From the Course: The Church and Pop Culture
Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours
The Scholar’s Corner
(Licenses to use and distribute this course in other educational facilities are available.)
Androgyny in Pop Culture
1996 by Jefferis Kent Peterson The Scholar's Corner
End Notes ————————————————-
It is impossible to identify and analyze all the different factors which gave rise to the society in which we now live. We have already seen how a political theory has become a model for our present behavior. Obviously other philosophical ideas and political ideals have influenced the shape of our society. The Enlightenment, Humanism, and the rise of the middle class have all contributed to our present form of government and all have affected our social relationships. In this section of the paper, we will attempt to analyze what I believe is one of the key factors in influencing the shape of our culture as a whole. In particular, we will chart its influence on the subject of our inquiry; androgyny in our midst. The sociological root of our loss of affirmation as individuals in community is the change from a traditional to a technological society. We will then analyze some of the contemporary movements in society that both reflect this cultural shift and model for us additional changes that will again redefine us as a cultural entity. Lastly, we will survey some of the other factors that affect the issue of androgyny as a social phenomenon.
One of the main theses of this paper is that the transformation of our society from a traditional to a technological one has occasioned the break down of social roles and, consequently, our identity in relationship to one another. The ensuing confusion of our relationship to one another as male and female, elder and younger, has put enormous pressure upon us as we try to resolve those crises associated with the development of personality and as we attempt to formulate our identity in opposition to the social context. This tension has fractured our confidence in ourselves as male and female, youth and adult, because we no longer have cues from culturally accepted roles and outside relationships. The result is role confusion and personality dysfunction. The premature and incomplete resolution of our sexual identity, together with tensions within the family, has led to the increase in homosexual, bisexual, and androgynous identification in the populace. Though this theory is impossible to demonstrate conclusively, it is possible to show that certain upheavals in culture can be traced to the inhumane aspects of technological society.
The definition of a traditional society is one in which the primary form of social organization is based upon the principle of tribal or familial relationships, 23 as in an agrarian society for example. The source of one’s identity, then, in traditional society is not oneself, as an isolated individual, but one’s relationships to the social whole. So one is defined primarily by the social roles one lives, e.g., as father/son/brother/cousin/grandfather, or as mother/sister/daughter/ grandmother. The benefit of this social source of identity is that we are valued not for our function (what we produce or do) but for who we are! We are someone else’s mother/father, sister/brother, son/daughter, and these unearned roles have an intrinsic value which give us esteem and worth.24 That value is not achieved but received by virtue of our relationships in the social context. If one lives with that assurance of one’s value, which is given to one automatically by the community, much of the tension associated with personal esteem in culture is eliminated or at least diminished.
In the traditional society, one’s function as farmer/father or weaver/mother is not separated from one’s identity in the social context but it is part of who we are in relationship to one another.25 In traditional society, these social roles are affirmed by public ritual, custom, and rite, so that we are affirmed by the community and we do not need to struggle so hard to establish our identity on our own. Rites of passage mark our transition from youth to adulthood, and the role of grandfather or grandmother carries with it the assumption of wisdom and the necessity of respect.26 These social identifications reveal why two evils of our culture – the youthful “identity crisis” and the disrespect for the aged – are avoided in most traditional societies. It is also possible that the reason that homosexuality is rarer in these cultures than our own is that social roles for males and females are given rather than “decided” upon as in our society. The anxiety of decision and the necessity of proving ourselves is removed in a society that affirms our role and identity through custom and ritual.27 By contrast, we face the anxiety of free choice without sufficient support and encouragement from the social context. We do not have the benefit of social guidance and direction.
