Don’t dream it
– Frank N. Furter, The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(Torrey Stenmark rocking Bowie’s Goblin King – complete with trouser bulge.)
Hidden beauty seems forbidden as well. And because our Androgyne exists beyond conventional gender limitations, s/he appears beyond morality as well. Common folklore presents androgyny as a netherworld where any vice or sin is possible, and while that impression is inaccurate as hell, the image endures. That wolf in Grandma’s clothing offers up a wide array of damnations, especially if – as in Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” – s/he wants more than just a quick meal. The archetypal Androgyne is gorgeously seductive, a beautiful liar with terrifying but tempting revelations in store.
Predatory images linger through popular impressions of androgyny. Aquinas maintained that incubi and succubi were really the same entities; possessed of male and female aspects, they visited men in female forms to draw out sperm, then went among women in male form and impregnated them with the stolen seed. Sadako Yamaura, from Koji Suzuki’s Ringseries, is a spectral hermaphrodite determined to “reproduce” through a mystical psychic virus. Anne Rice’s languid vampires, Storm Constantine’s seductive Wraeththu, the Sapphic allure of Le Fanu’s Carmilla or the gender-jumping of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando… all contain uncanny tension between male, female and Other, and all remain seductive, hungry, usually dangerous and all-too-often revealing.
Sometimes – as in the Ukiyo-e “Floating World” subcultures of transitional Japan, the Decadent movement of fin-de-siecleEurope, the New Flesh fetish underground and the Gothic Lolita wave – gender rebels seize those ominous stereotypes and turn them into power. Forced toward a monster’s role, they embrace and run with it. Like Marilyn Manson, whoseMechanical Animals album cover features him as a nude and neutered cyber-androgyne, they craft funhouse mirrors from society’s shadows and then shove them in the audience’s face. Artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Vaslav Nijinsky, Robert Mapplethorpe and Kenneth Anger; authors like Oscar Wilde, Caitlin Kiernan, Arthur Rimbaud and Pat Califa; musicians like Grace Jones, Diamonda Galas, Robert Smith and of course David Bowie… these Lords and Ladies of Misrule fashion monsters from imagination’s cage, twist them into fabulous designs, set ‘em loose and then invite society at large to come out and play. It’s no accident that the members of Twisted Sister used that confrontational image as the original cover for their album of that name. The vinyl edition of 1986’s Come Out and Play featured a garish pop-up of Dee Snyder in Heavy Metal drag, poised beneath a manhole cover. Pull it open, and a screaming hairy nightmare bursts from the sewer and into your face. No wonder the band scared hell out of cultural guardians from Tipper Gore to Jerry Falwell. This Androgyne was out to wreck your shit and take your kids along for the ride!
(“Monster,” at its Latin core, means portent, warning orrevelation. Understood this way, our monsters say volumes about us.)
Like many shadow-archetypes, the Androgyne has flourished in the age of mass media. Emerging from the disreputable glamour of the Romantic art movement and Floating World prints and poetry, this archetype epitomized the dark flamboyance of the more sinister Decadent school. Throughout the 1800s, the weird fusion of drugs, art, libertine philosophy and magic blossomed into the forbidden shadowlands of Mirbeau, Beardsley and most especially Oscar Wilde. Mocking conventional sex roles through inversion or complete obliteration, the Decadents portrayed (and occasionally embodied) the pallid androgynes later popularized by Rice, Bowie and Constantine. Although Wilde’s Salome was essentially female and his Dorian Grey essentially male, their fey demeanors (and Wilde’s as well) presaged and often influenced more aggressive manifestations of androgyny in films like The Hunger and Liquid Sky. Like most other elements of avant-garde art and lifestyles, these blurred gender distinctions were meant to undermine, transform and perhaps even demolish society at large. The mincing Dr. Pretorius in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein embodies this tempting transgressor, luring Dr. Frankenstein away from socio-sexual normalcy. From there, it’s a small yet significant step from the fall of Frankenstein to the rise of Frank. N.’s Furter – toward “a new world of gods and monsters.”
