Feminism and Social Androgyny


A common argument made by certain critics of contemporary feminism is that feminism (allegedly) seeks to erase gender differences and turn both men and women into functionally identical “androgynes.” In this article, I wish to not only critique that argument but also show the usefulness of the concept of androgyny to the Men’s Human Rights Movement.

Androgyny, as conceptualized by Sandra Bem, is part of my framework on gender discussion (see my piece “Beyond The Binary Gender Structure” (https://www.honeybadgerbrigade.com/2014/01/24/reddit-repost-beyond-the-binary-gender-structure-biological-maleness-vs-social-masculinity/) for more). Bem treated gender not as a linear spectrum but rather as a Cartesian Plane with two independent variables for “masculinity” and “femininity” (similarly to how political libertarians split “social” and “economic” issues so as to create the Nolan Chart). Someone can be high on masculinity and low on femininity (traditional masculinity), the inverse (traditional femininity), low on both (which Bem called “undifferentiated”) and high on both (which Bem called “androgynous”).

This view of Bem’s challenges the tacit assumption many people hold – that masculinity and femininity are opposites (implying an inevitable tradeoff between the two). By challenging the idea that the masculine and feminine traits constitute anitheses of each other, Bem’s schema implicitly contests the feminist proposition that masculinity/”real manhood” was created out of resentment or hatred towards women/the feminine and that society treats anything which falls short of “real manhood” as feminine-by-default.

Bem’s framework, thus, makes it possible to correctly understand the plight of “not-real-men” under our society’s gender system. According to the feminist misunderstanding of gender roles, to fail to be a “real man” renders a man socially feminized; this view logically implies that the victimization of (for example) gay men or nerdy men is really just “the patriarchy backfiring” or “collateral damage” perpetrated by a wider system that targets women/femininity. But the feminist view doesn’t explain why “not-real-men” do not benefit from benevolent sexism/female privilege; “don’t hit a woman” doesn’t stop either gay males getting gay-bashed or nerdy males being beaten up.

This leads to a radical conclusion; our society effectively sees “real men” and “not-real-men” as different genders. The men and the boys, so to speak, are separated from each other and treated differently as a result. “Not-real-men” do not (or have not) live/d up to the traditional expectations of the masculine gender role and therefore do not receive the “male privilege” feminists love to harp on about, yet nor do they receive any of the courtesies or protections (or free drinks in bars and free meals from dates or special women-only scholarships) that are afforded to females. Even trans women (who are known to be trans) are frequently denied female privileges in at least some contexts. Those who were assigned male at birth but fail to achieve “real manhood” are not socially feminized; rather, they are socially emasculated. They are neither masculine nor feminine according to social standards and thus, under Bem’s framework, are placed into the “undifferentiated” category.

The implications of this clearly work to the advantage of the Men’s Human Rights Movement; the suffering of gender-nonconformist males no longer becomes a byproduct of hostility towards women and the feminine but rather an hostility towards males not being “real men.”

But where does androgyny come into this? And what about feminism’s alleged quest to make everyone androgynous?

As the examples of nerdy men and gay men show, “real manhood” is a socially granted status which can be revoked at any time. But as the examples of trans women and gay men (in the case of effeminate gay men) show, womanhood is not treated similarly; if being a “real woman” were a matter of simply acting in a feminine way, then known trans women who acted in a traditionally feminine manner would not be treated any differently to cis women. Indeed, if acting in a traditionally feminine manner bought acceptance as a woman (and thus the associated social privileges), traditionally feminine gay men would not be the primary target of gay-bashing. Young cisgender females can go through a “tomboy phase” when their acting in a gender-nonconformist manner is encouraged, but a boy puts one foot out of place and immediately there’s a panic about him being “pre-homosexual.” Status as a “real man” is always contingent upon actions and personality traits, yet the status of “real womanhood” is exclusively reserved for cis females. I have extensively discussed the underpinnings and implications of this “manhood-as-earned-through-action, womanhood-as-biologically-innate” system in previous articles (most comprehensively in “Summa Genderratica” (https://www.honeybadgerbrigade.com/2014/02/27/summa-genderratica-the-anatomy-of-the-gender-system/ )).

Bem framed androgyny in terms of personality traits, but what if we reconceptualized androgyny in terms of social roles? Traditional gender roles glorified the woman-as-mother and man-as-hunter-warrior, and came into existence to encourage members of both sexes to pursue these roles so as to contribute to society in what was believed to be the most efficient manner (remember that these roles originated in a time when physical labor was the primary means of production). A true androgyne in this “functional” sense would be able to serve both the male and female “functions” and therefore receive both male and female privileges.