The transition from traditional to technological society began in the industrial revolution, and technological definition now characterizes our society. In the technological society, the fundamental principle of or organization is not who one is, but what one does:
The organization shifts from a social pattern in which relation ship is the most (important) consideration to a social pattern in which functional accomplishment is the most (important) consideration.28
This change reshapes society and all human life so that many human values recede and become subordinate to functional values:
Efficiency considerations replace status and honor… Traditions as a source of authority (and structuring) yields to utilitarian rationalism…29
Rather than a humane society governed by personal concerns, we move to an inhumane society governed by the impersonal concerns of production and efficiency. Thus, in this graceless society, our value is not given, but is insecure and must be earned or merited. Our anxiety is heightened, as our worth rests upon our performance and not upon the unmerited favor of loving families and a gracious God! We are valued for what we do and not for who we are.
With the rise of a technological society, the value of our social role is demeaned and eventually despised as concerns for efficiency override consideration of the social context. Function is highly individuated, as it relates to specific tasks, and people are valued only insofar as they fulfill the specific needs of industry.30 Thus, the separation of one’s function and one’s social role into public (i.e., valuable and purposeful) and private (i.e., recreational, non-purposive, and, by implication, intrinsically non-valuable) spheres of life becomes complete.31 No wonder that women do not feel esteemed in household duties and familial relationships, because subconsciously, our culture has placed these functions (social roles) in the personal and private sphere of life — in the area of life that is, by implication, intrinsically non-purposeful and worthless. With these unspoken cultural assumptions of technological society pervading our value system, we naturally question the value of our social roles and tasks. The value of our humanness in relationship to one another is disparaged, however subtly, and we are unconsciously seduced by the claims of this materialistic value structure.
As our society adopts this method of valuation in giving primacy to our economic function, “the fundamental unit of society ceases to be the family and becomes instead the individual.”32 And “as the individual replaces the relational grouping as the basic unit . . .(society) becomes increasingly a mass aggregate of individuals.”33 We see here how the social-contract theory of government fulfills the individualistic nature of technological society and how the resulting political ideologies encourage the splintering of our group identity into a mass of unrelated individuals pursuing dis-coordinate goals.
In contrast to traditional society, where differences in sex and age are deemed important and are affirmed through custom and ritual, in technological society divisions according to age and sex are increasingly viewed as irrelevant. From a functional standpoint, age and sex are secondary considerations, efficiency and intellectual or physical ability to do the task at hand are primary. Viewed from the standpoint of function, cultural allowances for role differences appear arbitrary and unnecessarily limiting, perhaps even oppressive.34 But if we consider our humanity, with all our “irrational” psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs, these biological and social distinctions are anything but arbitrary. They are essential aspects of personality and identity, and we need a positive way of affirming these differences so that our identity as people-in-relationship can be established.35
While traditional society provided an “hospitable environment” in which people can live and receive personal support,”36 technological society has failed to recognize the “irrational” needs of human nature, and thus, it has failed to make an adequate provision for them. Our cultural neurosis, manifested in the breakdown of our social relationships, may be a model of the inhuman pressures and strains put on us by a technological society, a model which fails to show us who we are in relationship to one another. We have witnessed, in our own time, the breakup of the family, identity crises in the youth and mid-life, alienation and loneliness in cities, troubles in sexual relationships, a rise in unwed motherhood, of fathers who refuse to take any responsibility for the children they produce, poverty in single parent homes, and finally, the abolition of gender-related social roles.
Without these cultural affirmations of our social roles, the resulting confusion of socio-sexual identity leads to psychological instabilities in individuals and to social instability in culture.38 All these factors may contribute to androgynous and homosexual identification in the youth,39 and they affect women who want a more traditional role as wife and mother because they are deprived of an intrinsic sense of worth and value. Men also become insecure and unstable in their roles as husbands as the meaning of this socio-sexual role is confused and devalued.
If indeed the shift from a traditional to a technological society is the major force behind present cultural upheavals, how is this undercurrent reflected in our day? I believe that the women’s movement and the “gay rights” movement both reflect the tensions inherent in our society. In this sense, they are models of our social dis-ease. They are not the cause of our problems, rather they are reactions to problems already inherent in the system. Only since the late ’60’s, as these movements began to advocate solutions to our current struggles have they become models for our behavior.
