Man or woman?

Polish fashion model and actress Malgosia Bela.

Polish fashion model and actress Malgosia Bela. Photo: Carlo Allegri

Every few months or so, something is hailed as a reason that gender equality has been reached, and the call is put out for all the feminists take their foot off the accelerator towards Suffragette City.

These supposed paradigm shifts have included everything from a female Prime Minister to crowds of women whooping at Magic Mike’s bare male bottoms to, now, female models represented in the agencies’ male books.

To non-fashion-nuts, that sentence is probably impossible to parse, so in other words, female models are now modelling male clothes.

Male model Andrej Pejic walks the runway during Barcelona Bridal Week last year.

Male model Andrej Pejic walks the runway during Barcelona Bridal Week last year. Photo: Robert Marquardt

“Now” is a relative term, of course, because fashion - particularly haute couture - has played with gender representation for some time, but this is the first instance of gender-bending female models attracting as much mainstream attention as their male equivalent, the delicately beautiful Andrej Pejic.

There’s Casey Legler, the handsome 6’2” former-Olympian and artist who is on Ford Models’ Men’s roster, Next Models' boyish star Erika Linder, and to a lesser extent (though fashion bloggers seem pretty stoked about it), Malgosia Bela’s work for the latest Alexander Wang campaign.

Much like Pejic’s repeated assurances to the dunderheaded tabloid press that he is, in fact, a man, Legler - though she cannily steers the conversation away from terms like “gender identity” in this charming Time video interview - identifies as a woman.

Casey Legler models. Image via Time magazine.

Casey Legler models. Image via Time magazine.

The conclusion it’s tempting to jump to is that this is a giant leap for beauty ideals, and that Legler’s presence will open the door for a broader notion of what women are allowed to look like. But outside of high fashion campaigns, the rather less glamorous reality is that gender-fluidity and androgyny in the public eye tends to reveal a rather alarming vein of misogyny.

Remember that Cement Garden line that was sampled at the beginning of Madonna’s What It Feels Like For A Girl? “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it's OK to be a boy, but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading.”

It often runs that women who play with androgyny are celebrated (Tilda Swinton is an example, as is the wonderful visual artist and one-time Lady Gaga associate, Heather Cassils), while men who do the same in reverse are considered “weird” and “freaky” (Pejic was referred to as a “thing” by FHM).

Lea T for Brazilian <i>Elle</i>.

Lea T for Brazilian Elle.

Pejic is a man who models women’s clothes, and the mainstream press seems to see him as a sort of fascinating oddity; the treatment of model and transwoman Lea T by the broader media has been considerably less kind. In fact, I would encourage you to never read the comments on any mainstream media article about trans women.

Indeed, we have so-called feminists to thank for some of the most blood-curdling transmisogyny of late, from Germaine Greer calling our trans sisters “ghastly parodies [of women]”, to Julie Burchill’s nightmarish hate rant last week in the Observer, which the British Press Complaints Commission is now investigating. One of its gentler sentences was, “Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don't threaten or bully we lowly natural-born women, I warn you.”

The response to Burchill’s swill (which The Telegraph have stubbornly republished in the interests of “free speech” - trigger warning for trans hate and a truly remarkable lack of basic human decency - here) was, rightly, outrage. My feminism stands with that of Deborah Orr, who wrote in her Guardian response to Burchill, “It is hard, being a woman, less hard now, in the west, than it has ever been. Most feminists do see it's unbelievably hard being a woman who is driven and compelled to have her body rearranged before society will treat her as the woman she is.”

(Or, as performer Lisa-Skye said last week, “"If you identify as a woman, then guess what? It’s woman o’ clock and you are right on time.")

By comparison, the mainstream narrative when it comes to trans men tends to be far more generous, Chaz Bono and Thomas Beattie’s treatment being two prominent examples.

There are multifaceted reasons for all this, but one of the core issues is that being, becoming, or even dressing as a woman is seen as the lesser choice, because women are lesser than men.

Complicating things further is the fact that fashionable androgyny very rarely goes beyond fairly prescribed notions of “body beautiful”, that is, athletic and slim “male” looks, and sylphlike “femaleness”. If a fat woman plays with androgyny in slacks and suspenders, or a bearded Black man takes to makeup and a sequinned frock, the fashion press is less likely to applaud.

Indeed, as Legler herself said, "We have very specific ways in which we identify ourselves as men or women. And I think sometimes those can be limiting. It would be a lovely place if we didn’t necessarily judge or jump to conclusions because someone wants to wear a dress or wants to wear pants.”

