I Tiresias

Seemingly as old as time itself is the human fascination with the liminal form. Something about the aesthetics of someone “in-between” male and female seems to be unusually compelling to authors. In classical times, there was the Greek story of Hermaphroditus, a person with both male and female sex characteristics. In Renaissance art, painted angels seem to be androgynous too. In Edo Japan, male performers cast in female roles in kabuki were sexualized to the point of being banned by the government. In the late 19th and early 20th century, books like Orlando by Virginia Woolf and The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde portrayed liminal figures and androgynous beauty ideals. This came to a head around the 1970s through 80s as pop music embraced androgyny with singers like Prince, Boy George, and David Bowie.

On the other hand, in “the transgender narrative,” the ambiguous intermediary states were all but ignored. Paraphrasing from Sandy Stone’s “Posttranssexual Manifesto,” early trans narratives almost universally describe a sudden change from an unambiguous man to an unambiguous woman with no territory in between. Moreover, they tend to describe a unique and recognizable moment when that sudden transformation occurs. Stone argues that this performance is done in order to meet the standard for “transsexualism” that doctors would require in order to perform a sex reassignment surgery. At the same time as (binary) trans voices attempt to hide the liminal form through clear construction of a “male” and “female” self, the same liminal form is exaggerated into a superhuman stardom in popular art.

Androgyny is made remote by these depictions as superhuman, unnatural, or even divine, and as such it is placed into the realm of the “Other,” to use the terminology of de Beauvoir. This makes the non-male non-female body ironically a fertile ground for feminist analysis. As such, as second-wave feminism grappled with the meaning of femininity, the liminal form was open to interpretation.

-Matthew Lindheim-Marx