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Blurred Lines, Androgyny and Creativity

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“The time is right for Michael Jackson, because American culture has gotten better at handling sex and playing with gender roles. He gives you the sense that you can play with anything– with being a man or a woman, black or white, scared or scary, or some funny combination of all of them.”  –Marshall Berman in All That is Solid Melts in the Air, 1982

“Playing with gender is something that is big news in fashion right now, and Miley [Cyrus] works it with her own unique take on it. It must have taken some (very figurative) balls to dye her hair platinum blonde…” — Girls Talkin Smack, 2012

There was a time when physical androgyny actually meant something.

According to the The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson, the first half of the the 1984 Grammy Awards “underscored a dramatic shift in cultural consciousness that has place in the past twenty years.”  Highly androgynous musicians Boy George and Annie Lennox competed for the best new artist spot and Michael Jackson cleaned up with seven awards. According to Peterson, the nominations “became a celebration of androgyny and sexual ambiguity.” Other important androgynous male figures of that time included David BowiePrince, and Elton John. One of the earliest examples of Bowie’s androgyny is depicted in his third album The Man Who Sold the World, released in 1970, in which he created his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust.

Of course, let’s not forget important female androgynous entertainers such as MadonnaCyndi Lauper, and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. These women had an enormous influence on the youth of that generation. In January 1985, Lauper was named one of the women of the year in Ms. magazine, “For taking feminism beyond conformity to individuality, rebellion and freedom.” Artist Andy Warhol also rode the androgyny wave. According to The Getty Museum, he often dressed in drag at parties and admired “the boys who spend their lives trying to be complete girls.” In 1981, he collaborated on a set of pictures of himself in drag.

But here’s the thing: physical androgyny was creative in the 80s because it was actually innovative. It did challenge gender stereotypes. It got people to think differently about stereotypical male and female roles. It wasn’t the superficial physical aspects of androgyny that made it so creative, it was the psychological aspects that it represented.

Modern day performers who have been directly influenced by the androgyny of the 80s, such as Lady Gaga, seem to get this point. Gaga’s androgyny and gender blending seems to stand for something. As Gaga told Ellen DeGeneres, she wants her fans to know that “It’s OK” to be a “freak”:

“I didn’t fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with and they don’t feel alone…This is really who I am, and it took a long time to be OK with that…Maybe in high school you, Ellen, you feel discriminated against. Like you don’t fit in and you want to be like everyone else but not really, and in the inside you want to be like Boy George–well, I did anyway. So I want my fans to know that it’s OK. Sometimes in life you don’t always feel like a winner, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a winner. You want to be like yourself… I want my fans to know it’s OK.”

Unfortunately, the psychological aspects of androgyny seem to have been lost on many performers in this generation, who think they are being creative and unique simply by the way they dress, the way they twerk, or the way they so-called “blur the lines.” When in fact, all the research suggests that it’s psychological androgyny, not physical androgyny, or stereotypically masculine or feminine displays of behavior, that is associated with creativity.

Psychological Androgyny

In the 70s, psychologist Sandra Bem argued that psychological androgyny–the extent to which a person crosses sex-typed standards of desirable behavior– has important consequences. (Note that sexual preference isn’t a criteria for psychological androgyny.) Bem believed that traditionally, society has not encouraged the development of both masculine and feminine characteristics within the same individual but that psychological androgyny can expand the range of behaviors available to everyone.

Research studies have shown associations between androgyny and a wide range of positive outcomes such as self-esteem, satisfaction with life, marital satisfaction, subjective feelings of well-being, ego identity, parental effectiveness, perceived competence, achievement motivation, cognitive complexity when evaluating careers, cognitive flexibility, and behavioral flexibility. Kelly and Worrell (1976) found that androgynous individuals were raised by parents who stressed cognitive independence, curiosity, and competence.

What about creativity? Freud speculated when writing about Leonardo da Vinci that creative people possess greater cross-sex identification than others. McKinnon (1962) found that creative men and women have attitudes and interests considered typical for the opposite sex.

The famous creativity researcher Ellis Paul Torrance published a paper in 1963 showing that creative boys possess more feminine characteristics than their peers, and creative girls are perceived as more masculine than other girls. Torrance said “creativity, by its very nature, requires both sensitivity and independence.”

Helson (1967) found that the more creative the female mathematician, the more she displayed a combination of the following traits: “individualism, originality, concentration, artistry, complexity, courage, emotion, fascination, and self-orientation.” Clearly a mix of both traditionally “masculine” and traditionally “feminine” traits.

