David Bowie and Romantic Androgyny

My fifteen-year-old self couldn’t assimilate Bowie’s gender subversion: both of his appearances as a male that night [on SNL in 1979] were completely artificial, one kind of boy doll or another, the former’s movement completely restricted and the latter’s hyperactively unnatural. . . Bowie’s theatrical androgyny disrupted a culture of authenticity that was already, but only to an extent, committed to eliminating masculine and feminine as categories.

James Rovira, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 32, 33

Chapter 2 of David Bowie and Romanticism is “David Bowie and Romantic Androgyny” by James Rovira. In it, I discuss Bowie’s famous (and infamous) gender bending of the 1970s in the light of an intellectual history beginning with the book of Genesis, moving through Plato, Ovid, and John Milton, and then on into the Romantic era with authors such as William Blake, Charlotte Dacre, and Percy Shelley. I argue that while previous authors acknowledge or at least imagine various degrees of gender fluidity, John Milton’s description of angelic sex in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) is the most total in its representation of gender fluidity.

In Milton’s epic poem about the creation and fall of humanity and the rebellion of the angels, the angel Rafael explains to the newly-created Adam and Eve that angels can transform themselves from completely spiritual forms to fully material forms, and in their fully material forms can be male, female, or both, and that angels can experience sex in all forms, including in their spiritual forms, fully encompassing all definitions of “androgyny,” which includes being simultaneously male and female, ambiguously male or female, and neither male nor female.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Few authors seem to be as thorough in their disconnection of sexual identity from bodily form and, in fact, in Milton’s angels bodily form seems to follow sexual desire rather than the other way around. Furthermore, not only does Milton’s Rafael see human sexuality on the same spectrum as angelic sexuality, but he sees angelic sexuality as the ideal form of human sexuality. I believe Milton was attempting to fully spiritualize sex–rather than biology driving sexual desire, the spirit does, so that the ideal form of sexual identity is one in which body follows spirit rather than the other way around. Milton’s view of human sexuality, prior to the twentieth century, most closely resembles that of the Romantics mentioned above, for whom both sex and gender identity could be fluid and changing.

Rock and roll participates in this gender-bending tradition of western thought at least since Little Richard, and David Bowie complexly participated in this tradition through the 1970s. This chapter negotiates Bowie’s conflicting claims about his own sexuality and the representation of gender bending in his music, especially in the song “The Width of a Circle.” But I particularly focus on David Bowie’s 1979 performances on Saturday Night Live. He performed three songs that night: “The Man Who Sold the World,” “TVC 15,” and “Boys Keep Swinging.”

David Bowie, “The Man Who Sold the World,” SNL 1979.
Excerpt from David Bowie, “TVC 15,” SNL 1979.
David Bowie, “Boys Keep Swinging,” SNL 1979.

Bowie’s outfits change from a tuxedo doll costume in “The Man Who Sold the World” to a woman’s business suit in “TVC 15” to a green-screen male puppet body for “Boys Keep Swinging.” His head, however, remains the same as his different bodies rotate around underneath it. I suggest in my chapter that Bowie represented an ideal of Romantic androgyny during these SNL performances in the late 1970s, one consistent with Milton and the Romantics, in which bodily form follows desire rather than desire following bodily form.

I argue in part that David Bowie’s method during this period was to inscribe his identity on his surfaces, the opposite of an ethos of authenticity in which individuals attempt to transparently be their own essential selves. You can read the full chapter in David Bowie and Romanticism. Check out the bookstore or request it for your library.

James Rovira teaches writing and literature at Keiser University and has published a number of books in the area of English Romanticism, one book on literary theory, and poetry, creative non-fiction, and short fiction.

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