Androgyny
is the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics within a person. The idea of androgyny is an ancient one rooted in classical mythology and literature. Since the early 1970s it has been widely adopted as a new sex-role alternative to the dichotomous psychological characteristics and roles traditionally prescribed for the sexes. In its most generic sense, androgyny signifies an absence of any sex-based differentiation, including unisex dress styles, bisexuality, and hermaphroditism. Social scientists generally restrict usage of "psychological androgyny" to describe an individual who manifests in personality or behavior a combination of characteristics labeled as masculine and feminine in our society.
The concept of psychological androgyny is based in previous ideas about the nature of psychological differences between the sexes but reflects tolerance of a much broader range of sex-role options for men and women. Traditional notions of sex differentiation held that the sexes were or ideally ought to be as different psychologically as they were physically. The core of those characteristics stereotypically associated with women (femininity) is sensitivity, emotionality, selflessness, and interrelationships with others (expressive/communal). Characteristics associated with men (masculinity) center around goal orientation, assertiveness, self-development, and separation from others (instrumental/agentic). The association of these instrumental/agentic characteristics exclusively with men and expressive/communal characteristics with women was considered typical, expected, and psychologically healthy. Individual deviation either through failure to exhibit attributes typical of one's sex or through endorsement of some characteristics atypical of one's sex implied psychological maladjustment of some sort.
This traditional model did not account for the presence of similarities across the sexes or differences within the sexes in feminine and masculine characteristics. Also with the resurgence of the feminist movement, the sex-role values embodied within this model increasingly appeared to be overly restrictive and outdated. The concept of psychological androgyny provided a way to frame sex-role alternatives in terms of masculinity and femininity without the prescriptive, sex-specific values of more traditional views.
Proponents of psychological androgyny generally assume that masculinity and femininity are independent but not mutually exclusive groups of characteristics existing in everyone to varying degrees. Individuals can be meaningfully described by the extent to which they endorse each group as self-descriptive. Both masculinity and femininity have a unique and positive but not sex-specific impact upon a person's psychological functioning (e.g., both sexes benefit from being feminine). Thus, possession of high levels of both sets of characteristics, or androgyny, should represent the most desirable, even ideal, sex-role alternative.
Descriptions of psychological androgyny differ considerably according to what types of psychological characteristics are emphasized. All of the descriptions portray a blending or an ultimate transcendence of sex-linked dichotomies of personality characteristics and behavior. Androgynous persons have been frequently defined as those who possess both masculine and feminine personality traits. Other descriptions have emphasized possession of socially appropriate, observable behaviors or thought processes that do not rely upon sex-related cues or meanings. The manner in which masculinity and femininity might work together to produce androgyny has also been variously explained. Androgyny may mean the balancing or moderating of masculinity and femininity by each other, a beneficial summation of the positive qualities of femininity and masculinity, the emergence of new qualities, of elimination of sex-stereotypic standards in an individual's perceptions and decisions, thus making masculine/feminine distinctions irrelevant.
An especially influential early description of androgynous persons proposed by Sandra Bem portrays them as flexible and adaptable, with an ability and willingness to engage in either masculine or feminine behavior as the situation warrants. In contrast, predominantly feminine or masculine (sex-typed) individuals presumably use sex-based standards to guide their behaviors, resulting in a seriously limited repertoire of options.
Research on psychological androgyny indicates that researchers have somewhat succeeded in capturing the expressive/communal and instrumental/agentic nature of femininity and masculinity through their newly developed femininity and masculinity measures. However, individuals' masculinity and femininity self-descriptions often do not strongly relate to other aspects of sex roles (e.g., attitudes or behaviors). Masculinity has proven to be much more closely related to individuals' self-esteem and psychological adjustment than is femininity. Masculinity's greater strength in this area probably stems from the more positive valuing of masculine characteristics in American society.
Numerous studies have attempted to demonstrate that androgynous individuals enjoy mental health benefits not shared with those who are sex-typed or those who see neither set of characteristics as particularly self-descriptive. Androgynous persons do tend to score as the best adjusted on a variety of measures, although the data are not conclusive. Contrary to researchers' early expectations, individuals who are high in masculinity (and low in femininity) often appear to be as well off as androgynous persons. However, individuals low in both masculinity and femininity are clearly disadvantaged. Evidence for sex differences in the androgyny literature suggests that the process, likelihood, and implications of becoming androgynous may be different for men and women. Finally, sex-role related characteristics are probably very complex and affected by a variety of factors. For example, an individual who is androgynous in self-description could appear to be quite traditional in attitudes, behavioral preferences, actual behaviors, and so on, depending on the person and the situation. Today, because of the nature of the research results and new refinements in sex-role theory, researchers are less likely to consider androgyny to represent a particular type of person who can be expected to behave in a consistent, predictable manner across a variety of situations.
Despite ambiguities suggested by research, mental health practitioners have found androgyny to be useful in naming new personality and behavioral alternatives for individuals coping with widespread social changes in how the sexes view themselves and each other. As a value and goal in counseling and psychotherapy, androgyny represents the desirability of moving away from prescriptions based on biological sex alone toward enhancing of individual adaptability and choice.
Contributed by: ELLEN PIEL COOK
Related Links
The Androgyny RAQ (Rarely Asked Questions).
Border Crossings: Gender.
References
E.P. Cook, Psychological Androgyny (Elmsford, N.Y., 1985).
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name. "Androgyny." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. today's date <http://www.gem.greenwood.com>