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Supplemental Essay: The Androgyne


Androgyny and Gender

Camille Paglia is perhaps best known for her political columns and critiques of modern feminism. But she is a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has written some excellent books on art history and criticism. Her book Sexual Personae is a survey of Western culture (art, sculpture, literature, drama, etc.) showing how culture balances the dichotomy of the Dionysian versus the Apollonian.

Paglia has taken a special interest in androgyny. Paglia is a lesbian and has considered herself transgender all her life, that is, a biological woman with a male brain. In fact her book Sexual Personae originally began as a dissertation at Yale on androgyny entitled Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art.[1]


Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is effectively an encyclopedia of culturally-tolerated gender-bending and androgyny across 5,000 or more years of Western culture. Throughout history, gender has never corresponded directly with biological sex. Biological sex is a hard binary with a few very rare medical exceptions; by comparison, gender isn't a hard binary. Gender is more likely a spectrum where individuals fall on one side or the other of the gender divide based on a mix of male or female gender characteristics. Men can be sensitive and empathetic; women can be tough-minded and goal-focused. To some extent we are all a bit androgynous insofar as we have a mix of both male and female elements in our personality and are only predominantly one gender or the other. It is probably accurate to say that the idea of gender reflects degrees of similarity to (or dissimilarity from) binary gender "ideals" that are rarely achieved in real life.

In Sexual Personae Paglia basically sets up a "gender dichotomy" comprised of the Dionysian versus the Apollonian, where:

  • The Dionysian is associated with the Feminine influence, that is, disorder, chaos, nature, emotion, and earth (Dionysus was the dress-wearing god of drink, ecstasy, fertility, madness, etc. who presided over the women's Eleusinian rites);

  • The Apollonian is associated with the Masculine influence, that is, order, symmetry, culture, rationality, and sky (Apollo was one of the most "spiritual" of the Greek gods, being the god of oracles, prophecy, healing, archery, music and arts, light, knowledge, etc.)


Again, gender doesn't automatically equate to biological sex: A relative minority of men are Dionysian in terms of personality, and a minority of women are Apollonian.


Erich Neumann writes, "The archetypal symbolism of male and female is not biological and sociological, but psychological; in other words, it is possible for feminine people to be bearers of masculinity and vice versa. Always it is a question of relations, never of hard and fast definitions."[2]

The androgyne

Androgyny represents a mix of gender characteristics; as I suggested above, most people are probably androgynous to some extent. But the more androgynous one becomes, the more androgyny begins to act as a nullification of sex. When androgyny is taken to the extreme, one encounters the androgyne. The androgyne represents the apotheosis of androgyny: It is the exact middle in between Dionysian and Apollonian.


In Sexual Personae Paglia describes some interesting traits of the androgyne. In the first place, she points out that the androgyne is a closed circle, self-contained. Androgynes have no need to seek their other half in marriage or in society at large; they are their own "other half." In Sexual Personae Paglia discusses the historical novel Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier, based on a real-life female opera star who often went about disguised as a man and was an excellent swordswoman. At one point Paglia interjects, "Would universal androgyny really improve relations between the sexes? Mademoiselle de Maupin demonstrates the facile optimism of such a view. Gautier correctly shows hermaphroditism as asocial, because autarchic. His physically and spiritually perfect heroine secedes from human relationships and collective values. Sex itself is dispensed with."[3]


Elsewhere, Paglia says, "Egoism is the androgyne's raison d'être. Self-complete beings need no one and nothing."[4]


This is not to say that androgynes are terrible people or have nothing to offer society. Paglia says, "Androgyny, which some feminists promote as a pacifist blueprint for sexual utopia, belongs to the contemplative rather than the actual life. It is the ancient prerogative of priests, shamans, and artists."[5] Priests, shamans, and artists can be valuable and prized innovators, a source of creativity and social renewal for society. Nonetheless, they themselves often aren't part of society. They often live at the fringes or on the outside of society. A society made up solely of priests, shamans, and artists would not be a society at all; it would be an atomized cloud of self-contained individuals bouncing off each other without connecting.


Also, the impression made by androgynes differs according to biological sex. For example female androgynes often benefit from androgyny in the public eye, where they are seen as beautiful, imperious, volatile women. Male focus and drive gives females added energy. Paglia says that some of art's greatest female characters are androgynes, such as Shakespeare's Cleopatra (from Antony and Cleopatra) or Rosalind (from As You Like It). Shakespeare was likely inspired by the real-life Queen Elizabeth I who reigned as a "Virgin Queen" for almost 50 years in Shakespeare's time and gave her name to the Elizabethan Period. Paglia says of her, "England was governed by a charismatic spinster who boxed the ears of her nobles and bashed ale flagons into tabletops. Her chief minister Lord Burghley said the queen was 'more than a man and (in truth) sometimes less than a woman.'"[6] In short, she was a female androgyne.

