In Fall 2019, The New York Times ran an article titled, "Beyond Androgyny: Nonbinary Teenage Fashion," which referenced the style of teenage musician Billie Eilish. In the story, the author refers to Eilish's "androgynous" oversized, baggy clothes, her statement that gender roles are "ancient," and her position as "the anti-Britney Spears, the anti-Katy Perry." But the author also notes that Perry herself said in 2017 that she was ready to trade in "cutesy" for more "androgynous, architectural" looks herself. While you may be familiar with the term "androgyny," and even how it's represented through fashion, can you conflate it or interchange it with some of the other terms it often stands beside, like "nonbinary" and "genderfluid"?
Rose Bell is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching associate in the department of philosophy at Syracuse University who uses the pronoun "they." They are careful to point out that while they identify as androgynous, genderfluid and nonbinary, they can't speak on behalf of everyone who identifies as any one or more of these descriptors — which, for the record, are entirely distinct things.
"These are very different; someone can be one of these things without being the others, or they could be all of them!" they write via email. "Androgyny can mean a number of things. I most often hear it used to refer to gender presentation. In this sense, it means someone whose appearance does not fit either masculine or feminine norms — who doesn't look or dress like a man or a woman. But some people also identify as androgynous, which isn't the same as looking androgynous. And both of these things are different from 'nonbinary,' although there is definitely some overlap."
The term "cisgender" refers to someone whose actual gender is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth, and "transgender" refers to a person whose assigned gender at birth differs from their actual gender. While many societies tend to recognize and acknowledge just two genders — male and female — nonbinary individuals may experience a gender identity that's neither one or the other. People who identify as nonbinary may also identify as gender fluid, agender (without gender), third gender or otherwise.
"Nonbinary is an umbrella term that describes anyone who has a gender identity that is not strictly one of the 'big two' binary categories," Bell says. "There are many different identities under that umbrella." But according to Bell, while some people who identify as androgynous may also identify as nonbinary, one doesn't equal the other — especially in terms of physical appearance. "It's important to remember that not all nonbinary people have androgynous gender presentation!" they say. "Nonbinary is about who you are, not about how you look."
While genderfluidity may fall under the nonbinary umbrella, the two terms are not equivalent (and neither is equivalent to androgyny). "Genderfluid is a gender identity," Bell says. "If someone is genderfluid, that means their gender isn't fixed. It might shift from day to day. But they don't necessarily shift between 'male' and 'female' — they might shift between 'woman' and 'agender' for example. Genderfluid people are often under the nonbinary umbrella, but not always. The same is true of androgynous people."
Androgyny in the Past
Historically, there hasn't been a ton of media representation for people who fall into any one of the categories described above, but there are a few celebrities often cited as examples of pop culture representations of androgyny, including David Bowie and Annie Lennox, who defied gender norms in the '70s and '80s.
"Physical androgyny was creative in the '80s because it was actually innovative. It did challenge gender stereotypes. It got people to think differently about stereotypical male and female roles. It wasn't the superficial physical aspects of androgyny that made it so creative, it was the psychological aspects that it represented," wrote Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American. He defined psychological androgyny as crossing "sex-typed standards of desirable behavior," a concept developed by Sandra Bem, a psychologist who did pioneering work in gender studies. For instance, an androgynous person could be both assertive and gentle — depending on what the situation called for.
"Celebrities can do a lot for queer and trans people," Bell says. "I think that both David Bowie and Annie Lennox pushed a lot of boundaries and made it 'OK' for a lot of people to express themselves and to not visibly fit neatly into a strict binary role. At the same time, both of them are cisgender (not trans) and thin and white, and that projects a very specific image of what it means to be androgynous that leaves a lot of people out.
"That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with being androgynous in that way, of course. There's no wrong way to be androgynous. But for a lot of people it's more than just pushing gender norms or presenting in a certain way, and especially for those who don't fit that thin white cis image, it can be really hard, or dangerous, to not fit a binary gender. We need more and better representation."
As the world continues to catch up and learn about the varieties and nuances of gender identity that have existed for centuries, it's important to remember that each individual experiences of gender is unique and while terminology is certainly helpful and important, it doesn't always capture every person's reality.
"Androgyny as a presentation isn't always connected to gender identity," Bell says. "Many people who are nonbinary also look androgynous. But not everyone. And the opposite is also true; not everyone who appears androgynous is nonbinary. A nonbinary gender identity can be a very personal thing — you don't always have to wear it on the outside. And sometimes there is no good way to wear it on the outside, because what the world expects in terms of gender is often restrictive and confusing and self-contradictory.
"There should be space to be whoever you really are. I want people not to expect things from me based on what they think my gender is and putting 'nonbinary' or 'androgynous' in a box is just another way of doing that," Bell adds.