“Andro-” means “man”, and “gyn-“refers to “woman”.
Androgyny is that velvety soft genre coloring societal fringes. It’s naughty and fun. It wears ties and g-strings, it sports shaved heads and wigs and moves across the room holding out its perfumed wrist. Those with staunch Victorian sensibilities shake their heads and huff aloud. Androgyny just laughs a bold laugh and knocks back a flute of champagne. Firmly rooted in history, it continues to possess many art forms of note.
A popular fashion strategy in fashion, music, movies and even literature today, androgynous figures were quite visible in classical paintings.
According to Jill Burke, lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Edinburgh: “An explanation that people often given for the Michelangelo men-with-breasts phenomenon – which we should properly call the aesthetic of androgyny – is that they couldn’t get female nude models in the Renaissance, so artists just juxtaposed the head and breasts of women on men’s bodies. Because of stringent controls over female modesty, the idea goes, it was inappropriate for women to get undressed in front of men. In fact, this is the explanation given in Gill Saunders 1989 book, The Nude: A New Perspective– ‘female nudes in the painting and sculpture of the [renaissance] period were derived from male models … so they appear unconvincing”. Now, this is both right and wrong. It’s true of course that for many women, especially women from the upper classes, there was strict control over their dress and comportment in the Renaissance. It’s also true that many of the female figures in renaissance paintings were based on male models – this is common practice, and goes well beyond Michelangelo. There were more men available around a painter’s workshop after all. ”
We can see in modern times the multiple venues of success of the androgynous figure. The characters are interesting provocateurs antagonizing traditional thought. The casting of actress Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel in Constantine was brilliant; she looks JUST LIKE a remediation of the Renaissance portrayal of Gabriel. Tim Curry’s lingeried character, Dr. Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror Picture Show sees a cult following and the King-Queen of 1970’s androgynous recording artist – David Bowie, (Space Oddity is actually my phone ringtone) set a very high standard for those who followed.
An interesting observation is that in Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson chose to portray Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as an androgynous character. This could be dissected in a few ways: either his personal homophobical nervousness was showing or he wanted Satan to be more of an “it”…and if that is the case then it opens a Pandora’s box of questions on the precise “sex” of God. Even the angels were portrayed as being androgynous, so it is a state of being that illicits further questioning.
Androgyny doesn’t seem as fixated on the sexuality “answer” as it does on posing “the imaginative question” – the one opposing the status quo, making many nervous. And from a philosophical (and maybe even pedagogical) point of view, I really love that.