Abraham Maslow remarked how creative people tend to often display a healthy balance of what appear to be opposites: selfishness-unselfishness, thinking-feeling, work-play, and maturity-childishness (also see “After the Show: The Many Faces of the Creative Performer“). In reality, these so-called opposites, like stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, can be viewed as two points on a single dimension and can be experienced in the same person at different stages of the creative process.

In 1980, Weinstein and Bobko found that above an IQ of about 115, IQ was no longer correlated with creativity as measured by a test of the ability to form remote associations and a measure of the ability to generate associative uses. What was related to creativity? Androgyny.

The authors suggest a reason for this association:

In being androgynous, especially in a sex-stereotyped society, a person would need to be open to experience, flexible, accepting of apparent opposites, unconcerned about social norms, and self-reliant– exactly those traits identified with creative persons.”

They also acknowledge that “androgyny and creativity are not necessarily linked in a direct, causal way. Rather they are two concepts embedded in a network of personality variables and environmental histories.”

In 1981, Harrington and Anderson found that participants defined as masculine or androgynous scored higher on a measure of creative self-concept and the ability to come up with alternate uses for an object (when instructed to “be creative”) than those conventionally defined as “feminine” or “unclassifiable” (low in both masculinity and femininity).

Interestingly, psychological masculinity was correlated positively with these creative measures in both men and women but psychological femininity had negative associations with creativity for both men and women. The authors discuss this intriguing finding:

“Potentially creative women may be struggling against and suffering from the very social conceptions and traditions about what is and is not ‘sex-appropriate’ that men find sustaining and supportive in their creative self-conceptions and endeavors. It remains to be seen whether current social trends permitting greater flexibility for both sexes will make it easier for men and, especially, women to develop creative self-concepts and to behave creatively.”

More recently, Jonsson and Carlsson (2001) found that participants high in both feminity and masculinity (androgynous) and low on both scales (undifferentiated) scored higher on a measure of creativity than stereotypically female and stereotypically male participants. Interestingly, and similar to the Harrington and Anderson study, they found that men alone accounted for this interaction. In other words, increased masculinity in creative women was weaker than increased femininity in men.

Norlander, Erixon, and Archer (2000) found that an androgynous group scored higher on a measure of creativity, creative attitude, optimism, and graffiti/scrawling than the stereotypic, midmost, and undifferentiated types. Interestingly, the androgynous group didn’t score higher in creativity compared to the “retrotypic” group (men and women displaying anti-stereotypic behaviors). The researchers raise the intriguing suggestion that retrotypic men and women might “possess similar penchants to their androgynic counterparts to cross the boundaries of traditional gender-roles, thereby accumulating experiential material with elevated flexibility and creativity as a consequence.”

There is a trend now for researchers to align instrumentality with masculinity and expressiveness with femininity, although researchers such as Alice Eagly prefer to think of the distinction as “agenic” and “communal”. And there are other criticisms of the masculine/feminine distinction, such that the distinction strengthens gender stereotypes, and that the distinction should be abandoned altogether in favor of just using the instrumentality/expressiveness distinction.

In 2002 Hittner and Daniels looked at a wide range of creative behaviors. They found that androgynous individuals (those reporting high levels of instrumentality and expressive characteristics) tended to report more creative accomplishments in literature, theater, and video-photography than nonandrogynous indviduals.

Regarding literature, Virgina Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, that to be an ideal writer, one ought to be

“woman-manly or man-womanly… Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.”

In the essay, she praised a number of  famous androgynous writers, including ShakespeareKeatsSterneCowperLamb, and Coleridge. She was unsure, however of the brilliance of Milton and JonsonWorsworth and Tolstoy, saying that they had “a dash too much of the male”, and Proust, since he was “a little too much of a woman.”

Interestingly, when Hittner and Daniels controlled for creative theatre achievement, the researchers didn’t find an association between androgyny and creative music achievement. This suggests to me that a crucial factor that determines the androgyny/music link is the extent to which the musical performance is theatrical. It would be interesting to see whether androgyny is as related to cello and flute performance as it is to rock star performance.

Also interestingly, the researchers found that instrumentality was positively related to business venture creativity as well as a flexible cognitive style, whereas androgyny was not related to business venture creativity (but androgyny was marginally related to cognitive flexibility). The researchers note:

“In order to obtain comparable levels of power and status, women who work within male-dominated environments typically have to suppress their expressiveness and demonstrate high levels of instrumentality.”

