What Is Androgyny?

Androgynous person

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Androgyny is a type of gender presentation that mixes masculinity and femininity. The word itself combines the two concepts and means that someone has both masculine and feminine characteristics.

Andro- is a latin prefix referring to maleness or men, while -gyn is a root that can be used as either a suffix of prefix meaning woman. A person who practices androgyny is an androgyne. The adjective for androgyny is androgynous.

Other Words Containing Andro- and Gyn-

Androgyny comes from the roots andro- and gyn-, roots that are also found in a number of other common words, such as:

  • Androgen: Hormones, such as testosterone, associated with masculinization
  • Philanderer: A man who is intimate with many women (focuses on the man)
  • Polygyny: Relationships involving multiple women (focuses on the fact that there are multiple women)
  • Misogyny: Hostility or hatred towards women
  • Gynecology: Medical care focused on women's health

People of any gender and sexual orientation can be androgynous. Although many non-binary and gender fluid people take on androgynous gender presentations, so do cisgender and transgender binary individuals. There is no inherent association between gender identity and androgyny. Androgyny can be about identity, but it can also be about fashion and style.

History of Androgyny

Androgyny has a long history, although not always by that name. The term, however, gained more prominence in the 1970s when Bem, a well known gender scholar, coined the concept of psychological androgyny.

Psychological androgyny referred to the idea that an individual could have both masculine and feminine qualities. More importantly, it reflected the idea that having this mixture of qualities could be a good thing, and was associated with flexibility and better adjustment.

Some researchers argue that there is both positive and negative androgyny. Positive androgyny is where individuals have positive characteristics associated with both masculinity and femininity—such as compassion and independence.

In contrast, negative androgyny is associated with having negative masculine and feminine characteristics, such as being temperamental and aggressive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, positive androgyny is associated with better mental health and well-being than negative androgyny.

Biology and Androgyny

Some individuals use the word androgynous to refer to individuals who have both male and female biological characteristics. However, androgyny is more often used to refer to presentation and behavior, and those people who mix male and female biology are more commonly referred to as intersex or as having differences (or disorders) of sexual differentiation.

Androgyny is more often used as a biological term when describing non humans. For example, did you know plants can be androgynous? Some plants can make both staminate and pistillate flowers at the same time. Both stamens and pistils are needed for plants to reproduce.

One criticism of psychological androgyny is that it assumes that certain characteristics are masculine and feminine, rather than seeing masculinity and femininity as being culturally constructed.

In that way, psychological androgyny could also be thought of as describing those who are less invested in cultural constructs around gender and its expression.

Stigma and Androgyny

The degree to which androgyny is stigmatized may reflect a number of factors. However, it is likely that, as with gender non-conforming individuals, androgynous individuals are sometimes stigmatized because they are perceived to be more likely to be sexual or gender minorities.

Unconventional appearance and mannerisms have been shown to be less acceptable to some youth and adults. And so, where androgyny is uncommon, it may lead to negative reactions.

Androgyny may also make some people uncomfortable because it causes difficulty with their social scripts. Social scripts are the automatic ways in which individuals categorize and interact with others based on perceptions of their identity.

Where people are uncertain if someone is male or female, it may require a conscious effort to interact, for example around determining pronouns, and having to make that effort may feel like a struggle. It may sound silly, but this type of struggle has been associated with negative attitudes towards transgender people.

Some individuals, particularly those who are politically conservative, are more comfortable with those transgender people who "pass" as their affirmed gender because they do not have to think about their sex.

Androgyny or Hermaphroditism?

Historically, people who have both male and female reproductive organs have also been referred to as hermaphrodites. This is different from androgyny, in that the term is focused on reproductive capacity rather than other types of male and female traits.

The term hermaphrodite comes from Greek mythology and is no longer in common use to describe humans. It is, however, still used to describe individuals of other species that have both male and female reproductive capacity.

In recent years there has been a growing awareness that both gender and sex exist on a spectrum, or multiple spectra, rather than as binaries. This may change the understanding of androgyny as well. Rather than having a mix of male and female characteristics, at least some androgynous individuals may be thought of as falling on the spectrum between male and female in their presentation or behavior.

A Word From Verywell

There are a number of movie and rock stars who are adored, or even famous, for presenting in an androgynous manner, such as Tilda Swinton, David Bowie, and Marlene Dietrich. Indeed, even those historically archetypes of femininity, Disney princesses, have become more androgynous since 2006.

People's feelings about androgyny are very related to their circumstances, identities, and upbringing—as well as the identity and circumstances of the androgynous person. It is important to note that, as a rule, androgyny is considered to be more acceptable for women than for men.

That said, even that is a moving target. Studies suggest that at least college-educated American men may be becoming more androgynous over time and that married men become more androgynous as they age.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does androgynous mean?

    Androgynous is an adjective that means having both male and female characteristics. While it is often used to describe people, androgynous is also sometimes used to describe plants, fashion, careers, personality traits, and relationship styles.  

    Synonyms for androgynous include genderless, unisex, and epicene.

  • Is androgyny the same as non-binary?

    Not exactly, though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Non-binary is a gender identity that is neither male nor female. Androgyny is an outward appearance that is not specifically male or female. Some people who identify as non-binary also dress in androgynous styles, but not all people who dress androgynously identify as non-binary. 

  • Is androgyny a sexual orientation?

    No, androgyny is a gender expression not tied to any particular gender identification, sex, or sexual orientation. 

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.