Mods in the Sixties, Bowie in the Seventies and Boy George in the Eighties - androgyny has always been with us. But now even comics and athletes are at it
Saturday 01 March 1997
On television, Dennis Rodman, the rebound star of the Chicago Bulls, ruminates on the state of his world in a black leather slit skirt and gold-sequined top. Is it a double bluff, a sign of his deep complexity, or a marketing tactic to distinguish himself from hundreds of other endorsement- hungry athletes? Whatever the answer, Rodman has brought sexual ambivalence to sport - he calls himself Denise when it suits him, and preens in a bridal gown - and gets away with it because he is a star. He's learned from Madonna how to play this game. With scores of women fainting at the touch-line in anticipation of his glance and winning, like a bridesmaid's bouquet, his sweaty singlet at the end of the game, Rodman exemplifies how the gender game has become a question of True or False.
As the iconography of gay culture has been absorbed into the mainstream, and gender-bending films such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mrs. Doubtfire become commercial successes, gender has become a commodity, and it no longer raises eyebrows to find Ru Paul pushing MAC cosmetics or Elton John mincing about in a Versace couture dress.
But when Linda Evangelista appears in an advert for Kenar as Narcissus, kissing herself as a man, the image neatly captures an underlying ambiguity that can be seen everywhere and has come to characterise the decade: is she man or woman, gay or straight, real or unreal? In Interview magazine, the actor Woody Harrelson poses for the super-realist photographer Inez Van Lansweerde, spreadeagled over a fireguard in a porno pose; and Calvin Klein continues to muddy the waters by using in his advertising boys who look like girls and girls who look like boys.
The free-floating anxiety and sexual uncertainty that define the Nineties have opened up the freedom to customise your own gender. Forget the air- brushed perfection of the supermodels. Models are no longer icons. You can't even tell what sex they are, and such ill-definition deliberately suggests that we should make up our own minds.
For years fashion designers have been pushing skirts on to men without any glimmer of success, and, although technology, art and fashion have muddled - or responded to the muddling of - the sexes, the true revolution of gender promised by the Internet and advances in genetics has yet to transpire. Enter any of the vaporous chat rooms on the Internet, and the first question is always whether you are male or female - hardly the most tactful question to ask in what is supposedly the frontier land of asexuality.
Much of the foppishness promoted by such contrarians as Vivienne Westwood has simply been mimicked by the vanity industries. The corporations that control magazines, cosmetics and clothing may not believe in gender ambiguity, but they see that it is a new seam to mine.
David Bowie, Mick Jagger, the Eighties' New Romantics, Evan Dando and Kurt Cobain have all been there. Boy George made cosmetics for boys wholesome enough for even housewives to accept as they hummed along to "Do you really want to hurt me?" Now, London-based Placebo is the latest band to cross the gender divide. One enraged NME reviewer quite fancied the lead singer - until he realised this was not a pretty young rock chick but Brian Molko, a bloke.
It's hard to know why this should be surprising. In nature, the male is often the peacock. "Men are extremely vain - more so than women," says Jo Levin, fashion editor of GQ. "What they hate is the shopping, but when you start dressing them and giving them attention, they love it. They start fluffing their feathers."
The proliferating men's magazines are edging closer to the confessional advice columns of Cosmopolitan, cautiously offering practical answers to the age-old question "Why do my feet smell?" before launching into "the mysteries of the breast" and then slipping back into "Should I call my old girlfriend?" (the answer: maybe). This kind of hand-holding, besides signalling incipient sissiness, reveals that, despite a slow start, it is men and not women who have taken up the running when it comes to feminism.
Considering pronouncements that men are socially, biologically - and, in the future, financially - the second sex, adapting to the conventions of their counterparts may be a matter of survival. In Europe, two-thirds of the increase in the workforce since 1980 has been female, in the majority of countries women's share of unemployment has fallen, and surveys show that for the foreseeable future job growth will be in work typically done by women, while men are trapped in declining industries.
Boys are doing worse than girls at every age, except at university; jobless men are less attractive marriage partners, and, as a matter of observation, men do not necessarily obey the law or support women and children if left to themselves - rather, they learn it through work and marriage.
Since men seem to be reluctant to do "women's work" (health care, data processing, child care, business services), the situation looks bleak for uneducated, unmarried, unemployed men - in America, 81 per cent of all crime and 87 per cent of violent crime is committed by men, and their suicide rate is more than treble that for women.
The so-called "feminisation" of politics is no longer just a vague idea. In the US, women's votes accounted for President Clinton's re-election, and may decide the general election here, too, since women are less predictable in their political allegiances and tend to make their minds up later.
To go by TV coverage of the Olympics, sports are increasingly "soft focus" - in other words, skewed to gauzy, emotional stories over hard tackles. And, even in that most masculine of transactions, buying a car, women are the "fresh kills" that auto manufacturers seek.
If it is true that social affairs can be read through fashion, then there seems to be a neat contraflow at work as women's clothes routinely copy those of men. What, for instance, are those expensively austere, dark suits of Prada and Gucci (described by one Italian countess as "never fuck" clothes) if not a take on men's tailoring?
But signs of a backlash have already appeared. Katie Roiphe, the American feminist writer, recently unveiled The Fantasy of a Man in a Grey Flannel Suit. In it, the strong, independent women who have been taught to think they want to be in control of money and men, don't at all. They earn a million dollars while their boyfriends sit at home doing something woozy and artistic, but all the time they dream of a man who will take responsibility, and whisk them off to Venice.
Does this mean that the battles which defined the so-called gender wars have ended in pointless victories, and that the conventions they sought to overturn weren't so bad after all? No wonder a lot of jobless, confused men sit about with a pained look that reads "please yourself".
Dads toiling away in the kitchen and nursery won't find much solace in revolutionary activism of the sort that is now on the march. Same-sex marriage, for instance, hardly threatens the grand scheme of things. The argument for it has less to do with the sanctity of union, more to do with the equality in tax status and health care coverage that married couples enjoy.
The most vivid progress in the derangement of gender has been made by artists such as the Los Angeles-based female-to-male photographer, Cathy Opie, the Dutch photographer Inez Van Lamsweerde, American art star Matthew Barney and the Japanese photo-artist Morimura Yasumori. Opie's formal portraits of butch female-to-male transsexual truck drivers illustrate just how far it is now possible to wear what's inside on the outside.
Barney, a rising art star, has consistently negotiated the frontiers of fashion and gender. In one piece, he took women who were becoming men and dressed them as women; last year, he held a fashion show in Rotterdam featuring Dutch body-builders as satyrs and fairies alongside air hostesses, showgirls and Helena Christensen, all to the sound of a Scottish pipe band.
Van Lamsweerde uses technology to disturb the onlooker - models with men's hands, or babies with adult smiles, for instance - and Yasumori has taken another step with his book, The Sickness unto Beauty. In it, he poses in the costume, set and posture of the cinema's most celebrated actresses, such as Rita Hayworth in Gilda or Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch - only this time the dress lifts to reveal an enormous phallus.
Consider the white-crowned sparrow, a bird that learns its native song during a limited period of development. After a bird has learned a song, it can neither unlearn it nor acquire a new one.
For men, learning a new song may be difficult, but perhaps they can learn to hum a few new phrases as they travel to work on the 8.15 with the Financial Times in one hand and a pot of lip gloss in the other
Gender benders (from left): Dennis Rodman wears a silver Lurex crop top with his muscles; Marcus Schenkenberg wears masculine suit and girly shoes by Vivienne Westwood;
gender swapping at Jean Paul Gaultier; kd lang plays with masculinity
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