The researchers quote Lorber (1998) in saying: “in order to get support from senior men, a senior woman may end up in the paradoxical position of making a stand for women by proving that she is just like a man.”

Their findings are certainly thought provoking and suggest that, due to societal expectations, it might be easier for an androgynous woman to display her creativity in more “artistic” domains than in more business-oriented domains.

All of this research suggests that psychological androgyny is associated with positive outcomes, including outcomes relating to the ability to maintain social relationships (e..g, marital satisfaction), psychological well-being, life satisfaction, optimism, a secure sense of identity, and creativity. Although the precise direction of causality is not always clear in these studies (perhaps androgynous people have a higher creative drive, or engagement in creativity increases androgyny).

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that the more we allow people to express their unique selves, and mentally and physically cross stereotypical gender boundaries, the more creativity we will get out of them. Also, this research suggests that we may well be limiting the full potential of members of society, such as the case of androgynous women working in fields where it is frowned upon for women to exhibit stereotypically masculine traits.

But all of this will only become obvious if we look past the superficial shock value of the physical to the underlying psychological realities and take our cues from the greats of the 80s.

References

Harrington, D.M., & Anderson, S.M. (1981). Creativity, masculinity, femininity, and three models of psychological androgyny. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 744-757.

Helson, R. (1967). Sex differences in creative style. Journal of Personality, 35, 214-233.

Hittner, J.B., & Daniels, J.R. (2002). Gender-role orientation, creative accomplishments and cognitive styles. Journal of Creative Behavior, 36, 62-75.

Jonsson, P., & Carlsson, I. (2000). Androgyny and creativity: A study of the relationship between a balanced sex-role and creative functioning.Scandanavian Journal of Psychology41, 269-274.

Kelly, J. A., & Worrell, L. (1976). Parent behaviors related to masculine, feminine, and androgynous role orientations. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44, 843-851.

Lorber, J. (1998). Guarding the gates: The micropolitics of gender. In D. L. Anselmi & A. L. Law (Eds.), Questions of gender: Perspectives and paradoxes (pp.607-628). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

MacKinnon, D. W. (1962). The nature and nurture of creative talent. American Psychologist, 17, 484-495.

Norlander, T., & Erixon, A. (2000). Psychological androgyny and creativity: Dynamics of gender-role and personality trait. Social Behavior and Personality, 28, 423-436.

Torrance, E.P. (1963). Education and the creative potential. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weinstein, J.B., & Bobko, P. (1980). The relationship between creativity and androgyny when moderated by an intelligence threshold. Gifted Child Quarterly, 24, 162, 166.

Thanks to Caitlin Shure and Rebecca McMillan for their valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this article. Portions of this article originally appeared at Psychology Today blogs on December 2, 2009.

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 5:43 pm 09/1/2013

    Perhaps androgyny in performers allows each sex in the audience to filter those attributes of the performer that appeal to them. Females may see the performer’s positive male attributes? Males may see the performer’s feminine side?

    Of course, people should be allowed to live as they choose as long as they bring no harm to others. I’m not a student of psychology, so I’m unequipped to comment on the validity of the sited research. But I wonder if the researchers were perhaps seeking to validate their own androgyny? Just a question.

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  2. 2. timurlane 11:54 pm 09/1/2013

    How was Cyndi Lauper ever androgynous?

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  3. 3. rkipling 1:13 am 09/2/2013

    Yeah, I thought the Cyndi Lauper characterization was off as well. If she had male attributes, I sure didn’t see them?

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  4. 4. amita8 4:09 am 09/2/2013

    The present study was performed to describe the involvement of gender-role and personality traits in a cluster of tests to ascertain individuals’ creative ability. Participants were 200 students at Karlstad University. Five gender-role types, based upon masculinity/femininity scales were derived, namely the androgynic, stereotypic, retrotypic, midmost and undifferentiated types. Results indicated that the androgynic group scored higher than the other groups on creativity, creative attitude (trend), dispositional optimism and graffiti/scrawling – with the exception of the stereotypic group which scored non-significantly higher on optimism. Nor was the the androgynic group significantly different from the retrotypic group with respect to creativity – although this group scored significantly higher than did the stereotypic group. Small, or negligible, gender differences were found on the masculinity/femininity scales clinic reviews thanks

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  5. 5. stargene 5:39 am 09/2/2013

    A quick and heartfelt observation:
    The mixedness, variety, wide and deep ranging, crossover,
    and sheer independence implied by strong creative intelligence, from androgyny and any other wellsprings, will always be at risk, viewed with suspicion, considered dangerous…the designated black sheep, the first to be sacrificed in our ailing, stratified, class dominated societies, both west and east.