The women’s movement is reacting to loss of value and worth in the social role of females. In a society which has deprived women of a sense of intrinsic worth, their cry must be heard, for it is a cry to be valued humanly. The women’s movement has become a model for our culture in a way that may not truly resolve our underlying dilemma: the movement has advocated an end to all social and functional roles, defining them as arbitrary, limiting and oppressive. The possibility is that the abolition of social and functional norms may further heighten the ambiguity of our age, thus encouraging androgyny and loss of sexual identity, not bring about the esteem and worth we truly desire. The reason the attempt to abolish all gender roles may not work is that operative philosophy of such an attempt is a direct product of technological and industrial society. It perpetuates the valuation of people not on the basis of who they are in community, but upon what they do. Therefore, a woman is only of equal value and worth to a man if she is allowed to perform the same function and produce the same product for industry. Her value is determined by her function in the impersonal sphere of work not by her relationships to others.
The error of this thinking is that the assignment of value on the basis of work and function is as destructive to the social identity of men as it is to women. The whole line of thinking and valuation is impersonal and inhuman. The remedy is not to burden women with the same oppressive social structure as men, but to redeem them both from the depersonalizing structures of industrialism. That is not even to hint or suggest, that a woman should not receive equal pay for equal work, but that we ought to be careful in trying to achieve personal affirmation through our function in the mechanism of production.
By the same token, the homosexual movement is also a model of the ambiguity of our age. Our individualistic ideology has not produced a consensus for social roles, but instead it has encouraged a fracturing of our social identity. Perhaps, the movement is also a cry for humane treatment and a cry for a return to a social means of identification that gives us worth through the unmerited aspect of human relationships. It may be a cry for value, not based upon what we do but for who we are. However, as a model for our society, the cure may be worse than the disease. The homosexual movement wishes to further confuse sexual distinctions, to uphold an androgynous image, and to build a concept of human nature on a dualistic foundation that denies the telos of our psycho-somatic nature. In the process, the movement is clearly advocating alternate sexual mores and norms that oppose the Judeo-Christian understanding of sexuality. The question then is this: will we truly be freed from hang-ups and limitations by our adoption of this new understanding of human nature and sexuality, or will we in reality be enslaved to an an understanding that devalues us further by the implicit denial of the meaning and purpose and worth of our distinctions as sexual beings?
We will now briefly touch upon the other sociological movements in our culture that may have influenced the current cultural fascination with androgyny:
The Civil Rights Movement of the ’50’s and 6’0’s is partly responsible for the methodology of the women’s movement and the homosexual movement. The Civil Rights methods of organization, demonstration, and political action gave to these two groups a blueprint for their own interests. And the Civil Rights Movement also gave them an ideological and political argument: the argument for equal treatment for minorities under the law fit perfectly within the social-contract theory of government, which is to secure individual rights and freedoms. As stated before, the State has a hard time distinguishing between the moral claims of these movements without appeal to some religious authority. Therefore, the claims of all groups and minorities appear of equal merit before the law.
The rise of the entertainment media, since the Enlightenment generally, but especially in our century with the accessibility of television, radio, and cinema, is also responsible for the reformation of our moral values:
The shift from religion to entertainment involved a shift in this most important feature of morality: its source and sanction. The entertainment milieu has no transcendent. 40
The purpose of entertainment is the suspension of values and beliefs. While religion stresses absolute truth or moral value, the premise of entertainment is play. 41
We can see the effect of entertainment on the traditional value system. We are repeatedly challenged sexually by seductive advertisements, the acceptance of promiscuity, adultery, and fornication on television as the norm of sexual relationships, and the unabashed willingness of talk shows, for example, to treat all sorts of sexual relationships with “refreshing candor.” The erosion of a traditional value structure is subliminal and subconscious, but it is taking place nevertheless. As familiarity with these subjects increases, sensitivity to its moral challenge to traditional structures is dulled. Because we become used to these new and unusual norms in the fantasy world of entertainment, as a society, we become much more willing to accept them in life as norms as well. Our culture is indeed ready to play with sex roles and gender identity; after all, as we’ve been taught, it is just a game-isn’t it?
