Iconic musical superstar David Bowie has passed away from cancer at the age of 69. His birthday was January 8th, 1947 and I am convinced he held onto life until 2016 because he wanted “69” to show up on every obituary. His overt sexuality and wry sense of humor would both be satisfied by that, I think.
I was born in 1972, so I was too young to understand the glam rock phase of Bowie’s existence.
My first introduction to his kind of androgynous gender fluid beauty was Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 movie Labyrinth. I was astounded that a man could be so attractive with so little investment in the markers of masculinity, although at the time I understood this only as “He’s really cool for a boy who looks so girlish.”
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how daring and trangressive his gender fluidity was. Societies throughout history have often been unkind to those who do not embrace the expected binary gender roles, and have been particularly savage to those who are born male but chose to “be” feminine or androgynous. Some cultures have been more accepting of gender fluidity, like the two-spirits of many Native American peoples or the Hijra in India, but the modern West was not among those tolerant cultures. Thus, what David Bowie did was dangerous because it transgressed the cultural norms, and people who transgress the cultural norms are often dealt with brutally.
This harsh treatment occurs even when accepted sexual variation include homoerotic behaviors. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans were well known for pederasty, but any adult male who allowed himself to be the “passive” sex partner with another man (i.e. allow oral or anal penetration rather than being the partner who penetrated) was reviled because he was taking a “woman’s or boy’s role” and was QED unmanly. That’s why slaves and gladiators, who had little choice in the matter of whether they would be penetrated or not, were de facto not ‘real’ men like a free Roman or Greek male. A free man who allowed himself to be penetrated could be sentenced to death for his transgression.
In modern America, transgendered people face a vastly increased risk of violence or death in their communities, and this violence is aimed especially at transgendered male-to-female persons or gender-fluid men. David Bowies wealth, talent, fame, and ethnicity shielded him form much of the sociocultural punishments that could have been inflicted on him, but he was still taking a huge risk by openly coming out as bisexual and gender fluid. Even today, such admissions can ruin careers.
Why is it so terrible to be a man who identifies with femininity or women’s sociocultural roles? Because of the long history of Western philosophy and medicine declaring that women being lesser-than men. As I explain in The Jezebel Effect:
Men were considered to be rational, humane, philosophical and able to rise above the demands of the flesh. In contrast, women were emotional, animalistic, unreasonable, and a slave to their biology.
All the “proof” that women were inherently inferior came from the belief in a decisive split between the mind and the body. Humans, it was argued, had a body and a soul/mind. The body was a bestial thing driven by appetites; the soul/mind was for art, learning, and communing with the gods. The body was the seat of all things lowly and vulgar, while the mind was the home of all that was good and civilized (Bordo, 1999). Plato, whose influence as a philosopher cannot be overstated, considered the human body a mere prison that caged and limited the rational soul, an obstacle man strove to overcome. Plato declared that the soul was always striving to become “pure”, and that souls were reincarnated over many lifetimes. One could, according to Plato, see what kind of soul one had by the way one lived one’s life. Women, he explained, always harbored an impure or adulterated soul in their filthy bodies. He warned that if a man wasn’t good, his soul might come back in a woman’s body. Women, the disgusting creatures, just could NOT overcome the body to concentrate on the higher ideas of the mind (Spelman, 1999).
Thus, the idea that women and the body are inextricably linked in a way men were not rooted itself in the very heart of the Western philosophic heritage. The theory that men were synonymous with the soul/mind and women were synonymous with the animalistic body became unquestionable fact. With Plato, the philosophical and sociocultural link between men/mind and women/body became the “Truth”. Aristotle, a firm believer in the wisdom of Plato, carried this Truth further, eventually arguing that women lacked a rational soul because of their close association with the body (Allen, 2005). Their souls were something less cerebral and noble than men’s souls.
Not only did the female body house inadequate, irrational souls, ancient physicians and philosophers thought that there was something unquestionably weird about the not-male body itself. Galen, a Greek physician who was considered the utmost authority on biomedicine, considered the uterus to be an inverted scrotum which had not descended in the female due to the lack of proper male ‘heat’ (Thompson, 1999). Until the later Renaissance the female reproductive organs would continue to be conceptualized an inside-out model of male reproductive organs. This meant that women were, from birth, ‘men gone wrong’. Like Galen, Aristotle also imagined that women were “mutilated males”. This understanding of women as mutilated/deformed men meant that women were conceptualized on some level as “monsters”, their feminine bodies a horrible admixture of human and animal.
This monster/woman image has the deeper implication in that women’s bodies are anomalies which must be feared and restrained. Nevertheless, most men coveted access to female bodies and all men needed women in order to beget heirs. Women were thus a distressingly necessary evil. The deviant but desirable non-male body of a woman therefore “shares with the monster the privilege of bringing out a unique blend of fascination and horror” (Braidotti, 2013). This simultaneous attraction and repulsion felt toward the female body has been postulated to be the key to misogynists’ secret dread and fear of women right up to the present day (Gilmore, 2011).
For David Bowie, or any man, to embrace femininity is for him to lower himself to a non-man level. He becomes a not-man, and therefore is no longer granted male gender privilege. Since being a woman is subconsciously learned to be a terrible thing, and the gender fluid male became more womanly on purpose, he is an anomaly and a gender traitor. Humans, like other primates, attack and even kill those that vary from the norm or who are not an accepted part of the social group. Because gender fluidity is not taught as acceptable, gender fluid people remain at an elevated risk of assault and murder. Because women are seen as a form of monstrous man, a man who deliberately becomes a monster is seen as a particular cultural threat and is singled out for attack more often.
The fact that David Bowie got away with his gender fluidity is a testament to his incredibly high level of talent and charisma. There are few artists who are so amazing that they transcend transgression. David Bowie was one of those few.