Essay by T. Cole Rachel
Photography by Collier Schorr
The first time I really remember thinking—seriously thinking—about androgyny was in 1994. Like so many other important thought explosions, this one happened while watching an episode of MTV’s 120 Minutes at my cousin’s house. The guest host of the show this particular week, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, held up a copy of alt-rock band Suede’s Dog Man Star. Given that Suede was mostly known (to me, anyway) for being a bunch of foppish, queeny Brits, it shouldn’t have been surprising that the cover of their second album featured a shadowy sleeping figure with a bare ass. What was interesting was that you couldn’t easily determine the sleeping person’s gender. Stipe also appeared flummoxed, saying something along the lines of, “Not sure if this is a man or a woman, but it’s still a nice ass.”
For someone who had only recently come to terms with the idea that I might not just be attracted to other men but only attracted to men, this was disconcerting. Was this a man ass or a lady ass? And what did it mean that I couldn’t tell? What did it mean that, for the most part, it didn’t really matter?
I thought about that Suede album again for the first time in about 17 years after looking at Collier Schorr’s photographs of androgynous Serbian model Andrej Pejic. In these images, Andrej is somehow both sexless and hypersexualized. Depending on the viewer, Collier’s images reveal either the most beautiful boy ever or a striking blonde goddess. He is neither. He is both. Given Collier’s past work—so much of which artfully examines the various tropes and guises of male masculinity—to see her use such a deft, restrained touch when shooting a feminine and abjectly androgynous man is truly fascinating.
“Andrej was like looking in a reverse mirror,” says Collier. “Androgyny is often about being one thing and looking like something in between two things. For Andrej, one senses he is a combination but he is also so strong and confident. It is as though he is perfectly at ease in his skin, clothes and identity, which can be unusual for people who look the opposite of what they are. I didn’t want to see him as an outsider. I wanted him to be comfortable being seen in totality, rather than being cast as a woman or a man, but not to be asexual—to be sexy, even if we aren’t sure who he is seducing. Typical fashion photography erases desire, which is strange to think, but true. With Andrej, I didn’t want to erase the edges.”
Depictions of androgyny in its truest form are pretty rare. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of artists who have played around with the concept (David Bowie might be the finest example), but rarely is the topic explored in a really pure way. There is an abundance of art that deals with the confusion of gender, but so often it’s a story about passing—one gender passing for another—rather than someone existing as both. Whether it’s Marlene Dietrich giving butch Weimar realness, Hilary Swank transforming for Boys Don’t Cry or the campy demystification of gender illusioning on RuPaul’s Drag Race, mainstream representations of gender confusion are generally about people who dare to switch sides.
Clearly, based on Andrej’s in-demand status as a model—he has recently been photographed by Steven Meisel as well as Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and is the current face of Marc by Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier—the fashion industry is not only enamored with beautiful, feminine men (some call it “femiman” or “transversal”), it’s also evolving a kind of genderless aesthetic. Male models like Andrej and Wiktor Hansson are often booked to walk in both men’s and women’s shows, while Givenchy recently chose transsexual Brazilian model Lea T. as the new face for the line. It remains to be seen if this means that we’ll all be wearing unisex capes and gender-neutralizing stilettos next season, but it’s nice to see that gender diversity—and ambiguity—has crept into our consciousness in such a visible way.
I’ve always been fascinated by transgender people, not only because I can’t even begin to conceptualize the terror one must feel trapped in the body of an incorrect gender but also because transgender people are the only people who can truly have the experience of having been both sexes—and properly speak to what each feels like. Perhaps the increased visibility of the transgender community has helped facilitate this shift in cultural perspective.
Maybe humans like Andrej represent the future. That in the future we will become increasingly genderless—or, rather, we’ll become less obviously codified, not just in our prescribed gender roles but also in our outward representation of them. At a time when gender itself seems to be something increasingly mutable, changeable and ever shifting, androgyny seems much less strange…and less threatening. It matters less whether a person is a beautiful man or a beautiful woman. What first enters the brain is simply that they are beautiful.