    A microcosm of this has always existed in those arts which, fatally, generate huge cash flows, such as the film industry. Hollywood’s unequal collision between,
    on the one hand, artists engaged in heartfelt exploration of the human condition, and on the other hand, those whose gods are profit, power and control, is in the direst sense, a perfect definition of hell.

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  6. 6. rkipling 11:27 am 09/2/2013

    stargene,

    Maybe so? I wasn’t thinking about the discrimination aspect. I don’t interact with many people anymore, so I forget. The closest I can relate to what you are talking about is being taunted myself after defending someone being bullied. That was long ago back in school. I recognize that doesn’t give me a real clue. I’ve never understood why being different is a threat to anyone else? We can hope that people will learn to treat others with courtesy and appreciate the value of creativity from whatever source it comes, just as you say.

    I still wonder if the objective of the research wasn’t to validate androgyny? I would argue that it should need no validation. The comment from amita8 was helpful. I didn’t know the details. Now looking at the details I have to ask how definitive the classification into gender-role types was? Problems with that there could be. That still sounds like a situation where you can make the data say whatever you like.

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  7. 7. Arun 2:11 pm 09/2/2013

    This is the most fascinating article that I’ve read on this site. I’m in the illustration field, and androgyny/androgynous mentality has always been something that’s intrigued me to no end, in addition to countless numbers of artists out there; it’s a discussion topic that we love to talk about.

    “And there are other criticisms of the masculine/feminine distinction, such that the distinction strengthens gender stereotypes, and that the distinction should be abandoned altogether in favor of just using the instrumentality/expressiveness distinction.”

    This is the key right here, IMHO. I would personally argue that the creativity-androgyny link isn’t correlated to a mixing of “masculine/feminine” traits, but rather, the abandonment of such notions all together. It’s the realization that such stereotypical gender traits are completely subjective and inconsistent throughout individuals, but for some reason, we still try to hammer them into them still. The “definitions” of each also change as the species continues to evolve (remember, at one point in time, lace and high heels were masculine things, certain emotions were less off-limits, etc.), an also differs in the rest of the animal kingdom (if they have more than one sex, anyway). Imagine if our evolution was akin to a spotted hyena or sea horse – how would our gender stereotypes be then? Universal ideas of masculinity/femininity like yin and yang, etc., essentially become absolutely silly and abhorrent.

    In any case, I think it’s really about reaching a state of neutrality, or abandoning masculinity/femininity for individuality. It’s a mindset that’s prepped for eliminating barriers to thoughts: a neutral mind is a thriving ground for possibility, the framework for imagination, something that’s equally important for the arts (social/emotional development) as well as science (exploring/developing new ideas, fostering curiosity and healthy skepticism).

    Long story short: you’re going to try a new idea or possibility/combination if you have less barriers from doing so.

    I would also conjecture, for creative females – in my experience, the difference between a creative one, and one that is less inclined to be, is a simple matter of confidence. Creativity/art itself is an extremely subjective matter that’s wide open to criticism and judgement. You need confidence and bravery in order to set yourself up for it all, and as a whole, we generally don’t install that in women (especially when, to borrow an idiom from Louis C.K., that they have to do so in the presence of bear-lions, a.k.a. larger males).

    But I think that’s slowly changing given the state of communication now and the anonymity/safety that the internet can provide, as it’s much easier to “show” yourself (creativity) given how available an outlet it is. It doesn’t matter what your sex or gender is, because tumblr shows everyone. You can slowly gain confidence (and friends) on those mediums, which can then translate over into real life expositions.

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  8. 8. notmebug 3:26 pm 09/2/2013

    Yes, definitely Cyndi Lauper. Most people picture Cyndi in her pop-music videos wearing super-girly-girly frilly dresses…. an over-the-top display of girly-girly. She was pretty much dressing up frilly the same way a drag queen would.

    Here’s a quote from Cyndi, and keep in mind that she is straight:
    “I am actually an extended member of the gay and transgender community. I’m friends and family. So, of course I would understand about people who are different. I’m different myself. You know, I’m a bit of a drag queen anyway. But I think that everybody is different. I’ve always been on the outside of things.”

    If you watch some of her less famous music videos, she often wears stuff line suspenders, men’s jackets / slacks, tophats, fedoras, short hair. A sometimes she mixes the androgynous stuff with the frilly-girly stuff in the same outfit. Sometimes her backup dancers are all twinks or drag queens, and she’s dressed to fit right in.