Finally, one sociological factor that underscores all our present study is the turmoil of the ’60’s. Due in part to the character of our technological society, as already described, something else was happening to our culture. We experienced a breakdown of a moral and cultural consensus in the ’60’s. The Civil Rights Movement made us question our religious institutions, which were, as often as not, on the side of injustice and hypocrisy. And the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a shock to our national consciousness. Our idealism, our sense of mission and destiny, were undone by a bullet which struck down a president who promised us hope and purpose, but who left us alone in our grief. The unspoken tensions of the cold war, with its threat of nuclear annihilation, the disappointment and distrust we felt towards our government because of the Vietnam War, the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and our disillusionment with Nixon, all combined to bring about a cultural despair. The influx of oriental mysticism and Jungian anthropology and the economic hardships of the ’70’s combined in a curious elixir. In them we began to experience mystical escapes and nihilistic resolutions to our social and individual quests for meaning and value.
All these factors have come together to set the stage for our readiness to accept androgyny as a new paradigm of meaning.
While it is true that traditional social structures and gender roles can create limiting and oppressive patterns of prejudice, the question remains: “Is the abolition of all gender roles the answer to our problem or only a product of the dysfunction of our age?” While it is impossible to prove beyond a doubt, because sociology is an anecdotal and not an empirical science, I would argue that, as human beings, we need the affirmation of our sexual identity in some residue of community recognized social roles in the context of family, tribe, and nation to remain healthy. The affirmation of husband/wife, father/mother, as vital and worthy roles in the community needs to take place for the welfare of society as a whole. True, opportunities for working women are greater than at any time in our history, but the attacks on the role of motherhood are also at an all time high. This disrespect for the role of person in community, for both fathers and mothers, has created an anxiety and stress filled society where people are not valued for who they are in relationship to one another, but only for what they can produce in the impersonal world of commerce. It is an inhuman value structure that is not alleviated through the re-creation of sexual identity, as in androgyny; rather the depersonalization of the individual is furthered by the denial of a sexual telos.
The phenomenon of androgyny is a model of currents in our society. It represents the tensions of a technological society founded upon the “liberal” principle of individual freedoms; and is grounded in a social understanding of human beings as separate individuals in voluntary association with one another. The chief justification for androgyny as a valid psychosomatic expression of identity is in a philosophical dualism which distinguishes our spiritual or rational nature from our biological or accidental nature.
The phenomenon of androgyny is a model for our culture in that it affirms our ambiguity and tensions in regards to our sexual natures and social roles by declaring our uneasiness to be normal. It denies our basic distinctions and declares to us that they have no intrinsic purpose. It provides a cultural and ritual affirmation of androgyny, whereas rites of passage used to affirm our distinctions in the traditional society. In this sense, it is possible that androgyny is establishing a mythic and archetypal understanding of humanity that will deprive us of our necessary social roles and sexual identity. And if so, then this androgynous symbol of our nature will have indeed become a religious substitute for a traditional Christian worldview.
If androgyny is a reflection of the breakdown of a healthy social structure, as I have asserted, then rather than being part of the solution to our malaise, it is part of the problem. According to a traditional, biblical worldview, the complementarity of the sexes is ordained by God from the foundation of creation. This complementarity has both a moral component and reflects the natural law of creation by its divine order. It is teleological and therefore brings forth fulfillment to both humanity and to a culture when it is acknowledged and obeyed, but it is a sign of rebellion, or at least of dysfunction, when it is not followed.
Paul indicates, in Romans 1, that sexual disorientation is the result of idolatry. Our culture, with its worship of the means of production, could be rightly accused of being idolatrous towards money. The use and abuse of people for the sake of the profit motive have produced social structures that are very dehumanizing. And the corporate nature of this sin of idolatry has produced a corporate dysfunction in the culture leading to the destruction of traditional family structures.
