Blurred Lines, Androgyny and Creativity

Blurred Lines, Androgyny and Creativity

Psychology September 05, 2013 / By Scott Barry Kaufman
Blurred Lines, Androgyny and Creativity

Why physical androgyny alone is not creative.

“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.



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.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American.

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.

comments powered by Disqus