    But as the article above notes, this isn’t about appearances. This is about psychology. If watch a few interviews with her you’ll probably see what I mean. Even when she’s dressing in the frilly skirts, she’s not some soft frilly little girly-girl. She’s tough and she sometimes shows a definite “bad boy” attitude.

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  9. 9. rkipling 9:49 am 09/4/2013

    Interesting info about Lauper that I didn’t know.

    Otherwise I still contend that this post is like a Seinfeld episode in its content.

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  10. 10. 9illy 11:30 pm 09/4/2013

    Yo Scott Barry,

    So who are you to judge what’s authentic “psychological” androgyny and what’s just “superficial shock value.” Pretty sure that when Madge and Lauper were doin’ their schticks back in the day folks chalked their antics up to “superficial shock value” too. But since they’re old and familiar now they get to be authentic, while new and young and unfamiliar Cyrus must be some kind of fluffy airhead. Push back a little further before Madonna and Lauper, I’m sure you’ll find another androgynous female actor or artist. Public displays of androgyny didn’t spring forth from the pure and unprecedented creative genius of Annie Lennox, she, like Cyrus builds on those who came before her. That’s how art works.

    Your criticism of Cyrus is the same old short-sighted panic of all the cultural luddites that have clutched their pearls before you. “This new generation—no values! No taste! I’m old and I can’t keep up so I’m forced to seek shelter within the comforts of the old and familiar and old.”

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  11. 11. CS Shelton 6:28 am 09/5/2013

    I thought the lead-in to the part of the article where you cite a bunch of ancient studies was strained and problematic. You set up a dichotomy between “physical” and “psychological” androgyny, but it all seems focused on surface level things – the way one performs or dresses. And it doesn’t mention the true physical androgyny of intersex and genderqueer people.

    Then the studies themselves – aside from the diversity problem of using as samples small groups of college students – mostly date to a time when people still thought autism came from nurture issues rather than nature. Old and moldy. And how are they rating androgyny? With quizzes that probably include questions about things that are only gendered by culture rather than nature – attention to style, types of tasks learned, etc. If a man in that study is from a place where all men cook, he gets to score as slightly androgynous when he’s actually more manly in our hypothetical place.

    If society didn’t (still) force gender roles so strongly, I expect anybody would end up anywhere on these kinds of studies. Trying to pin down something like androgyny is like trying to pin down gender itself. Both physiologically and psychologically, gender is an extremely varied thing.

    Also, that quote by Warhol… Historically there’s been a fuzzy line between transgender and cross-dressing people, of which he may not have been aware. But it seems quite cissexist by today’s standards. It hasn’t aged well.

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  12. 12. andrea ostrov 10:57 am 09/14/2013

    “Androgyny” is a strong word.

    Referring to any man with some feminine traits or any woman with some masculine traits as ‘androgynous’ is pushing it.

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  13. 13. andrea ostrov 11:06 am 09/14/2013

    Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that the more we allow people to express their unique selves, and mentally and physically cross stereotypical gender boundaries, the more creativity we will get out of them. Also, this research suggests that we may well be limiting the full potential of members of society, such as the case of androgynous women working in fields where it is frowned upon for women to exhibit stereotypically masculine traits.”

    In our politically correct and homo-obsessed society, where do you find such strictures? If anything, those who oppose the gay agenda are lambasted day and night.
    If you’re ‘gay’ or ‘different’, you are showered with prizes by the elites who run Ivy League universities, Hollywood, Wall Street, and etc.

    Also, the writer has fallen for a fallacy: Just because creative people tend to be more ‘androgynous’, all ‘androgynous’ people must be creative.
    Not so. Most ‘androgines’ are no more creative than most people.

    Another thing that the writer ignores is that much of creativity in the past was fueled by ‘androgyny’ + angst. As society looked down on ‘different’ people, such people channeled their repressed feelings through the arts. In today’s society where you are openly celebrated for being ‘gay’–the ‘new normal–, the new ‘androgyny’ is perfectly comfortable and complacent… which is bad for art and leads to decadence.

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  14. 14. anna pons carrera 4:51 pm 09/24/2013

    Thank you for this article. Fascinating reflections upon research involving androgyny and well being, as well as creativity. With the use of hypnotherapy we can calmly reflect upon these ideas and rehearse those new thoughts, emotions and behaviours which may contribute to enriching our psychological mapping, with the possibility of improving one or many of the aspects highlighted above. For further information please visit
    http://www.annaponscarrera.com

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