Why the world needs more 'manly women' and 'womanly men'

Jugneeta Sudan
Jugneeta SudanOct 06, 2017 | 13:36

Why the world needs more 'manly women' and 'womanly men'

Last month John Lewis, the UK retailer crossed a landmark by introducing unisex clothing for its children's retail line. Now people may buy clothes for their children according to their personal choice and need.

Is this a step towards merging of genders, taking human society away from gender discrimination? Although adults, partly motivated by the celebrities, have cross-dressed since the American counterculture revolution of the 1960s, this small step could have noteworthy ramifications. For example, let's talk about psychological androgyny.


Feminist psychologist, Sandra Bem, would most likely have been pleased with this development. Sandra led an egalitarian lifestyle with her husband, sharing equal responsibility for house chores and upbringing of their children. Each pursued their career, earning laurels in their respective fields. She propounded the Gender Schema Theory in 1981 to explain how gender roles were a result of conditioning and social control. Berm's Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), used the term "androgynous" to refer to healthy individuals who exhibited combinations of both masculine and feminine stereotypes.

Be forewarned that psychological androgyny is not to be confused with homosexuality or transgenderism. It is an evolution of behavioural patterns; wherein human beings find a balance between the feminine and masculine traits of their personality. There is no opposition, but on the contrary, a coexistence of yin and yang energies in one's mind.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the greatest living psychologist of our age points out:

"Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person's ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturing, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world regarding a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their gender but those of the other one, too."


The most perfect of human beings in history, Leonardo da Vinci's genius and accomplishment has bewildered humanity. However, Freud's 1910 essay dwelt on his sensitivity, indecisiveness and gentle personality, traits attributed it to the female sex.

It is also intriguing to note that although Virginia Woolf's book-length feminist essay, "A Room of One's Own", begins with the cogent argument on the pathetic condition of women writers in the literary canon, it ends with a case on androgyny. Virginia witnessed a man and a woman meeting at the kerb and getting into a taxi, and seeing thus, a refreshing calm assailed her senses. She writes, "The sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body and whether they also require being united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness?

"If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must affect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her." She turns to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for ratification - "The truth is," the celebrated poet and philosopher wrote in 1832, "a great mind must be androgynous".


Shiva is worshipped as the ultimate man, yet the underlying secret is revealed in the Ardhanishvara form of Shiva.

She adds, "Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly." After that she emphatically declared that William Shakespeare, Keats and Coleridge were man-womanly.

The patriarchal model of our society has overlooked the symbolism of a "womanly man" and a "manly woman" in the iconography of Indian religion. It has been there all along, a change in perspective and it becomes apparent. Jaggi Vasudev, the mystic and poet, explained the symbolism of the Ardhanishvara thus: Shiva is worshipped as the ultimate man, yet the underlying secret is revealed in the Ardhanishvara form of Shiva. Here he is half man and half woman. Further the metaphors and images of Tamil Bhakti poetry conjure up a precise icon, a concrete image of Shiva:

  • My master who rules over Accirupakkamdisplays two forms,
  • having taken as half of himself
  • the soft girl with waist as small as gathered lightening.

"Shiva is in harmony with that what constitutes him - male and female. Therefore he is ecstatic," expounds Vasudev. If the inner masculine and feminine meet, you are in a perpetual state of ecstasy. If you only do it on the outside, it doesn't truly last. A cross-pollination has to take place within the psyche of the human being.

Adrienne Rich in her poem, Diving into the Wreck, writes -

  • This is the place.
  • And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
  • streams black, the merman in his armored body.
  • We circle silently
  • about the wreck
  • we dive into the hold.
  • I am she: I am he

In popular culture "Ziggy Stardust" was the androgynous alter ego of David Bowie. Michael Jackson, Elton John, Prince and now Madonna, Anne Lennox, Michael Stipe are a celebration of androgyny and sexual ambiguity.

Where gender was still understood as a binary, Bowie spoke for the team: "Society for the prevention of cruelty to long-haired men". He wanted to wear his hair long without being indicted for it. Through his songs and performance, he sold the idea that androgyny was cool. His revolutionary assertive personal style subverted labels prevailing in human identity across stereotypes. Emphasising it, Lady Gaga told Ellen DeGeneres, she wants her fans to know "It's OK" to be a "freak". And behind these 20th century androgyne idols stands the ghost of the 19th century extraordinaire - Luisa Casati.

When a society allows people to express their psychological make-ups across gender boundaries and stereotypes, the outcome can only be more creativity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, "If there is one word that makes creative people different from others, it is the word complexity. Instead of being an individual, they are a multitude."

Last updated: May 06, 2018 | 18:42
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