Androgyny: breaking binaries

Lately on Facebook there have been some links to the website that have piqued my interest. Before reading any further, take a look at the photos in this post by Sarah Karlan: “Photographing the Butch Women of San Francisco.”

While I was in High School one of my main goals (well, fashion goals) was exactly what Meg Allen describes in the above article: I wanted to “choose to exist and identify outside the gender binary.” I hated the objectification of my female classmates and the way that the boys reacted to the girls in my classes. So, to exist outside of that gender-specific clothing, I wore boys baggy clothes and cut my hair short (my poor Mother was so happy whenever I wore a dress or skirt!). As Simone de Beauvoir writes in her book The Second Sex, “The woman who does not conform devaluates herself sexually and hence, socially, since sexual values are an integral feature of society . . . When one fails to adhere to an accepted code, one becomes an insurgent. . . Woman … knows that when she is looked at she is not considered apart from her appearance: she is judged, respected, desired, by and through her toilette” (pg 642-43). I have a very clear memory from High School of someone trying to insult me by calling me ‘k.d. lang’ and the insult backfired because I was honoured that I might look like k.d. lang.


I love Meg Allen’s photo from the link. Although I am not a lesbian, I have thought a lot about the idea of androgyny over the years. In University I was in charge of giving a seminar lecture to my classmates about the novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It was the perfect book for me to explore!


I fell in love with Woolf’s character Lily Briscoe. Lily is a single woman, a painter, an observer, and a character longing to distance herself from the binary of male/female or feminine/masculine. One of Woolf’s main theories is that in order to move away from objectifying genders in art, artists need to embrace the freedom of androgyny, particularly the androgynous mind (Room with a View). She ” approaches the text as a collaborative production involving the writer, the reader and their social, political and cultural contexts” (Melba Cuddy-Keane in Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory (Editor Ireana R. Makaryk), pg 500). Furthermore, in her writing, “the relationship she establishes with the reader is one of interactive exchange not of authoritarian instruction” (500). Because of Woolf’s connection to me as a reader through her character Lily, I was given a great example of a woman longing to be apart from the binary of female and male in society, and all of the expectations, stereotypes, and biases that come along with those distinctions.

In her article/paper “Escaping Femininty: The Body and Androgynous Painting in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” Sara Martinsson looks at the role of Lily and the idea of androgyny and has this to say:

By her movement towards androgyny Lily deviates from other women and thereby becomes less desirable for men. Most men seem to be apprehensive of Lily and keep themselves distanced from her. Mrs. Ramsay explains men’s disinterest of Lily by pointing to the fact that there is something special with Lily: “There was in Lily a thread of something; something of her own which Mrs. Ramsay liked very much indeed, but no man would, she feared” (Woolf, Lighthouse 75). This “thing of her own” might be Lily’s striving for an androgynous mind. (pg 21)

As Mrs. Ramsay notices (or I suppose Woolf allows Mrs. Ramsay to notice and, therefore, allows her reader to notice), Lily, as an androgynous person, is not sexually appealing to the men of society, although Lily’s sense of self appeals to Mrs. Ramsay. It is that place (respect, desire, fear, dismissal) that creates such pain and confusion for those men and women who seek to live in the space between male and female. Just like Mrs. Ramsay, as I look at Meg Allen’s photographs in her “Butch” collection, I can’t help but like what I see, yet I know that those who choose to leave behind the binary of male/female have a hard time interacting with and in society.

Although I am not as conscious about looking androgynous these days, I am still determined to find that line between male and female and to play with those dichotomies whenever I can. And I am always envious of k.d. lang’s hair! The more we learn about each other, the more we can love each other for who we are instead of what we are.

“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages” (The Good Solider, Woolf).
“Love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything” (1 Peter 4:9).


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