I went to a very academically oriented, one-dimensional school in Bangalore. It was definitely a more privileged, upper-middle class crowd. I call it one-dimensional because you got your grades, you picked one out of two streams of study, you faffed around a little bit after school, and continued to live your life in a blissful bubble. We had a uniform – a separate one for boys and girls. I was forced to wear a terrible pinafore until the age of 12, and then after that an even more terrible cement coloured skirt. This posed a problem for someone like me, who refused to sit “like a woman” – one leg crossed over the other. I would walk home after school and immediately jump into my loose football shorts, setting off to run around with scraped knees and forgetting my skirt woes until the next morning.
Now, over ten years later, I’m living in Pence America, and queer, like 4% of the population of the congested, crazy city I live in. From being a scrawny 14-year old girl who liked wearing football shorts, to a slightly less scrawny 24-year old woman who still likes wearing football shorts, I’ve started paying more attention to the politics of style – something I never cared for and something that I now have the privilege to care for. This is most likely under the influence of several of my queer friends who bend the construct of gender and its role in their own ways.
I come home one day after work, to find my roommate Aishik and our friend Lauren excitedly adjusting their bowties. Lauren is a gay woman from Brisbon, Australia. Now, dressed in a crisp white shirt, suspenders, bowtie and suit, she is showing us her outfit for an event that weekend. She walks with a swagger and confidence that only being comfortable in your own skin can bring. Ten years ago, you may not have recognised her. She had wavy, long hair and dressed mostly in, what would be considered cis-gender women’s clothes. When I ask her about how she expresses her identity now, she says that androgynous would be the most apt. “It’s confusing how my androgyny is actually separate to my sexuality. I haven’t quite put my finger on it. I guess I don’t identify with butch but am attracted to it, and I often tread the line. But I like my feminine features too. I guess that’s the definition of androgyny.”
The word androgynous is defined by Merriam-Webster largely in two ways: 1) having the characteristics or nature of both male and female, and 2) neither specifically feminine nor masculine. Androgyny exists separately from sexuality, but the two are closely intertwined because stepping outside of traditional gender expression happens often in the queer experience. So, when Gaysi approached me to write an article on androgyny, the marketer in me went: What is being written on this subject anyway? Who is currently writing about it? Most importantly, what the hell is going on?
Shikhandi - The Story Of The In-betweens
In the past year there have been approximately 300 articles with mentions of the word ‘androgynous’ originating in India. It is largely spoken about in the context of the fashion industry: around 63% percent of the total. This seems obvious. I would also hazard a guess that much like most high fashion, androgynous styles do not trickle down to the straight middle class Indian. As for those falling in the lower income brackets, there is less opportunity to express a mixed gender because of both stigma and economic means. However, like most high fashion, a version of it is slowly being adopted into Bollywood, seen by the number of articles with mentions of Bollywood actors. Film in India, in all its glorified heteronormativity and rigid gender roles, has a follower base that is fanatic, second only to religious extremists. Very little media provides actual social commentary on androgyny. Some of the more notable articles included Hindu’s coverage of the changing Indian theatre landscape that has started to depict a spectrum of sexuality and gender. There was a short Asian Age piece on Acrush: China’s hottest boy band that is actually made up of five androgynous girls. Another piece by them talked about bringing Shikhandi’s tale of gender and ambiguity to life in a play by Faezeh Jalali. DNA was one of the many papers to report on Anjali Lama, Nepal’s first transgender model. These pieces only touch on androgyny from the perspective of embracing trans* identities. Again, the question of accessibility arises when you think about who is really consuming this media and how many (few rather) are watching these plays.
Androgynous characters can be traced back to the Mahabharatha. Why we started disregarding the beauty in the ‘grey shade of gender’, as Asian Age put it, is another indication that the Victorian British patriarchy we were force-fed, is still going strong. Androgyny repurposed from the Mahabharata found its way into feminism as well. CS Lakshmi is an Indian feminist author who goes by the pseudo-name ‘Ambai’. “… Ambai is one of the three sisters — Amba, Ambalika and Ambika from Mahabharatha. Amba is known as Ambai in Tamil. She becomes Shikhandi later and takes revenge on Bhishma. She is neither a woman nor a man and she is both”, quoted a Pioneer book review of A Meeting on Andheri Overbridge. However, even this Indian feminism is privileged – CS Lakshmi comes from a large middle-class Brahmin family who lived in Coimbatore.
Androgyny is most easily displayed through appearance, but it also consists of the twilight zone between genders, the mixed mindset that exists regardless of socioeconomic situation. So I am not surprised by the fact that even rarer among the 300 articles was any writing about androgynous headspace, or even androgynous features. Because it’s only when you really start blurring the lines and brazenly playing with ambiguity do the Indian aunties start speaking in hushed whispers. Consequently, there is very limited corporate backing because of the very limited audience who wants to read about the fact that gender is just a lame construct. The vast institution and Rs 100,000 crore industry of marriage is fueled by the orthodoxy of gender and proliferation of godforsaken item numbers. So, it is no wonder that when my generation was growing up, there was very little exposure to different ways of being in the world.
In my research, I came across a Hindustan Times article that briefly skimmed over how liberating androgyny can feel. A group of female bikers in India used the androgyny of their biking gear as an armor against the usual leching they otherwise have to face. Indeed, I am lucky that I do not have to deal with everyday harassment, and at the same time, feel most like myself in a pair of short shorts, shirt and suspenders. I’m also always digging through Aishik’s bowtie collection like an annoying sibling who wants to wear only his clothes, not my own. It is affirming to see marginalised representations of gender come alive in my friends – granted they are all mostly queer themselves. Nonetheless, I always look forward to getting pictures from Alex of their outfit for the day: from anchor-printed formal shirts to starry bowties. Alex is a queer trans* friend I made over Tinder (yes, that happens), with a gender identity that won’t fit into any label you’d like to give them. The best part is that they always create this style on a budget. The last thing Lauren says to me as we are talking about androgyny is, “Feels like I untangled myself from expectations on me. And I’m certain I’ll keep changing”. So yes, androgyny gives a nice middle finger to patriarchy’s bullshit check boxes. However, it is worth remembering that right now, the way this way of being is spoken about breeds an unnecessary privilege.
Notes: Trans*: Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum.