Androgyny and the Misrepresentation of Non-Binary Individuals in Fashion and Print Advertisements

Of the many popular dichotomies a person might encounter in their life (see: light or dark, happy or sad, good or evil etc.), the most natural, or seemingly so, would be the gender dichotomy. From the moment a person is born, they are placed squarely into the binary of the sexes: either a boy or girl. Of course, as an individual grows, they are able to choose which identity they would like to live their lives as… or not choose at all. Non-binary people represent a group of individuals who decide to opt out of this quietly hegemonic system, and live their lives, not as male or female, but simply as people (Davis, 98). While representation of non-binary individuals is incredibly sparse in popular culture and media, it can be most closely linked to models who are dressed or made up to look “androgynous”, or an all-encompassing, indeterminate type sex characterized by its gender ambiguity. While this should be seen as a progressive, even representative image, androgynous models in fashion usually use this look as a vehicle to assert masculinity or to pander to the male audience. By looking at two advertisements in Vogue’s April 2016 issue, I will analyze a depiction of both “masculine” and “feminine” androgyny in female models, and explore the ways in which hegemonic ideals such as sexism play an unfortunate part in the misrepresentation of non-binary individuals in popular culture.

     For the purpose of contrasting, I will discuss each ad separately in order to highlight the differences in the styling of each “androgynous” model, starting with the first Barney’s ad (marked “ad #1”).  In this black and white photograph, a black woman with a clean shaven head sits upon a concrete staircase directly above two construction workers, who also carry with them a sort of sexual ambiguity. The model is dressed in male’s casual clothing, with a black hoodie and roomy basketball shorts, and a pair of leather loafers. She looks directly into the camera with a gaze that emphasizes fearlessness and strength. Though androgyny is meant to encapsulate a fairly equal representation of both genders, it is often the case (especially with female models), to have a woman with striking, raw features dressed in muted, or male clothing, such as the model in my advertisement. In fact, the only tell-tale representation of recognizable femininity would be the model’s darkly painted fingernails; hardly the focus of the picture. While this blend surely includes both male and female perspective, it steps into the realm of the problematic, when it over-masculinizes the model. To do so, is to arguably imply that to have a woman in a powerful, non-sexual place in a print advertisement, means there must be some form of masculinity involved. This would then explain why advertisements where women are dressed to represent their own gender, are typically highly sexualized, whereas magazines where women are androgynous or in this case more “masculine” are exempt – only due to the fact that a more masculine style, evokes more powerful and dominant imagery. In Evelyn Blackwood’s Culture and Women’s Sexualities she explains the nuanced gender of the “tomboi” found in countries such as Indonesia, which involves women who are more “boyish” or masculine. Blackwood goes on to explain that some tomboi’s choose to live their lives as masculine males due to the dominance that being a man holds, as “Consequently, some masculine females appropriate the masculine gender because it is the most persuasive model available” (Blackwood, 234). While certainly there are distinct differences between tomboi’s and androgynous or non-binary people, the same principle can be seen in relation to the female body and masculinity. Similarly, Allan Lundy and Judy A. Rosenberg arrived at the conclusion that the typical androgynous person’s self-esteem, was due largely to their masculinity, after studying the results of Bernard Whitley’s 1983 gender self-esteem analysis. These findings show how the cloak of dominance that comes along with masculinity, even in a female, can transcend to explain the ways in which more a masculine androgyny allows the female to escape the degradation of sexualisation, and even a position of power, but only with the permission of masculinity.

     The second advertisement (marked ad #2), features famed pop singer Lady Gaga, in a softer more “feminine” androgynous style. As a performer, Gaga has made no secret of her sexual liberation, and has even performed in drag, so it was not surprising to see her posed as an androgynous figure. In contrast to the advertisement before, where the model stared boldly into the camera, Gaga instead elicits a more comfortable view of androgyny – that is, one that is made to whet the sexual appetite of the male consumer.  It is also worth noting the difference in the model’s themselves, with the black woman being the more aggressive of the two, and the pale, white woman as the more demure, and sexy. This draws to mind stereotypical race depictions, of the “angry black woman” archetype, and the soft, docile white woman.

     In this advertisement, Gaga hunches over in a denim jacket, while pouting plump lips, and looking into the camera. Her eyes are heavy lidded, with a  sleepy type of seduction, and her hair is sexily mussed around, just enough to still be considered conventionally attractive. On the other side of the androgynous representation, this more “feminine” depiction sparks as problematic, as it still manages to convey sexualizing themes through the very tone of the photograph. As androgyny is meant to stand for a representation of both sexes, this ad manages to still objectify the femininity present, by directing it to the male gaze.  Speaking on the mainstream views of popular, commodified androgyny, Kris Nelson writes for “The definition of androgynous is seriously narrow and extremely exclusionary… this narrow view of androgyny works to reinforce mainstream beauty standards, not push against them”. Nelson cites famed “androgynous” figures in mainstream media such as Orange Is the New Black’s Ruby Rose, who is still conventionally attractive, and is very much highly sexualized both on the show, and often in the media. The use of feminine androgynous figures as bait on which to draw in the male consumer speaks volumes, as it still implies that to be feminine, or to be a woman, is to be used and objectified for the consumption of a man. It is also interesting to note that there were more advertisements featuring androgynous models in the magazine studied, however, all of them used female models. This can be attributed further to sexism, and the ways in which an unusual, muted sexuality can still be applied to objectify the female body, rather than risk the feminization of a male model. Unlike the previous ad, there was no cloak of masculinity to protect the model from inevitable sexualisation.

     What both advertisements unfortunately fail to do, is provide an honest representation of a non-binary person in popular media. Both advertisements are for the famed department store, Barney’s, however it is unclear (especially in the second ad), as to what exactly is being advertised. As there is no clear marketing of a specific product, therefore, it is fair to say that the ads seem to be selling more of a “look” than a type of clothing or jewelry. This then adds another layer of distaste, as “androgynous” is being packaged and sold in glossy magazines, with very little (if any) consideration of the queer community, from which it lives. However, it is arguable that no sex really has an “honest” representation in media due to hegemonic beliefs surrounding social politics and gender norms. As men and women are usually depicted as either hyper-masculine, or overtly martyred, it makes sense for depiction of androgynous persons to be sort of a hybrid of the two stereotypes, with the scale tipping more towards the masculine or the feminine, depending on circumstance. While this may be the case, it is still important to understand that androgynous and non-binary people do exist, with their experiences being flattened and sexualized and or commodified into high-fashion runway looks, or pseudo-edgy blue jean advertisements. In Situating “Fluidity”: (Trans) Gender Identification and the Regulation of Gender Diversity, author Eric Calhoun Davis asserts that there is much to be learned about gender fluidity, and the people who practice it. He states: “The increasing diversity of gender experiences challenges the taken-for-granted binary divisions of gender, potentially revealing the underlying political and social construction of gender” (Davis, 97). This further emphasizes the ways in which unfair or underrepresentation of non-binary individuals, or those who identify anywhere on the queer-spectrum, is detrimental to learning about real people’s real experiences, and feeds into hegemonic ideals of the strict and unrelenting gender dualism. While androgyny as a fashion trend seems to have slipped under the radar, it is clear that it is highly appropriated, and is used to imply over-arching masculine or feminine ideals and the right amount of political incorrectness needed to sell a pair of shoes

     In conclusion, it is not uncommon to see misrepresentations of gender relations in the media, or even more specifically in print advertisement. However, when it comes to those who are already underrepresented, and often misunderstood in society, the media oligarchy plays a huge role in the commodification and appropriating of non-binary people, by displaying “androgyny” in print advertisements, soaked through with highly hegemonic viewpoints. In order to combat such thinking, one must attempt to look beyond the pages of a magazine, into the real lives and experiences of actual people that media finds all too easy to gloss over.







Works Cited

Blackwood, Evelyn. "Culture and Women's Sexualities." Journal of Social Issues 56.2 (2000): 223-38. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Erin Calhoun Davis. "Situating “Fluidity”: (Trans) Gender Identification and the Regulation of Gender Diversity." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15.1 (2009): 97-130. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Lundy, Allan, and Judy A. Rosenberg. "Androgyny, Masculinity, And Self-Esteem." Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 15.1 (1987): 91-95. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

Nelson, Kris. “4 Harmful Lies the Media Is Telling You About Androgyny.” Everyday Feminism. Everyday Feminism Magazine, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.