By Candice Chung
Sun Herald Sunday Life Magazine
June 26, 2011
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From boys modelling wedding gowns to actresses in menswear, gender ambiguity is all the rage. Candice Chung explores the spaces between. Looking at a headshot of Andrej Pejic, it’s hard to tell why the beautiful Bosnian-born Australian model has sparked such a media frenzy. Sure, Pejic’s features are delicate and striking – a cocktail of fresh-faced innocence and sensuality that’s the stuff of every talent scout’s dreams.
(And most men’s too, apparently: the 19-year-old recently pipped Lady Gaga and a former Victoria’s Secret “Angel” to take out 98th spot in this year’s FHM 100 Sexiest Women of the World list.) But Pejic’s chiselled cheekbones are no different than those of a thousand other stunning models, so why all the fuss? Because Pejic is a he, not a she.
Discovered only two years ago, Andrej Pejic is at the forefront of fashion’s latest gender-bending movement. He has walked for some of fashion’s biggest names, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, who famously sent him down the runway in a couture wedding gown (the same dress, incidentally, worn by Rihanna at this year’s Grammy Awards). But he isn’t the only androgynous model in high demand at the moment: other flag-bearers of the gender-neutral revolution include transsexual model and Givenchy muse Lea T, Balenciaga’s pixie-cropped Jana K and the tattoo-loving Danish model Freja Beha Erichsen. So what exactly is driving the sudden obsession with gender ambiguity?
According to Harriet Quick, UK Vogue’s fashion features director, it’s a reaction against the “alpha male and alpha female stereotypes” that have dominated the runway for the past decade. The new brand of androgyny is not about cross-dressing (despite the odd male model in bridal couture) but the deliberate blurring of gender roles, designed to make the observer look twice. So far, the result has been polarising. “[Androgyny] plays on our traditional understanding of gender and sex and throws them into conflict,” says pop culture commentator Karen Brooks. “It almost demands a response – and often it’s a very visceral one.”
Earlier last month, when Dossier magazine put a provocatively styled, bare-chested Pejic on the cover, it was deemed too risque by several American bookstore chains, who reportedly asked for the magazine to be censored because the model looked “too much like a woman” (a claim denied by the Barnes & Noble chain). Soon after, US FHM magazine was forced to apologise for referring to Pejic as a “thing” on its website.
Lauren Rosewarne, a sexuality expert and author of Part-Time Perverts: Sex, Pop Culture and Kink Management, believes we still have some very fixed ideas when it comes to traditional gender roles. “The fact that there’s so much controversy over these cases illustrates we’re very uncomfortable with things that challenge our preconceived notions of how men and women are supposed to behave.”
It appears for the most part that we are more comfortable with the idea of women dressing as men than the other way around. Think of androgynous icons like Annie Lennox, Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, or actress Tilda Swinton, who has been the face of menswear campaigns for high-end UK label Pringle of Scotland. Then there’s Lady Gaga, who was recently snapped as her male alter-ego, Jo Calderone, on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan. In contrast, despite the inroads made by glam-rock icon David Bowie and the effeminate Boy George, there is markedly less enthusiasm for the average male to blend overtly feminine items into his wardrobe. It seems that the mainstream imagination still doesn’t stretch much further than a pair of skinny jeans and a dapper cardie.
Yet from a behavioural perspective, the consensus has always been that both sexes should embrace a high level of emotional androgyny, says Lauren Rosewarne. Modern men are socialised to get in touch with their feminine side, while working women are expected to take on traditionally masculine traits. “Think about the kind of demands we place on our politicians, for example,” says Rosewarne. “We want Julia Gillard to be strong, tough and defiant – attributes that once upon a time were only associated with men.” Ironically, Rosewarne believes the desire for gender neutrality doesn’t always extend to the way we dress, adding: “We would probably react quite differently if Gillard decided to wear a tie.”
To test just how far the gender boundaries can be pushed, Canadian parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker made headlines when they announced their recent decision to raise their five-month-old baby, Storm, as a gender-less child. Despite being met with an onslaught of criticism, the couple believe that by keeping their baby’s sex a secret, they will be giving the child the freedom to be whoever he or she wants to be. But the truth, explains Karen Brooks, is a lot more complicated. “There’s no such thing as a gender-neutral environment for a child and it’s not meant to be that way. Ultimately, it’s impossible to enforce ambiguity. Someone like Andrej Pejic is flourishing because he lives in an environment where all the different degrees of gender identification exist around him – and he managed to find his space within it.” In the end, not every man (or woman) will get the chance to challenge stereotypes in a Jean-Paul Gaultier wedding dress. Meanwhile, we can always keep pushing those gender boundaries in our skinny jeans and oversized tees.