See these eyes so red
Red like jungle burning bright
Those who feel me near
Pull their blinds and change their minds
– David Bowie, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”
Who else could portray the Goblin King? David Bowie’s status as the High Avatar of 20th-Century Genderfuck made him the natural choice to personify Jareth, the sinister lord of Labyrinth. It’s a fitting role for an artist who’s been a vampire, a shape-changer and various forms of alien. Regardless of Labyrinth’s kid-friendly tone, Bowie’s seductive presence lends the film a sinister allure. Literally glamour-us, he struts the haunted landscape of the Androgyne… and, as always, he does so with style.
Despite his male moniker, the Goblin King isn’t really masculine. Like many fey entities, he slips along a liminal space between Male and Female identities – the realm of theAndrogyne, a walking paradox who literally is both man (andro) and woman (gyn) and yet is neither. Existing beyond conventional roles of sex or gender, this figure confounds easy definition. As a result, s/he – even the pronoun becomes unclear – throws people off-balance. Folks don’t know whether to feel attracted to the Androgyne’s prettiness or repulsed by that figure’s otherness. Consequently, they often feel both. As Bowie himself sang in “Rebel Rebel,” they’re “not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…” and hence, they’re not sure what to do with you at all.
Such uncertainly is scarily attractive. In its presence, shadows grow. Throughout this “Mad, Bad & Dangerous” series, I’ve explored various tempter archetypes – those uncanny figures who, in art and life, reveal our conflicted feelings about sexual behavior, gender roles, inner power and external influence. Personifying the shadow as described by Carl Gustav Jung, a tempter archetype embodies forbidden urges and disturbing aspects of the individual and collective Self. Mapping the dark triad of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathology, such figures become erotic predators we cherish yet abhor. We want them, fear them and sometimes become them. They’re our vampires and succubi, the sirens on our shores and the Big Bad Wolves of our deep, dark woods. Tempters exist to outrage propriety, and none are more outrageous than the Androgyne.
Like the Temptress and the Demon Lover, the Androgyne archetype is voraciously seductive and eternally compelling – a walking cliff some folks can’t resist jumping from. Wounded children, like the outcasts of Caitlin Kiernan’s Silk, Poppy Brite’s Lost Souls or Ross Campbell’s The Abandoned, find themselves drawn by the Androgyne’s “fuck it” allure. In their fatalistic hands, gender tears away, as worthless and disposable as fast-food wrappers. Inevitably, these souls fall… but burn bright all the way down.
Simply by existing, the Androgyne forces people to confront their preconceptions. Folks with firm expectations about gender roles feel poleaxed by figures who exist beyond both. Years ago, I shared dinner at World Horror Con with a few fellow authors. Our group included three rather androgynous friends, and our waiter treated us like a pack of freaks. Eventually, we called the manager and complained about said waiter’s attitude. Reprimanded at our table, the server pointed at one of us, insisting “That’s a MAN!” even though the clearly feminine author was a guest of honor at that very hotel. I don’t know what eventually happened to the waiter, but the fact that our mere presence (at a horror writers’ convention, no less!) inspired such behavior testifies to the extreme reactions people have to androgyny.
(As for pronouns, the jury’s still out about the proper term for an androgynous person. Many writers who deal in gender-fluid subjects employ the term hir, while others use s/he, har,zir, they, or the blunt object shim. A few older authors still use the even ruder it, and most simply employ the person’s name without any pronoun at all. In the case of a person who expresses a definite gender identity, though, the proper pronoun is the one that person prefers… a point our waiter should have observed!)
(The magnificent Miyavi, scaring the fuck out of insecure straight boys since 1999.)
“You… you are unnatural!” She turned from me disgustedly, and disappeared. The breath flew from me like a bird from its cage.
– Herculine, rejected by her lover in James Reese’s The Book of Shadows
In real life, people who blur gender lines often endure fascination and abuse. Not long ago, they were circus freaks and court jesters, shamans and pariahs and often all of them at once. These days, social etiquette has largely replaced open hostility with bemused tolerance; even so, there’s a ragged edge between acceptance and abuse. As the murder of Brandon Teena reveals, an androgynous human being lives just one or two steps between glamorous legend and crime statistic.