If this thesis is correct, then the only true remedy for the culture is a revival on the scale of the First & Second Great Awakenings that will reorient the entire culture towards God. That reorientation would deal with the corporate sin of idolatry and could lead to a repersonalization of society by restoring to us a value structure that will honor people more than things. Included with this reorientation would be a restoration of a traditional, biblical sexual telos that would include not just the complementary nature of sexual identity, but an affirmation of family as the primary unit of the social fabric. If we were indeed made this way, then only by aligning with God’s order and purpose can we become healthy.
This reorientation must come through revival, if it is to come at all. It cannot be imposed through external laws, rules, and regulations, as some Theonomists would counsel. The use of force in an attempt to force a biblical standard on an unwilling populace will not lead to health, but tyranny. For a true reorientation to take place that is dependent upon a social consensus and consent, it must come through relationship first, or else the impersonal imposition of laws upon an unwilling populace will lead to a further depersonalization of the society through an increase of the technological structures of social control. In the past, the greatest temptation for failing societies is to grasp for external security. That governmental security usually ends in tyranny, not in revitalization of a culture. The establishment of biblical laws through such imposition on the culture may deal with some of the extreme symptoms of our cultural disease, but most likely will not touch the greater sin of idolatry which is endemic. And by masking the real cause of the disease, no healing will take place and the residue of our freedoms will perish in the persecutions of religious inquisition. That, I believe, is the true danger we face unless an Awakening occurs.
Historical patterns of cultural decay seem to indicate that when androgyny becomes a norm of behavior, when sexual identity is divided from essence, value, and social roles, the decline of culture is irreversible. Once the inward self-restraint that channels sexual nature into a constructive part of community identity is broken down, the flood of promiscuity and selfishness erodes the social fabric to such a degree that the destruction of that culture is inevitable. While society may continue on the path of depersonalization for several hundred years, it inevitably collapses under the weight of a fractured and disabled community. Our society may not have as long because the media of communication have accelerated the already quickened pace of technological society.
The primary need for the restoration of the social fabric is a restoration of a cultural and moral consensus that includes agreement on sexual and social telos and upon the intrinsic worth of each human being; where value is given to people by virtue of their relationships to one another and not achieved through their performance in an impersonal, mechanized world. The danger of the lack of consensus that currently exists is that the chaos and polarization of society will cause communities to be in such anxiety that they will seek a counterfeit standard for social congruity; one which turns to tyranny to enforce acceptance and conformity to the public will. For this reason, a revival leading to a Great Awakening through a vital sense of identity given to individuals by God first, family and church community second, and by politics last, provides the best hope for a restoration of health in our culture.
The secondary need is more practical but far more difficult to employ, and that is to change our society from an industrial one to one that is more agrarian, small business, and craft based, where relationships between people are preserved in the context of their work and communities. This challenge seems impossible in the light of the modern business climate, but several factors could work to produce this transition. I admit, these factors are only hopes or possibilities at present: 1) technology, especially computers and communications may allow more people to stay and work at home or in decentralized offices closer to their homes; 2) day care centers, flex time, and the recognition by an increasing number of corporations of the needs of families in the work place are a sign of a growing recognition of the changing priorities in society for family over work – the entrance of women in the work force has helped humanize corporations and has forced them to some measure of sensitivity to social needs of their workers; 3) economic hardships may create the necessity of a return to rural communities, small businesses, crafts, and a life nearer to the land; 4) a long term oil crisis may make it more cost effective for many non-industrial business to allow their employees to work from a home based environment.
Aside from the unlikely transformation of our society from an industrial one to a community oriented one, our only hope seems to be in the restoration of value to individuals through an affirmation of their worth before God through the grace of God, based upon who they are to Him and not upon what they do. The traditional values of family and socio-sexual identity need to be affirmed as well, lest chaotic relativism further fracture the social whole by denying the possibility of any ultimate purpose and value to life. Revival of the culture through an Awakening seems the most likely possibility for this communal restoration of the value of human life. If a revival came with such magnitude that the social wholeness was restored, it would be possible to change the direction of society, just as the outbreak of Christianity lengthened the days of the Roman Empire. But without such a revival, our society is in danger of a loss of identity, meaning, and vision. If such occurs, a collapse of the social contract will soon follow. Tyranny or destruction seem to be the alternatives to revival. Hitler offered false hope of righteousness to the German people in the ’30’s, when Germany was in the decadent throws of a similar despair. Let us hope that will not be our destiny as well.