As rigid gender roles exploded in the 20th century, the Androgyne served notice that the old order was through. Although Diamond Dog Bowie provided the archetype’s most visible harbinger, androgyny could be spotted from Mick Jagger’s pout to Boy George’s hairdo, from Joanna Russ’s The Female Man to Robert Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—“ to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The ragged witchery of Alice Cooper and KISS, the sleek futurism of The Matrix and Ranma 1/2, the sweet boys of Year 24 Group and the grotesque renegades of John Waters… on and on with no end in sight runs a brilliant interplay between fantasy and reality, presided over by our tempting Androgyne. Like Desire and Despair (the Endless twins from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman), the beauty and terror of transgression remains a fixture in postmodern popular culture. Leading us, like Jareth, into a labyrinth of possibilities, the Androgyne continues to outrage and amaze, sledgehammering our expectations and enticing us to join the fun.
“I ask,” says Jareth, “for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.” That’s the challenge of our Androgyne. If we dare transgress upon established rules, embrace rebellion and obey a disordered state of order, a heady sort of freedom can be ours. The price of that dominion, though, may be what the band Miranda Sex Garden referred to as “a fairytale of slavery… a seductive garden of earthly delights, full of color and chaos.” Like the New Flesh netherworld of London’s Torture Garden, this sensual labyrinth could combine heaven and a hell and everything in between, wrapped in furious lust and boundless self-reflection. Then again, it might become a fearless paradise. The Goblin King may simply be a dream, a tempter regarding us from the other side of our own mirrors. Like so many other elements of the Androgyne’s domain, the ultimate answer remains ambiguous. As any hero understands, the only way to discover where a quest leads is to enter the labyrinth and hope for the best. Either way, like Labyrinth’s Sarah Williams, our journey will transform us. In the Androgyne’s dominion, by temptation we are changed.
I was born for love. All the faculties of my soul impelled me in that direction; under the appearance of coldness, and almost indifference, I had a heart of fire.
– Abel Barbin (1843-1868), born and raised as Camille Barbin
(The real Runaways, who bent a few genders along the way.)
Piers Anthony & Mercedes Lackey, If I Pay Thee Not in Gold (Baen Books 1993).
Poppy Z. Brite, Lost Souls (Delacorte Press, 1992),Drawing Blood (Dell Publishing, 1993), Exquisite Corpse(Touchstone Books, 1996) and other works.
Nadia Choucha, Surrealism & The Occult (Destiny Books, 1992).
Storm Constantine, The Thorn Boy and Other Dreams of Dark Desire (Stark Press 2002) and the Wraeththu Chronicles (various publishers, 1987-2009).
Amanda Fernbach, Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post-Human (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).
Neil Gaiman and various collaborators, the Sandman series (Vertigo Comics, 1989-2010).
Caitlin Kiernan, Silk (Penguin-Putnam, 1998), The Girl Who Would Be Death (Vertigo Comics, 1998-1999),Tales of Pain and Wonder (Gauntlet Publishing, 2000),Threshold (Penguin-Putnam, 2001) and other works.
Francis King, Sexuality, Magic & Perversion (Feral House, 2002).
J. Gordon Melton, The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead – Completely Revamped Edition (Visible Ink Press, 1999).
Adele Nozedar, The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols: The Ultimate A-Z Guide From Alchemy to the Zodiac (HarperElement, 2008).
Lawrence Osborne, The Poisoned Embrace: A Brief history of Sexual Pessimism (Vintage Books, 1993).
Stephen Pagel & Nicola Griffith, the Bending the Landscape anthology series (various publishers, 1996-2003).
James Reese, The Book of Shadows, The Book of Spiritsand The Witchery (William Morrow, 2002, 2004 & 2006).
Anne Rice, Cry to Heaven and The Vampire Chronicles (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976-2003).
Brian Stableford, The Second Daedalus Book of Decadence – The Black Feast (Daedakus Ltd, 1992).
Koji Suzuki, the Ring series (American editions from Vertical Press, 2003-2006).
Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (HarperCollins, 1983)
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.