The controversy over the latest cover of Dossier shines a new light on Americans’ discomfort with androgyny.
On the new cover of Dossier, a biannual arts and culture journal, a model with shiny blonde hair curled up in rollers looks down and away from the camera. The compellingly feminine features on the model’s face draw you in. But then your eyes drift down to see that the model is removing a button-down shirt, leaving shoulders, chest, and stomach exposed. It’s a little jarring to see the model’s flat chest—without breasts—and suddenly you realize the figure on the cover is not, actually, a woman.
Andrej Pejic, a Serbian model, is challenging the binary of gender and quickly positioning himself as a key example of androgyny—the term is derived directly from the Greek words for man and woman—a conception of gender that tends to fly well below the radar in modern U.S. society. The Dossier cover is helping to bring androgynous images more to the forefront of the gender conversation—and the controversy surrounding the issue sure isn’t hurting androgyny’s visibility.
Barnes & Noble and Borders have told Dossier representatives that they wouldn’t shelve the magazine unless all copies were covered with opaque poly bags—the kind typically reserved for Playboy or Maxim. According to Skye Parrott, the co-founder of Dossier, both stores acknowledged that they understood the model, Andrej Pejic, is male. But representatives asserted that the femininity inherent in the image was too confusing to risk putting on the magazine shelf.
Of course, that was exactly the point of the photo: to confuse gender and challenge the binary of our current system. In the essay that was paired with the photos of Pejic within the magazine, T. Cole Rachel wrote:
In these images, Andrej is somehow both sexless and hypersexualized. Depending on the viewer, Collier’s images reveal either the most beautiful boy ever or a striking blonde goddess. He is neither. He is both.
Parrott, who also works as Dossier’s creative director, spoke with the Huffington Post about the inconsistencies with Barnes & Noble’s and Border’s policies—after all, men appear shirtless all the time on Men’s Health, Esquire, and Men’s Fitness. He said:
It’s a naked man on the cover of a magazine, which is done all of the time without being covered up, so I definitely don’t think it merits this, but I understand what it is. … It seems that it probably makes people uncomfortable. But that’s part of what’s interesting about the cover, I think, is that it’s playing with those ideas of gender roles. He’s topless, you can see that he’s a man, but if you look at his face, he looks like a woman and he’s so beautiful. He’s both in that picture, in a way.
Pejic and Dossier are not the only media figures refusing to reinforce traditional gender roles. Androgyny, in fact, has been something of a trend in the fashion world in the past few years. Women are going for plain or genderless in their makeup styles, Calvin Klein is encouraging a gender fusion in its advertising campaigns, and runway fashion is full of unisex looks.
Androgyny has been a recent force away from the world of fashion, too. This week, Jon-Jon Goulian released a book called The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, where he shares his life story and speaks specifically about dressing in women’s clothing and cosmetics. He’s not gay, but his behavior has confused people into assuming he is. One of his friends even referred to him as “half-a-fag.”
In an excerpt from his book, published at Salon, Goulian provides some interesting context about our country’s obsession with labels and discomfort with things that defy appropriate labels. He wrote:
One thing I’ve learned over the course of 24 years of behaving and dressing androgynously is that people hat e to be confronted with indeterminacy. The uncategorizable is unsettling. If I were a man in drag, people would know exactly what I am, or at least they would believe they know exactly what I am, and have fewer problems with me: “Oh, yes yes yes, that man is definitely gay, and he has a very strong identification with women, he probably thinks he is a woman, and that’s why he dresses like one, and a sex change is probably in the offing, in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if his won special vagina is being made to order as we speak.”
But even these recent, “underground” standouts of androgyny don’t compare with the visibility we saw only a few decades ago, when musicians like David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Annie Lenox challenged gender norms with their sounds and styles. Today, one of the only truly mainstream examples of androgyny is singer Adam Lambert, who merges the feminine and masculine in his music and look. Did anything happen to provoke a newfound need for gender categorization and a fear of the in-between?
And, with their recent successes, will Dossier, Goulian, or Lambert be leading a new charge to revitalize the scope of U.S. androgyny?