1 Gioia Diliberto, “Invasion of the Gender Blenders,” People, April 23, 1984,p.97.
2 Ibid., p. 98.
3 Ibid., p. 97.
4 Jim Miller, “Britain Rocks America–Again,” Newsweek, January 23, 1984, pp. 52, 56.
5 bid., 57.
6 ABC, “Good Morning America” April 12, 1984, interview with Boy George.
7 Diliberto, p. 98.
8 Jacques Choron, The Romance of Philosophy, (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1966), pp. 5-6.
9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), vol. III: The Doctrine of Creation, part 4, p. 160.
10 Ibid., pp. 161-62.
11 Ibid., pp. 117, 131-32, 158, 170.
13 John H. Cartwright, “Christian Ethics as Vocation in the Service of Humanitas,” AME Zion Quarterly Review, vol. 94, #2, July, 1982, p. 18.
14 Choron, pp. 101-3.
15 Ibid., p. 105.
16 Ibid., pp. 111-112.
17 Ibid., p. 112.
18 Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 78.
19 Ibid., p. 82.
20 Ibid., p. 75.
21 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 144.
22 Hauerwas, p. 82.
23 Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ, (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980), p. 473.
24 Ibid., p. 487.
26 Ibid., pp 502-3 .
27 Ibid., p. 442
28 Ibid., p. 472.
30 Ibid., pp. 476, 482
31 Ibid., p. 487.
32 Ibid., p. 472.
33 Ibid., p. 482.
34 Ibid. p. 607.
35 Ibid., pp. 502-3.
37 Ibid., p. 442.
38 Ibid., p. 443.
39 Ibid., p. 442.
40 William Kuhns, The Electronic Gospel, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 65.
41 Ibid., p. 95.
* The terms “model of” and “model for” are terms used within sociology to describe the paradigmatic function of existing behaviors which both reflect current behaviors and serve to inculcate succeeding generations with the same worldview or social expectation. The Pledge of Allegiance, for example, is a restatement of national identity for the people of the United States. It reflects current opinion (model of) but it also reinforces that self understanding through repetition. As children learn to say the Pledge, they are incorporated into the United States’ view of itself, so the Pledge then functions as a model for succeeding behavior.
** In tribal and traditional cultures, the clear demarcation of life symbolized in public rituals, such as the Bar Mizpah or scarring ceremonies, give the individual a sense of recognition by the community that is appropriate to his age and status. Adulthood is at once conferred, affirmed, and proclaimed by the entire community through these rites of passage. Rather than trying to achieve one’s identity and establish one’s rights and responsibilities as an adult without any context of social cues, these rites clearly lay out the expectations of the community. Once attained, the individual is incorporated as a full, adult member of the tribe. The modern, industrial identity crisis has no chance to develop in the traditional culture because rather than lacking affirmations, the tribal culture is full of affirmations for the individual seeking recognition and acceptance by the society as a whole.
Cartwright, John H. “Christian Vocation in the Service of Humanitas.” AME Zion Quarterly Review 94, no. 2 (July 1982): 13-21.
Choron, Jacques. The Romance of Philosophy. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1966.
Clark, Stephen B. Man and Woman in Christ. Ann Arbor: Servant Books~ 1980.
Diliberto, Gioia. “Invasion of the Gender Blenders.” People. April 23, 1984,PP- 97-99.
Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character: Toward A Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
King,Jr., Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.
Kuhn, William. The Electronic Gospel. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.
Margaret Mead. Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1949.
Miller, Jim. “Britain Rocks America–Again.” Newsweek ,January 23, 1984, pp. 50-57.