Of course, in order to serve these functions, the social-role androgyne would have to possess feminine reproductive anatomy. They would have to be female (at least at birth), unless our society’s gender system radically changes and starts dispensing female privilege on an entirely non-anatomical basis.

The demands of traditional masculinity are tough, but they can be performed through action and both sexes can (at least in theory) act in a manner which satisfies these demands. Agency, competence and toughness can be exhibited by women and women can get respect for exhibiting them. Women can attain at least some aspects of male privilege if they “man up,” particularly in today’s society which accepts female agency and competence (albiet inconsistently).

In today’s world, women retain the privileges granted by their innate usefulness (to society, under the traditional gender roles) as women, yet the women’s movement has opened up the possibility for women to achieve forms of esteem and respect once exclusively reserved for males who could earn them (and, in the case of entering positions in the military (amongst many other cases), even made it easier for women to earn it than men). The women’s movement has, in effect, opened up access to at least some kinds of male privilege and allowed women the option to (functionally speaking) “be men.”

But what about female privilege? Have there been any efforts by feminists to universalize this? And have there been any efforts by feminists to universalize male expectations (apart from pushing for the ERA without the Hayden Rider, but this happened during a time when egalitarian forms of feminism were still a substantial bloc within the movement)? And what about how today’s feminists seem to consistently rely on female privileges, like the privilege to regulate “real manhood” and socially emasculate men, or the privilege to have their feelings protected from offense?

Do feminists want to make women into androgynes? Arguably yes, albiet a kind of androgyny where only the best parts of both gender roles exist; female privileges, access to male privileges, and even exclusive-to-women-advantages in accessing male privileges (an entirely new thing), but without any of the drawbacks of either the male or female roles.

But, as the saying goes, what about teh menz? Has the feminist movement been trying to make men more androgynous? This argument has been advanced by many commentators within the Manosphere, sometimes within the MHRM, and sometimes by commentators outside of but respected by the MHRM (Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys being the most well-known example). To some degree it seems fair to accept that in the American primary and secondary education system some traditionally masculine behavior is pathologized and that gynocentric (I use this term to refer to seeing the typical female as the baseline for all humans, thereby making the typical male’s behavior seem like a deviation from the norm) attitudes exist, but frankly this is arguably due to a borderline-totalitarian education system finding it easier to handle the outward docility of girls (and psychoactively-drugged boys) over the more physically-expressive and energetic (on average) personalities of typical young males. Radical feminism has surely played a role here (through influencing education policy and also, due to being institutionalized in universities, influencing pedagogy and individual teachers themselves) but isn’t a sole culprit. And of course many will point out that when feminists try their hand at dating advice they generally produce a bunch of meaningless platitudes that encourage men to ‘be nice’ rather than to cultivate traits the average woman finds sexually attractive.

But even if a case could be made that feminists are trying to encourage men to adopt more feminine personality traits (an highly-contestible case since when a man complains about the social problems he suffers as a man, feminists go into full-on gender-police mode and laugh at him for talking about his feelings, and tell him that he needs to “man up” to fight for women’s well-being by becoming a feminist), the social perks which follow being female are not things which feminists are interested in sharing or universalizing (some of them, specifically the TERFs, won’t even share these with trans women). Even if feminists do encourage males to adopt personality androgyny, they aren’t interested in sharing, downsizing or abolishing the realm of female privilege.

So, to use Bem’s terms but grafted onto traditional social roles, females have a choice of a feminine social role or an androgynous social role; neither the traditional gender system nor the feminist movement will permit a female to lose her “woman card” (and the attendant privileges) so even a woman with a traditionally masculine personality seems unable to fully be situated in a masculine social role. Males have the same “choices” they have always had; they begin in an undifferentiated role and have the possibility of achieving the masculine status should they prove themselves capable of living up to the masculine expectations. Should they become unworthy of the status, they are demoted back to undifferentiated.

Contemporary feminism has contributed to this situation and continues to do so, by demanding more (and easier) access to male privilege, relying upon (and thereby reinforcing) female privilege, refusing to universalize or question the validity of any female privileges, and using gender-policing to control/manipulate/attack males. If it advocates men become more androgynous, it does so in an extremely superficial and inconsistent fashion that calls for a few flecks of personality androgyny (but only when they want it, when its convenient for them and when it supports their narratives) whilst still demanding men face all the expectations of manning up and all the consequences for not doing so.