In the realm of archetypes, the Androgyne Tempter inhabits a complex intersection of transvestitism, castration, intersexuality, transsexuality, genderqueering, hermaphrodism, and all manner of gender ambiguity. It’s this last element – ambiguity – that fuels the enduring yet unnerving appeal of such figures. As both an archetype and a living being, an androgynous person transcends “normal” gender polarities, representing boundless sexual potential. The wide array of clinical definitions applied to such people and practices reflects the indefinable nature of androgyny. Folks keep trying to put labels on it but, like the faeries so often portrayed as androgynous, androgyny transcends labels through its very existence. Is it any wonder, then, that effeminate men – gay and otherwise – are so often called “fairies”?
Although commonly depicted as a feminine man, the Androgyne may also be a masculine woman. Symbolically or even literally “endowed,” s/he challenges men on their own turf. Weapon-wielding Amazons, guitar-wielding riot grrrls and dildo-wielding dominatrixes all employ their “instruments” with a confident precision that puts insecure men to shame. Sometimes, that’s a bloody line to cross. The vicious fates inflicted upon real and legendary Amazons show how threatened guys can feel when masculinity itself is redefined.
(Lady Gaga – the Goblin King’s adopted daughter. It’s amazing how many pictures of her come up when you Google “hermaphrodite.”)
But outside of the symbolic realm, human beings suffer for the sins of legends. This is especially true among androgynous people. Many cultures, the United States included, cite the reputed “corruption of youth” as a compelling reason to deny rights, safety and even life itself to gay and transsexual citizens. In such cases, absurdly grotesque folklore – like the various urban legends in which David Bowie/ Alice Cooper/ Iggy Pop/ Marilyn Manson has gallons of sperm pumped from his stomach – outweighs the very real pain inflicted upon people who cannot or will not live within gender boundaries.
In any form, our Androgyne is literally transgressive. Transmeans “across, beyond or through,” while gradi means “to step.” This act of “stepping beyond” carries connotations of sin and disobedience, not only of social norms but of divinity as well. A mural from Pompeii reveals the lusty god Pan turning away in horror from the revealed genitals of a hermaphrodite, while the biblical laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy declare cross-dressing and homosexual behaviors to be “abominations…” that is, “bad omens” that must be prayed away, driven off or destroyed. Personified through a living threshold, the Androgyne’s transgression defies social orders, forcing other, more “normal” people to confront questions of their own place in such order.
Despite the innate beauty of androgyny, that confrontation can have ugly results. In the 2010 biopic The Runaways, Cherie Curry (Dakota Fanning) dons David Bowie drag for her high-school talent show. The view pans across her classmates – shocked, amused, aroused, enraged. They boo her, pelt her, drive her offstage. Later, when Curry teams up with butch Joan Jett (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) and three other rocker-girls, their aggressively pansexual manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) has local boys throw dog shit at them. Still later, as they become superstars, the adulation of their fans becomes equally unhinged. Fame, fascination, outrage, even violence – in life and legend, this is the Androgyne’s lot. Transgression shatters everyday life, and nothing in its wake remains unchanged.
While the Seductress and Demon Lover inspire secret sins, the Androgyne provokes open rebellion. The mysterious cataclysm of Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu series doesn’t just turn men into hermaphrodites – it destroys human life as we know it. Once Brad and Janet meet Frank N. Furter and his transsexual Transylvanians from The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, “nothing can ever be the same.” The mad KISS figures on the cover ofDestroyer dance on the ruins of their world. Every archetype is a gatekeeper of transformation, but the Androgyne may weave the most awe-filled seductions of all.
(To be continued…)
(KISS wasn’t always “kids stuff…)
This entry, along with its related parts, was the first of a three-article series originally published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine between 2009 and 2010. All rights are reserved by the author. Permission granted for linking or re-posting with attribution, but explicitly denied for publication without prior arrangements with the author.