WARNING: 100% RAMBLE. Now with gratuitous links!

Moggie and I were indulging in a fit of college nostalgia the other night when the question came up of what, exactly, it was that made Bowie come off as so androgynous? I mean, physical characteristics aside, most of what makes people seem 'girlish' or 'boyish' is socially constructed gender performance, and varies from culture to culture. It's an interesting exercise to try to pin down exactly what it is that triggers the impression, particularly since my calibration can be rather badly off at times. I've spent the past twenty years watching anime. It's all in what you're used to.

Answering this, of course, required me to knuckle down and watch many hours of things with David Bowie in them. The terrible sacrifices I make for research.

(Yes, I'm linking everything. You're welcome.)

You could point to a million things as explanation when Bowie was dressed up as a Martian drag queen, obviously, but it seems to have been largely behavioral, since it worked even when he was wearing ordinary human clothes. Footage from Live Aid shows him in something that wouldn't have been out of place on Rick Astley -- so, not especially effete, by the standards of 1985 -- he did all his promo for "Hours" in a sequence of hoodies with sleeves slightly too long for him, and the tour for "Reality" was in chucks and jeans with fraying hems. He still looks exactly like David Bowie in all of it.

Androgyny was one of the few things Bowie hung onto throughout his career. Throughout his life, actually. There exist pictures of Bowie as a teenager, occasionally in a recognizable style like 'Mod', and he looks exactly as fey as he always did on stage, if somewhat less like a space alien. Various documentarians have scared up some of his childhood friends, and their commentary boils down to, 'eh, David was always like that'. It annoyed Bowie to no end to be pigeonholed by anybody, in any way, but androgynous was a descriptor he consistently used for himself.

I do wonder if half the reason he got so tied up in Ziggy Stardust was that here he was, on stage, doing all the pretty theatrical swooping about that he'd always done only turned up to 11, and people were cheering instead of trying to punch him in the nose.

[And he did get tied up in it, dangerously so. There's a documentary called Cracked Actor, made during his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour in the US, where about 36 minutes in the interviewer gets him talking about Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and all the other characters he played. He's 27 at that point, reed-thin, and chemically lost in outer space most of the time. He looks and sounds about seventeen. And when he's asked about getting lost in all his various personas, he suddenly gets alarmingly cogent and insightful, and quite upset. He talks about the various artistic and emotional influences that went into it all, but there's this continual desperate undertone: Look, I know this is going to end badly. I know it's my fault and I understand I have no right to ask for help. But I want you to please believe me when I say I did not do this on purpose. He really thinks he's not going to make it to thirty, and by rights, he really shouldn't have.]

Surprisingly enough, as much time as Bowie spends vamping on stage, the effect is actually more prominent when he talks, especially in early days. He could be remarkably shy for someone who intentionally left the house every morning dressed like some kind of colorblind space pimp. Boys aren't shy, or at least our culture says they're not supposed to be, and if they are they're certainly not supposed to let it show. It took him like ten years to consistently make eye contact with people who were trying to interview him. He was on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974, drugged out of his mind, with a prominent case of coke sniffles. Cocaine generally turns people into unstoppable free-associating chatterboxes; Bowie, while remarkably coherent, still spends most of his time preoccupied with the floor and the texture of his lacquer cane.

[The twitchiness is not entirely the drugs; he fidgeted continually through every interview I could find, his entire life. This one has him fooling with his lighter for twenty solid minutes of footage. He also had the attention span of a goldfish when you finally got him going, a thing to which he cheerfully copped, usually after the interviewer had let him ramble through about five topics and three solid minutes of airtime, and he had interrupted the start of the next question twice.]

That the whole thing was not just a put on for performance is evident from watching Bowie's 50th birthday bash in Madison Square Garden. He has clearly had a number of birthday drinkies before coming on stage, specifically whatever number of them makes him think it's fun to wave his hands around and stop caring so much where his feet are. Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol does not give you new mad ideas; it makes you think all your pre-existing mad ideas are good ones. What it inspires Bowie to do is dance around even more extravagantly than normal, and knock his mic stand over on his way down to the apron to say hello to the front row. (They gave him at least one extra mic out front, presumably in order to keep him from dragging the one stand around to hell and back. It didn't work.) That man must have been the bane of venue security from day one. He could not keep away from the audience, and the audience was full of ecstatic teenage girls, one of the more dangerous hive organisms around. (In Bowie's defense, he did get very good very quickly at getting his hand back from the screaming throngs when he was done. It was an art.)

In the end, Mog and I concluded that a great deal of it is just that Bowie seemed to truly, deeply enjoy swinging himself around in space. Our culture considers it a very dainty and feminine thing to derive pleasure from simply being graceful -- we've got the iconic, Disney-princess image of the sweet, beautiful young lady dancing about the garden, innocent of how appealing it makes her look. Men can feel triumph when being coordinated; they're encouraged to in sports, for instance. But they're not supposed to dance just for the love of it, and if they do love it, they're supposed to be far too cool to let on. Men who make it plain that they enjoy being graceful and theatrical get called 'swishy', at the polite end of things, and the motion registers as feminine.


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