Is he a youth? Is she a woman?
Is she a goddess or a god?
Love, fearing to be ignoble,
Hesitates and suspends its confession.
To make this beauty maudit
Each gender brought its gift.
—Théophile Gautier, Enamels and Cameos (1852)
Gautier, writing in French a century and a half ago, used the noun sexe. It is doubtful he would have recognized the word gender except in relation to other nouns. Gender is a linguistic signifier, not a biological one. But a modern translator, speaking to his own cultural moment, observes the protocols of his time.
In our cultural climate, almost all writers, even conservative ones, surrender to the word gender, reserving sex for mere genital mechanics. Gender is a term taken from linguistics, not biology. The gender designation is arbitrary. La tavola or il tavolo, take your pick.
In the best thinking of our savants, society assigns a gender to each child born just as it does to words. But unlike words, which have to obey their assignment, we can reject the mandated designation and pick our own. Gone is any fixed relation to biology of the masculine or feminine.
This impetus toward androgyny is not as novel a peculiarity as it seems. It is the encroachment on life and law of tendencies in nineteenth century aesthetic movements. Fervent belief in the transformational powers of art and artifice, hallmark of the Decadent sensibility, has slouched its way toward us as a social phenomenon.
I was reminded of this by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith. How ambiguous are the faces of his female portraits. Is she a goddess or a god? They could easily be the faces of drag queens, physiognomy blurred by hair and cosmetics, their beauty—if that is the word—artificial. Among the Decadents, nature had had its day. The rest is style. Or, in the words of Stéphane Mallarmé, “To suggest, that is the dream.”
Jade Starling, a pop singer and celebrated host of drag shows, phrased it less elegantly. But she meant the same thing when she said in a recent interview: “Drag queens are amazing. Their artistry, their makeup, their hair. They are always stunning.”
She would get no argument from Mallarmé. And likely none from the nineteenth century English aesthetes or their French imitators. Among the Decadents, the more artificial, the more removed from nature by the labor of the artist, the more beautiful something becomes. Androgyny, with its ideals of seductive ambiguity and sensuality, emblematizes the victory of the cult of beauty over the banality of nature.