by Susan Harris Howell
Whenever I talk about androgyny in class, many of my students are surprised to learn what the term encompasses. They have often seen it presented in an unattractive light, believing it to say something about a person’s lack of femininity or masculinity, kind of an elimination of anything that defines an individual as male or female. This is a misunderstanding of the term, however, and I’d like to do my part to clarify its meaning.
First of all, androgyny is not an eradication of being female or male. It has nothing to do with your sexuality. It does not dictate the way you dress, or whether or not you wear make-up or have a beard. Being androgynous, rather, means that you have characteristics commonly associated with the female gender as well as those commonly associated with the male gender. (Note that while behaviors are often associated with males or females, most behaviors are not inherently male or female, but are more likely learned through the socialization process.)
For instance, you might be aggressive when playing football, but nurturing with a friend who is going through a divorce. You might be a strong leader, but also work well as part of a team. You might be independent financially, but allow yourself to depend on your family for care during an extended illness. An androgynous person is capable of behaving in ways called for by the situation, not merely according to a stereotypic gender role as defined by our culture. Androgynous individuals have an array of behavioral possibilities at their disposal, allowing them to respond in a way that is appropriate given the situation.
Androgyny is advantageous across a variety of situations. Within the home, husbands and wives can respond more effectively to one another. For instance, I definitely feel safer knowing my husband is in the house when I think I hear someone in the backyard at night. But I equally value his care giving when I am sick. I’m typically the one to make a dessert for dinner, but I’m also the one who disputes bills when they are in error. My husband appreciates both the desserts and my assertiveness (which, I might add, has saved us a great deal of money over the years).
Likewise in the church, androgyny has benefits. We might be called on to organize an event or take on a position of leadership, then sit with a family at the hospital while they anticipate bad news. Leadership skills and compassion are both needed in the church, sometimes from the same person.
In any of these situations, having a restricted behavioral range would limit our ability to serve.
Of course, no one can be all things to all people. Androgynous persons have their limitations as well. But those with a broader behavioral range are generally better equipped to meet the challenges each situation presents.
Are you androgynous?
Has it been an advantage?
Are there times you wish you had a broader range of behaviors?