Male androgynes, on the other hand, seem to recede from society and collapse in upon themselves. They may appear asocial, self-complete, egoistic, and narcissistic. In society they may stand out as exotic and attractive but may not themselves be interested in partnering and engaging in sex. (For more on the male androgyne, see the section on the Beautiful boy, below.)


This difference between female and male androgynes may be the result of the differences in how the sexes identify with their gender in childhood. Neumann, Chodorow, and other psychologists say that young girls and boys are highly attuned to a gender binary. Girls generally identify with their mother and boys generally define themselves in opposition to their mother. Psychologist Carol Gilligan says, "For boys and men, separation and individuation are critically tied to gender identity since separation from the mother is essential for the development of masculinity. For girls and women, issues of femininity or feminine identity do not depend on the achievement of separation from the mother or on the progress of individuation." [7] (For more on the subject of how the two biological sexes identify with their respective genders in childhood, see the Sensing chapter under the section entitled "Sexuality Versus Spirituality.")


As Paglia sees it, the Great Mother sits at the center of the universe and haunts everyone's subconscious. This is no threat to women, who identify with the Great Mother. But men must constantly differentiate themselves from the Great Mother or risk losing their identity. Paglia says, "[Man] must transform himself into an independent being, that is, a being free of her. If he does not, he will simply fall back into her."[8] Elsewhere Paglia adds, "Masculinity must fight off effeminacy day by day. Woman and nature stand ever ready to reduce the male to boy and infant."[9]


Paglia contrasts female transvestism versus male transvestism: She says that cross-dressing means very different things to the two sexes due to the difference in their relationship to the Great Mother in the unconscious. Paglia says, "A woman putting on men's clothes merely steals social power. But a man putting on women's clothes is searching for God. He memorializes his mother, whom he watched at the boudoir ritual of her mirror. Mothers and fathers are not in the same cosmic league. Fatherhood is short, motherhood long..."[10]


To sum up: Paglia suggests that androgyny has a more far-reaching effect on men. She says, "Male concentration and projection are self-enhancing, leading to supreme achievements of Apollonian conceptualization. [...] Androgyny is a cancellation of male concentration and projection."[11]

Paglia has noted a trend in modern feminism in favor of erasing traditional gender roles and replacing them with androgyny; Paglia says that this is a bad idea. Again, the androgyne represents the apotheosis of androgyny, and the androgyne isn't necessarily a healthy healthy model for society as a whole.


Paglia suggests elsewhere that feminism has particularly targeted men, pushing an agenda of male androgyny as a fix for "toxic masculinity." In her book Free Women, Free Men, Paglia says, "A peevish, grudging rancor against men has been one of the most unpalatable and unjust features of second- and third-wave feminism. Men's faults, failings, and foibles have been seized on and magnified into gruesome bills of indictment. [...] When an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, then women will be perpetually stuck with boys, who have no incentive to mature or to honor their commitments. And without strong men as models either to embrace--or for dissident lesbians to resist--women will never attain a centered and profound sense of themselves as women."[12]


If modern feminism is in fact edging out traditional gender roles in favor of androgyny one can hypothesize about how this might be playing out based on current societal trends. For example, in the US we may already be seeing social change reflecting this situation. 

  • On the female side, some women benefit from adoption of a "girl-boss" mentality, which probably reflects a degree of androgyny; but the girl-boss trend also seems to have kicked off a counter-trend in the form of female interest in trends such as "tradwives" (traditional wives) and back-to-the-farm homesteading. Not every woman is attracted to the girl-boss role.

  • On the male side, some experts have noted a phenomenon of young men in the US dropping out of society in order to live in their parents' homes, play video games, and get high. With no positive outlets for traditional masculinity in mainstream society, they find ersatz outlets in video games with hypermasculine content and sometimes in "manosphere" content (so-called red-pill or black-pill content) on the internet. Experts say that it's already an international problem: "Hikikomori" is defined as severe social withdrawal and is said to be a problem particularly in Japan and South Korea. Again, this sounds like a variation on male androgyny as described by Paglia, above.


To sum up: A certain number of children are naturally going to grow up as androgynes, and they should be unhesitatingly accepted exactly as they are. A relative minority of men will naturally turn out Dionysian in terms of personality, and a minority of women will turn out Apollonian. But Paglia has argued that it's not necessarily healthy to promote androgyny as a way of negating gender altogether in society as a whole, and particularly to promote androgyny as a fix for "toxic masculinity." It has the potential to create more problems than it solves.