It would be nice to think that androgyny in fashion editorials might make people more willing to accept gender as a fluid spectrum rather than a rigid binary, and maybe we’re on our way to a more enlightened age. In the meantime, one besuited woman does not a gender revolution make.

16 comments

  • Making generalisations about why people accept or reject things is never easy but I have a slightly different take on it. I think trans women (women who were once men) are rejected because they challenge men’s sexuality (or because what they represent mocks the idea of women in Germaine’s case). But men don’t have to consider trans men as sexual objects so they are largely ignored; which may be even more insulting.

    Commenter
    Tom
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    January 23, 2013, 7:21AM
    • But then I wonder why women ( I don't want to say real, I guess women who were born with woman bits?) reject them. I was born a woman and still am one and I don't get being threatened by trans women. I feel sorry for how much they have to go through to have the body that I take for granted, and even more so for those who can't afford the therapy and surgery available to middle class westerners.

      Commenter
      Alice
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 10:15AM
    • Alice - I think opinions vary depending whether it is a trans man or trans woman.

      I think women would be confronted by a trans woman for different reasons. Some feel they mock what a woman is, or that they perpetuate the wrong ideas about what a woman should look like. Some people have such rigid ideas of gender that they can’t get past the idea that they were once men. And some just can’t process the idea so they reject it all together.

      And for trans men it’s similar. As they amend their body they are making a statement about what physically defines a woman. And the same old problem of people struggling to process the idea or being confused about their sexuality when they think about them.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 11:36AM
    • @Alice, I'm female and I don't reject transgender women, I do however ponder whether they would still be happier being a woman if they had to experience a period every month for 40 odd years, smear tests regularly and all the other wonderful stuff that goes on health wise with women....

      Commenter
      Sez80
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 12:39PM
    • Alice, I feel the same as you, it must be awful to be in the wrong body and I don't think either gender should have "ownership" of that gender. All the transgender models here are drop dead gorgeous examples, it's not the garden variety we are seeing either. And I think it's a shame gender politics is being played over this. Another issue for people to generate their fear and loathing over. Shame.

      Tom as always, you articulate some very valid points. Mwah Mwah!

      Commenter
      Ms Patonga
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 1:43PM
  • Maybe it could be a man dressing as a woman and breaking the glass ceiling in project management in the mining industry. That would be progress. Or a man dressing as a woman and competing in the 400 metres as a woman against men in the Pan-Pacific Games. And schooling them, girlfriend. Or a woman dressing as a man and becoming a pilot in the Iranian airforce and performing in a flyby to mark Ahmadinejad's birthday. The possibilities are endless.

    Commenter
    Bob
    Date and time
    January 23, 2013, 8:07AM
    • is it not a great thing for the line to be blurring? From a fashion designers point of view the more vague or opaque the model is in appearance MAY only help us to be looking and appreciating the product or garment that said model is modelling? I am the opposite of an expert in the area but do recall a famous designer explaining that waiver thin models were his preference because their shape did not override his creations (as a more voluptuous shaped model might/would). Without any disrespect meant whatsoever the models were there to accentuate his clothing creations, not the other way around. Maybe there are elements to the gender blurring that are congruent with this designers point of view. (his name escapes me at present).

      Commenter
      eyeswideopen
      Location
      earth
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 8:45AM
      • The "clothes look better on thin models" is a pretty common stance among designers, alas, so it could have been any of them!

        Commenter
        Clem Bastow
        Date and time
        January 23, 2013, 9:33AM
      • I presume you meant 'wafer thin'. It''s a stupid stance. I've noticed time and time again that a thin model in a garment that would look good on a more filled out figure makes the garment look lank and unattractive. A flat-chested woman in a strapless top can even look somewhat ridiculous, with the empty space just emphasising the lack of breast. The frequent comment that the model is just meant to be a coathanger makes no sense: how many garments look bad on the hanger but great once they're on?

        Commenter
        photondancer
        Date and time
        January 23, 2013, 11:15AM
      • photondancer, I strongly suspect the issue with garments looking "lank and unattractive" has less to do with the body of the person wearing them, and more to do with the clothes not fitting properly. I would think that being thin isn't in itself going to make clothes look bad; whatever a woman's size or shape, if her clothes are ill-fitting they obviously won't look as good as if they fit properly. Do you think that a strapless top that is bursting at the seams is flattering to a large bust?
        This may come as a shock to you but if clothes don't fit well, it's not the woman's body that's the problem - it's the clothes.

        Commenter
        Ames
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 23, 2013, 1:49PM

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