Of course, this is to be expected. Feminists model the gender system as centered around a feminine “default” from which the masculine acts to differentiate itself out of hatred for femininity. Ergo, they see society as divided into two classes; the “real men” and the “feminine” with the latter category encompassing everything that isn’t in the former category. This model inevitably casts all gender oppression as misogyny/femmephobia; their gynocentric dialectical pseudo-monism blinds them to female privileges and drives them to marginalize the suffering of men.

Bem’s model, on the other hand, creates four gender classifications by treating the masculine and feminine not as opposites, but as independent variables. Bem focused on stereotypes about personality traits, but if her classifications are mapped onto social roles and their associated statues we get a far more accurate portrayal of how our society thinks about gender (relative to that offered by feminism); males seem consigned to be either “real men” and thus have masculine status (Bem’s “masculine” quadrant) or to have no status at all (Bem’s “undifferentiated” quadrant), whereas females are assumed to become “real women” automatically and thus will always have “feminine” status (a status granted due to female biology and therefore not socially available to anyone who isn’t born female) but also have the option to gain traditionally masculine forms of status, thus placing them into Bem’s “androgynous” quadrant.

The androgynous ideal may well be worth valuing; should we not all aspire to be virtuous, irrespective of whether that virtue is seen as masculine or feminine? If a trait is morally good, should we not aspire to have it? Should we not all ascribe other people, irrespective of their sex, with an innate value and dignity as fellow human beings with their own rights? Should we not respect competence or agency irrespective of the sex of the competent agent? Should we not hold all agents responsible and give them the dignity of treating them as rational beings? Obviously our society’s privileges for both sexes may be unreasonable, unjustified or excessive in many situations, and our society’s expectations for both sexes are certainly limiting and oppressive. Traditional gender roles treat men as agents and women as objects, but in reality both men and women are agents whom exist objectively. We are both human beings and human doings, we can act and we can be acted upon.

As such, I believe that for whatever its faults, Bem’s model points the way to a more accurate portrait of the gender system than the one currently enshrined in gender studies academy. Bem’s model seems to be a useful step in improving gender discourse.

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<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="153880 https://www.honeybadgerbrigade.com/?p=153880">8 comments</span>

  • “Indeed, if acting in a traditionally feminine manner bought acceptance as a woman (and thus the associated social privileges), traditionally feminine gay men would not be the primary target of gay-bashing”
    The exception – masculine gay men – proves your larger point. To be deemed fully masculine, it is not enough to avoid feminine mannerisms. There is a further element of real-manhood and that is “getting the girl” (and keeping her), which is constructed as this huge defining challenge that you must surmount to win your way into real manhood. Femme gay men are the primary but far from the exclusive targets of gay bashing. Do you recall the bit in Brokeback Mountain where the young Heath Ledger characters father takes him out to see where two cowboys living together, lovers, had been brutally murdered (as a lesson to him)? Those men presented as masculine as it’s possible to be except for one thing, the main thing obviously, and that got them killed.

    • The sheer Sturm and Drang about gay men in the military (from concern trolls outside it) is another indicator. After all, what’s more romantically manly than the army? At least to people who’ve never served and as such haven’t had all those illusions shattered.

      • The male bonding and the male-centered culture, which even the women participate in, is real and not an illusion. What is illusion is the Tennysonian romance non-military people associate the military with.
        I have to say that on the conscious level, Sun Zi has vanquished Tennyson. This process started in the US Civil War and gathered unstoppable momentum in WWII. But on the subconscious level, romance and chivalry still exercise a real cultural hold on people. Part of it is the debasing effect of sport and the concept of sportsmanship as an expression of chivalry.

  • very interesting article, I like Bem’s ideas, but disagree with idealizing androgeny, because it will vilify people who aren’t inclined to androgeny, some people are born strongly inclined towards a particular Gender identity and as long as they don’t expect everyone to be that way, its fine.

    • I’m sorry for how long this reply has taken.
      I wasn’t trying to idealize androgyny in the personality sense. Rather I was idealizing it in the social-role and social-status sense. Virtues are virtues, irrespective of whether they are displayed by a male or a female. In addition, don’t all human beings have an innate worth simply due to their being human? And on the other hand, shouldn’t people who display higher levels of goodness receive additional respect?
      This is the argument I was making. Not that “everyone should be able to hunt a deer whilst wearing a pink tutu.” Rather, that a certain aspect of traditional femininity (innate value) should be seen as universally true for all humans, and a certain aspect of traditional masculinity (earned worthiness) should be seen as universal also.

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