Through the ages, androgyny—the state of being neither specifically feminine nor masculine—has been both vilified and celebrated: French martyr Joan of Arc was burned alive in the 15th century, and British rocker David Bowie rose to fame with his magnetic altar ego, Ziggy Stardust, in the 20th. Both heroes exhibited a passionate conviction for their ideals.
Androgyny continues to be a force that drives culture. In the 21st century, it has taken on new meaning, going beyond mere “gender bending” to transcending the issue of gender itself. Today, top male model Andrej Pejic (pictured at right) is known for his ability to walk the line (or runway) “between genders,” successfully showing off both men’s and women’s clothing. The 19-year old Serbian refugee, who was “too feminine” to make it as a male model in Australia, relocated to London and quickly climbed to the top tier of high fashion. Sarah Doukas, the agent who also discovered superstar Kate Moss, signed Pejic and offered him to her clients as both a male and female model.
Since then, Pejic’s striking looks have drawn the attention of designers Paul Smith and Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as adoration—and outrage—from the public. In recent interviews, Pejic has further fueled the controversy surrounding him by refusing to identify himself as strictly male or female. Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores demanded that a recent cover of Dossier Journal be covered in opaque plastic because the magazine featured a shirtless Pejic on its cover. And when FHM readers voted him the 98th sexiest woman in the world, its editors made disparaging remarks about Pejic in the article that drew wide criticism and a subsequent apology.
However unintentional, Pejic is provoking change by simply doing what comes naturally, without feeling the need to explain it. This type of transcendent androgyny is as essentially disruptive to culture and business as technology innovation. In the era of the gestural and touch user interface, designers must consider the androgynous human body as an essential component to any design system. In fact, I’d argue that the human body is itself a disruptive technology. And given computers’ increased reliance on gesture, touch, and built-in cameras that sense our presence, our form, and our movements, interaction is by definition genderless.
What happens to our identities when our bodies literally “become video game controllers,” as the marketing for Microsoft Kinect exclaims? As the human body becomes part of the product ecosystem, we feel an increased need to hack our gender, our appearance, and even our human identity.
In the music video for “Doorway,” Janine Rostron of Planningtorock performs with prosthetics that masculinize her facial features. Lady Gaga pushes this aesthetic to extra-terrestrial proportions in her video for “Born This Way.” And singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty transcends gender labels not only in his appearance, but with vocals that evoke Nina Simone. In these artists, as with Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, we see the balance of “anima” and “animus.”
In broad terms, psychiatrist Carl Jung believed the entire process of anima development was about a male subject opening up to his emotional side, or a broader spirituality, by creating a new consciousness paradigm that includes intuitive processes, creativity, and imagination—and psychic sensitivity toward himself and others where it might not have existed previously.
In Western cultures in particular, males are conditioned to ignore the unconscious anima complex while females are discouraged from displaying traditionally masculine qualities personified in the animus.
Jung also stated that the anima and animus act as guides to the unconscious unified Self; and that forming an awareness and a connection with the anima or animus is one of the most difficult and rewarding steps in psychological growth.
Perhaps this is why some individuals pursue creative careers where there is less emphasis on adherence to strict gender roles. For example, a male child is unlikely to be discouraged from participating in a creative, gender-neutral activity like drawing, although an inclination to play with dolls, instead of traditionally masculine toys like trucks or toy soldiers, might be discouraged by some parents.
Visual languages that seek to neutralize geographical differences through universally recognizable images may someday need to include the requirements of an androgynous society. For example, a hybrid image of the pictograph for male or female has become more prevalent in identifying gender-neutral restrooms, which are growing in popularity on college campuses.
Gender recognition is not limited to our visual and auditory senses. Even our sense of smell is conditioned to recognize gender differences—after all, everyone can identify the feminine and masculine tones of perfume and cologne. As innovators and designers, what new products can be created when the lens of gender is taken away?
CoStume National has released a line of fragrances that come in men’s, women’s, or a third, androgynous variety called “Scent Intense EDP,” which is a blend of Jasmine Tea, Hibiscus, and Amber. It’s described as “an androgynous fragrance that has captivated sensualists from both sides of the aisle—both women and men snap this up in droves.”
signers have the ability to raise important questions through visual provocation. It is in our nature as designers to question the status quo and begin the conversations that lead to innovation. And in the face of controversy, if we remain passionate about our original vision, the world will eventually see it our way. Just ask Andrej Pejic.