As more and more designers blur the distinction between male and female, and both the big and small screens make room for gender-bending artists, Ntombenhle Shezi ponders whether gender ambiguity is just a trend Art has always provided a platform for subversiveness. Today, the catwalk – the showcase for a specific kind of art – is rapidly becoming the latest space where new expressions of defiance are being made. Designers are sending out clothes that do not sit comfortably within the ‘male/female’ dichotomy; androgynous models ‘cross over’ between sexes; make-up, garments, even shoes are gender-ambiguous or neutral. Earlier this year, at Paris Fashion Week, Miuccia Prada posed the question, ‘What are the unexpected possibilities, the various relationships that may occur between the way men and women can or would dress?’ She added, ‘Gender is a context and often context is gendered,’ before showing Prada’s Autumn 2015 Menswear Collection that saw both male and female models going down the ramp in similarly structured jackets and coats, wearing the same style of footwear. For the Gucci show, male models wore pussy-bow blouses, a garment that is usually regarded as strictly feminine.
Gender-benders, in whatever sphere, view playing with masculine and feminine stereotypes as a catalyst for change – as both empowering and liberating. French designer Coco Chanel was one of the earliest, tossing aside those stereotypes by creating fashionable garments for women drawn from traditionally male styling. During the 1920s, when society expected women to behave a certain way, including the way they dressed, Chanel had other ideas. Her recreation of the loose jersey, an item worn by men, was reinvented as an alternative to the sti corset that women usually wore.
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It was also not acceptable for women to wear trousers, unless working in a man’s role. But Chanel was a game-changer: with her iconic trouser suits, she ‘borrowed from the boys’ and set a trend for decades to come. Gender is closely associated with what we have been taught as ‘the right way to act’. To counter that, the aesthetic of gender ambiguity has been embraced by a handful of celebrities. Think about Tilda Swinton and her elegantly androgynous style, David Bowie and his funky alter ego Ziggy Stardust, and singer Grace Jones, whose style was a deconstruction of both masculinity and femininity. Prince developed a feminine alter ego, Camille, who he used as a persona in some of his music. It is fascinating to watch high-profile entertainers like these challenge what it means to be called a man or a woman.
Closer to home, someone who is using parody to question ideas of masculinity vs femininity is Dope Saint Jude, a young rapper and aspiring documentary film-maker from Cape Town. The video for her latest song, Keep in Touch, featuring Angel-Ho, explores what it means to be a man or woman (of colour), particularly in the hiphop arena, where notions of gender and race are usually entrenched. The video styling enhances the ambiguity and reflects what Saint Jude and AngelHo are hoping to convey through the track: ‘We’re young, talented, queer and here – deal with it.’ ‘These issues are of paramount importance in a global context, but more specifically in the South African context, considering where we are as young born-frees, grappling with the legacy of apartheid and a male-dominated society, but still looking to the future, and creating new media, art and fashion that reflect where we are and where we want to be,’ says Saint Jude.
Is any of this likely to make a meaningful change for people who identify as LGBTI? It is important to distinguish between those who play with gender expectations (whether for art, fashion or politics) and those who identify as trans. Not to say that one form is more legitimate than the other, or that they are mutually exclusive, but they can hold very dierent meanings for people. For Busisiwe Deyi, Legal Research Coordinator at the Gender Dynamix organisation – the only organisation in South Africa focused on transgender issues – gender-bending in performance (especially in fashion) has pros and cons. On the one hand, such visibility is important and creates an opportunity for entities like Gender Dynamix to open the topic for discussion. On the other hand, she notes that the fashion business has a history of exploiting particular struggles to further its own agenda, without regard for its impact on the groups involved. ‘The problem … in the fashion industry is that people have the perception that transgenderism and gender-queering are “phases” and/or temporary. In reality, people who cannot access the necessary healthcare are being bullied to the point of killing themselves.
The reality [of the lifestyle] is not fashionable,’ she says. ‘Prada’s latest collection may have been “trendy”, but is it really a testament to a change in consciousness, that the trend subverts the gender binary?’ Whether or not it’s trendy to be androgynous, the point is that Prada, a powerful name in fashion, has identified this as an important moment in contemporary culture, and is contributing towards altering people’s perceptions of gender. What is also inspiring is seeing people who identify as transgender creating opportunities on the world stage, to talk about pressing issues aecting the LGBTI community. Deyi points to the example of Laverne Cox, who stars in Orange Is The New Black and recently made the cover of Time magazine. ‘Her visibility is affirming of trans experiences and is arming of the struggles that trans people go through. Unlike the fashion industry, she has a voice that she is using to address the realities of trans people.’ Conchita Wurst is another high-profile genderchallenger. Last year, the model and singer was photographed in her lingerie for CR Fashion Book and walked in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Autumn/Winter couture show.
Although she has chosen to take on a more feminine appearance, she has kept her beard, saying in an interview with CR Fashion Book, ‘I think the beard, for me, has so many reasons and so many meanings, but at the end of the day, I want to show that you can achieve anything, that you can have a beautiful life with any kind of look, because the way you look isn’t the most important thing in life. It doesn’t matter.’ What complicates the debate in South Africa is that LGBTI communities here still struggle for respect and equality. ‘Currently, we are not having the necessary conversations around gender or understanding the full spectrum of gender,’ says Deyi. ‘There are multiple ways in which people express their gender and people cannot be limited to these two options.’ (Vocabulary doesn’t seem to help either.
Our 11 languages in SA do not oer many non-derogatory terms for the queer and gender-nonconformist community.) Among Deyi’s proposals are gender-neutral uniforms in schools, a curriculum that addresses gender and gender identity, and a gender-neutral take on sports and other gender-defined activities. While gender-bending performance in fashion and entertainment has started an important conversation, we have a way to go before we’ll see a society where gender is no longer the defining issue.
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