Invasion of the Gender Blenders

UPDATED 04/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

A psychologist recently asked his 7-year-old nephew, "Is Michael Jackson a girl or a boy?" The boy thought for a moment before replying, "Both."

Where pop stars of past generations—Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones—traded on their sexuality, Jackson and his peers seem to be cashing in on their lack of it. "The time is right" for the androgynous look, observes cultural historian Marshall Berman, "because American culture is more comfortable at handling sex and playing with gender roles." As for Michael Jackson's specific appeal, Berman believes "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."

Jackson, Boy George and the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox are just the latest examples of a trend toward the blurring of the sexes in movies, music, theater and fashion. CBS is tentatively scheduling The Second Serve, a made-for-TV movie about the life of transsexual eye surgeon and tennis player Dr. Renee Richards, later this year. Films like Victor/ Victoria, Tootsie and Yentl, the smash Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles and the recent NBC-TV movie Her Life as a Man all have sex reversal as the main theme. Linda Hunt even won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year for playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously. "I think the subject is very appropriate," explains Victor/ Victoria director Blake Edwards, "now that there is an equalization of men and women."

"Androgyny is in, and it's about time," agrees shock-rocker Grace Jones, whose own look—flattop haircut cropped to the skull, blood-red lipstick framing shark-white teeth, and leather outfits—is nothing if not sexually ambiguous. "These kids are from the '70s," Grace says of the teenagers who flock to her concerts. "Their parents have looser minds and are more open, probably from all that acid they used to take in the '60s. There are some pretty far-out parents now." Still, Berman doesn't think there's a danger that lots of teenagers will start cross-dressing. Boy George, he says, "is not threatening to anyone."

The Second Serve producer Linda Yellen thinks it has less to do with parents and more to do with adolescent desires for sexually nonthreatening idols. "It makes sense," says Yellen, "that the hero these days is somebody friendly like Boy George or Michael Jackson."

Nonthreatening is certainly the word for Jackson. A devoted Jehovah's Witness, he doesn't smoke, drink or take drugs of any kind. (Indeed the only rumor about his drug life is that he takes female hormones to keep his voice high—a rumor he has persistently denied.) Jackson's clean living is far from unique among his musical contemporaries, however. DeBarge, a family group from Grand Rapids, Mich., which has scored several hit singles in the last four months, prays before every performance. DeBarge's lead male star, 22-year-old "El," is also the group's most overtly androgynous character. Even Boy George cultivates an un-sexy image. "I'm more into love than I am into sex," he has said. "I just do not have a heavy sex life."

Nowhere is gender blending more obvious than in women's fashions. Male designers, it seems, are doing everything they can to make women look like men. Baggy pleated pants, boxy double-breasted jackets, and short straight hair like that worn by Annie Lennox are the hottest looks for fall. "We all have male and female qualities, why not be able to show both," says Joanne Smith, owner of Boy/ Girl, a unisex boutique in Beverly Hills. "People are being looked at for what's in their eyes—their inner sexuality."

Designer Calvin Klein has hit pay dirt with a line of women's lingerie modeled after men's undershirts and jockey shorts. Calvin's 100-percent cotton undies come in six varieties of tops, eight types of bottoms and 25 colors. The bikini briefs are cut high on the leg, but the string bikini resembles a jockstrap and the boxer shorts actually have a fly. Klein's underwear line, on the market since November, is expected to gross $70 million by the end of 1984. "I think there's something incredibly sexy," says Calvin, "about a woman wearing her boyfriend's T-shirt and underwear."

Still, all this isn't simply a phenomenon invented by designers, hairstylists and rock stars. "It's a bisexuality of thought," says Linda Yellen. "Women, for example, are beginning to wonder what it feels like when a man makes love. That kind of thing." For David Bowie's ex-wife, Angela Barnett, androgyny is a political statement: "I've always maintained a sort of role confusion," says Angela. "I wore three-piece suits years ago as a social reminder that a person's brain is what counts, not her legs."

In fact, these days androgyny seems almost as American as, well, Dad and apple pie. "Just look at Michael Jackson. He's Diana Ross in drag, and we're all accepting it," says Za Za, the manager of a popular female-impersonator club in West Hollywood. "I can also see the difference in the club. When we first opened, only the elite turned out. Now we have the 'give me a beer and skip the glass' crowd as well."

One of La Cage aux Folles' female impersonators grew up the son of an IBM executive in a Chicago suburb. On the night he and his wife saw their son perform, the executive was as proud as if the boy had just scored a touchdown at the Super Bowl. "See that blond on the left?" he told anyone who'd listen. "That's our son!"

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