbor’s yearbook, I pointed to a girl’s picture and said, “He’s cute.” She had a pixie haircut, and I liked her face. My neighbor laughed and pointed to the girl’s name: Susan — proof that I had made a mistake.
Androgyny — when gender appears ambiguous — appealed to me at a young age, and it still appeals to me today. I felt stupid for thinking Susan was a boy, but I didn’t stop liking how she looked. It was her androgyny that attracted me. She had short hair, but she had delicate features. She looked fresh and sophisticated.
Now that I knew her name, her feminine features presented themselves, but I still saw the masculinity, and I liked that blend of soft and hard.
I’m attracted to feminine men and masculine women. On the surface, the aesthetic pleases me, but the attraction goes deeper, too. Three of my favorite novels have androgyny as a central theme: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Jeannette Winterson’s Written On the Body.
The books explore the following, respectively:
- What if you were born a man, but one day, you woke up as a woman?
- What if you visited another planet where all the inhabitants were neither male nor female?
- What if you didn’t have a name or a gender?
Androgyny does not cancel out masculinity and femininity. Instead, it forces us to redefine those qualities and to confront the inherent duality of being human. In Le Guin’s story, a man from Earth struggles to accept the ambisexual nature of another planet’s inhabitants:
“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality.”
When Woolf’s protagonist wakes up as a woman halfway through the novel, she quickly notices the change in her social status. As a man, Orlando owned property and enjoyed certain liberties.
“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.”
It’s Winterson’s book, though, that (almost) takes gender out of the equation. The narrator shows the reader how love feels — consuming, intoxicating, painful — whether you are a man or woman or merely a human. At the same time, Winterson pokes fun at how society guides us:
“I used to read women’s magazines when I visited the dentist. They fascinate me with their arcane world of sex tips and man-traps. I am informed by the thin glossy pages that the way to tell if your husband is having an affair is to check his underpants and cologne. The magazines insist that when a man finds a mistress he will want to cover his prick more regally than of old. He will want to cover his tracks with new aftershave. No doubt the magazines know best.”
I felt embarrassed as a kid — when I called a girl “cute” — because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be attracted to girls. I accepted those rules because there were plenty of boys that I felt drawn to. I liked the boys with soft skin and sensitive minds: the quiet ones, the ones who wrote poetry, and the ones who painted their fingernails. When I got older and bolder, I stopped following the rules and started to appreciate the women who dared to cut their hair and wear no makeup. But more importantly, I embraced that masculinity within myself.
We are all feminine and masculine, but we’re trained from a young age to choose a side (not pick, but align our sex, sexuality, and gender as if they’re all the same). And then we’re encouraged to accentuate those qualities.
The beauty of androgyny is that it allows people to express both without compromising your identity.
But society still wants us to choose a side, and we might wonder why? Is it because our rights, our ability to love, and our social dynamics depend on choosing a side? Is it because our outward appearance will always put us in a position of scrutiny?
The novelists mentioned above would argue that keeping gender as a binary allows the dominant (masculine) men to maintain power. The women who wrote those books were looking for alternatives to the setbacks they faced as feminine creatures. Woolf authored A Room of One’s Own — an important feminist text. She wrote Orlando as an homage to her affair with Vita Sackville-West. Le Guin thought of herself as a tomboy, but she recognized how her sex kept her marginalized as a writer. She wrote speculative fiction — a genre dominated by men. I don’t know if Winterson chose a gender-neutral narrator to masquerade her own lesbian identity. But I know she grew up in a religious household, and she had to practice deception throughout her childhood.
Androgyny can feel like a trick. I felt tricked by Susan in the yearbook photo. I felt foolish for thinking that she was a boy. But I think I was just scared. Like Le Guin’s Earth man, I didn’t know how to see a person who appeared as both male and female. The Left Hand of Darkness explores duality throughout the novel, but it highlights how humans think about the world in binary terms. We see things as right or wrong, black or white, likable or unlikeable. It’s much harder to live in a world where things are less distinct.
Perhaps Woolf said it best in Orlando:
“Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.”
You can find these books on Bookshop.org. They are an indie-friendly alternative to Amazon. Here are affiliate links for all three titles:
- Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
- Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
- Jeannette Winterson’s Written On the Body.
If you purchase through the link, I will receive a small commission.