The Beautiful Boy of Ancient Greece

as a Study of the Male Androgyne

In Chapter 4 of Sexual Personae Camille Paglia spends a great deal of time analyzing the artistic ideal of the "Beautiful boy" or "kouros" as a species of male androgyne, especially at his peak in ancient Greece. 


Over the 1,000 years of ancient Greece's ascendency, the Beautiful boy/kouros makes an arc from very masculine to androgynous to feminine over three periods: 

1) Archaic Greece (1000-500 BCE) = Archaic kouros = Apollonian/masculine

2) Early and high classic Greece (480-400 BCE) = High classic Beautiful boy = Androgyne

3) Hellenistic Greece (323-30 BCE) = Hellenistic Beautiful boy = Decadent/feminine


Of the three periods, Paglia says:

1) "The archaic kouros is vigorously masculine."

2) "The early and high classic beautiful boy perfectly harmonizes masculine and feminine."

3) "With the Hellenistic tilt toward women, prefigured by Euripides, the beautiful boy slides toward the feminine, a symptom of decadence.”[1]


But Paglia's main focus is on the High classic Beautiful boy of early and high classic Greece--the androgyne. Greek high culture was unabashedly homosexual at the time, and the Beautiful boy sculptures of the time had a decidedly homoerotic aura to them. As Paglia puts it: "The Athenian cult of beauty had a supreme theme: the beautiful boy."[2]


Homosexuality aside, Paglia is mainly interested in the aesthetics of the art and what it says about the nature of the male androgyne in ancient Greece. In turn, I am presenting her views on the subject in order to illustrate the ideas presented in the previous section on androgyny.


In the previous section I said that the androgyne is a closed circle, self-contained. Male androgynes in particular seem to recede from society and collapse in upon themselves. They may appear asocial, self-complete, egoistic, turned in upon themselves, and narcissistic. In society they may stand out as exotic and attractive but not be interested in partnering and engaging in sex themselves.

So when Paglia focuses on the High classic Beautiful boy on pages 109-122 of Sexual Personae, she describes him in much the same manner. Extracting a few quotes at random:

  • "The beautiful boy is an androgyne, luminously masculine and feminine. He has male muscle structure, but a dewy girlishness."[3]

  • "The beautiful boy was desired but not desiring. [...] In convention, his adult admirer could seek orgasm, while he remained unaroused."[4]

  • "The beautiful boy was an adolescent, hovering between a female past and male future. [...] He is a girl-boy. [...] The adolescent in bloom is a synthesis of male and female beauties."[5]

  • "The beautiful boy is cruel in his indifference, remoteness, and serene self-containment. [...] Narcissistic beauty in a postadolescence..."[6]

  • "The beautiful boy is without motive force or deed; hence he is not a hero. Because of his emotional detachment, he is not a heroine. He occupies an ideal space between male and female..."[7]

  • Paglia describes "the beautiful boy of homosexual tradition: they were dreamy, remote, autistic, lost in a world of androgynous self-completion."[8]

  • "He does not recognize the reality of other persons or things."[9]


After that, Paglia goes on to say that in the following centuries the late-phase Hellenistic Beautiful boy eventually becomes overly feminine, hence Decadent: "They give the impression of being dancers rather than athletes."[10]


Nonetheless, the High classic Beautiful boy of classic Athens remains an aesthetic ideal in Western art and resurfaces over and over across the centuries, as chronicled by Paglia in Sexual Personae. The male androgyne remains an object of fascination over time, often for those qualities of self-containment and remoteness that place him outside the range of normal society.

Link: Return to Notes on Sexual Personae

Link: Return to Sensing

~Posted May 23, 2024


Androgyny and Gender

[1] Camille Paglia. (2024, March 17). In Wikipedia:

[2] Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R.F.C. Hull, with a forward by C.G. Jung, Bollingen Series XLII (Princeton University Press, 1954, First Princeton Classics edition, 2014), p. 434.

[3] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (First Vintage Books Edition, 1991), p. 417.

[4] Ibid., p. 441.

[5] Ibid., p. 21.

[6] Ibid., p. 178.

[7] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Harvard University Press, 1982, 1993), p. 8.

[8] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (First Vintage Books Edition, 1991), pp. 9-10.

[9] Ibid., p. 27.

[10] Ibid., pp. 90-91.

[11] Ibid., p. 22.

[12] Camille Paglia, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism (Pantheon Books, 2017), pp. 222-223.


The Beautiful Boy of Ancient Greece as a Study of the Male Androgyne

[1] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (First Vintage Books Edition, 1991), p. 123.

[2] Ibid., p. 109.

[3] Ibid., p. 110.

[4] Ibid., p. 115.

[5] Ibid., p. 115.

[6] Ibid., p. 118.

[7] Ibid., p. 118.

[8] Ibid., p. 121.

[9] Ibid., p. 122.

[10] Ibid., p. 123.

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