David Bowie: Redefining Gender Social Construction
David Bowie (full name: David Robert Jones), born in 1947, was an English songwriter and actor. Throughout his career, Bowie remained a prominent figure in the music industry and is widely acclaimed as one of the most influential musicians of the past century. He rose to prominence in the 1970s owing to his innovative works during the 1970s. His music and stagecraft had a considerable impact on popular music, marked by reinvention and visual presentation (Sheffield, 2018). David Bowie was one of the first musical artists to promote the idea of gender-bending in public with the use of concerts and media. He created this persona through what became glam rock. This paper is an attempt to explain how Bowie helped redefine a different perspective of gender social construction through his performance, image, and media. The paper is divided into five sections. The first section of the paper includes the discussion of Bowie’s contribution to gender-bending in the cultural context of the 1970s. The second, third, fourth, and fifth sections of the paper include Bowie’s contribution to gender-bending or redefining gender social constructions in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, respectively.
Bowie in the Cultural Context of the 1970s
Bowie is considered as a part of the glam rock movement. Since the glam rock movement was largely apolitical, any changes or innovations that he introduced are also considered apolitical and as a by-product of his art, rather than intentional (Auslander, 2006). The notion of Bowie being apolitical has also been supported by some notable scholars, especially Lisa Feldman-Barret and Bennett. These scholars, in a joint publication, have stated, “Glam has a distinctly apolitical feel. Indeed, most glam artists, in particular, David Bowie, rarely commented on political issues and seemed more interested in talking about their music and the connection they felt with their audience” (Feldman-Barret & Bennett, 2016).
However, some disagree with this point of view. Bowie declared his gay/bisexual identity in 1972. It was a time when homosexuality/bisexuality was still struggling to find a wider acceptance in English society, as societal attitudes towards homosexuality were not friendly until then. Only five years before, in 1967, homosexuality had been legalized in the United Kingdom and that, too, only in private. By and large, homosexuality was still considered an act of perversion. Therefore, at a time when homosexuality could not be practiced openly, his “coming-out” can be conveniently regarded as a politically motivated act of rebellion (Greco, 2008). This act challenged the status-quo of the social construction of gender. In doing so, he disrupted cultural norms to the extent that he had to endure considerable retaliation from the forces of normative regulation. Media has a central role in disseminating cultural regulation and frequently compared his images to orthodox images of masculinity. The impetus to this comparison was to question his suitability as a role model by criticizing his masculinity. Ian Chambers notes, “The cultural map of glam rock was destined to remain largely restricted to pop music’s internal geography. Attempts to [propagate it] …often encountered vindictive male outrage. To play with ‘masculinity’ was still condemned to remain more an imaginary than a practical option for the majority of boys” (Auslander, 2006).
Bowie, through his appearance and performance, established new norms of masculinity. This also followed Bowie’s admiration and his imitation by some of his fans and attempted to redefine what it means to be a man. Among the fans that admired and imitated him, most were the ones who operated on the fringes of society, lacked power, and denied a public voice, such as people belonging to lower social classes, women, the gay population, and ethnic minorities (Greco, 2008). Therefore, for these people, Bowie was a figure who could become their voice and represent them in mainstream media and society. The relationship between Bowie and his fans can be rightly regarded as a symbiotic one. As an artist, Bowie was always ready to accommodate the needs of his fans as well as his own by reassembling his identity and performance. Ultimately, it was his fans, which, through a persistent and visible reenactment of his masculinity, which can be best described as disruptive and alternative according to established social norms of that time, sparked the change in a gender role that had enough momentum to sustain itself even in the succeeding decades (Greco, 2008).
Bowie had an innate ability to understand the desire if equality, which was quite prevalent at the time, and intelligently tapped this desire, embedded in popular culture, through his shifting identity and music. Some critics also speculate that Bowie’s gender-bending may have been a ploy to promote his imagery and music. For instance, Watts believed that his sexual ambivalence established a fascinating game (Feldman-Barret & Bennett, 2016). This is completely in line with the notion that he commodified his identity and sold it to specific audiences, such as the gay community (Chapman, 2015). Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged that he was an important part of the movement that advocated the sexual liberation of a large part of his audience by rendering the forces of so-called normative regulation disarmed and pushing society to become more accepting of alternative gender constructions and sexualities and even desirable (Bradley & Page, 2017).
Bowie and Glam Rock in the 1970s
One must get familiar with Bowie’s early incarnations to get a complete picture of how cultural regulation helped shaped his biography and how he induced alteration in normative regulation. The most notable example in this regard is that of Ziggy Stardust. This specific persona was, probably, first in the series of personae that challenged the normative regulation of gender in the 1970s. Bowie, along with other performers of the glam rock genre, transgressed what was considered as masculinity at the time (Bradley & Page, 2017). Therefore, glam rock greatly enhanced the rebellion against the established regulation of how men should look in the 1970s. As already mentioned, although the glam rock was largely apolitical given its unique anatomy, the way it challenged the normative regulation of gender can be considered as a purely political and radical act. Though the cultural change regarding gender had already begun in the 1960s, the 70s saw a more pronounced transformation and alteration across all aspects of Western society (Auslander, 2006).
The newfound fame that Bowie acquired after his breakout hit Space Oddity in 1969 was well-used by him to explore gender and advance his idea of gender by influencing glam rock through the release of his 1971 album, The Man Who Sold the World. In the cover, Bowie chooses to pose in a dress that provocatively suggested that it is the sole prerogative of a person how one can express one’s gender identity, regardless of biological sex. This supports the notion that Bowie was supporting the war against gender stereotypes. This approach was in stark contrast with the one adopted by his male contemporaries, such as Bob Dylan, and offered a different version of masculinity, the one that defies the culturally acceptable criteria for men by gender normative regulation (Greco, 2008).
Bowie gained sufficient influence as a popular artist in April 1972. He released Ziggy and also performed on BBC’s mainstream and family-friendly, Top of the Pops, only four weeks after he declared “I am gay and always have been” (Greco, 2008). Ziggy adopted an androgynous appearance for this show and performed in a way, which deviated from normative masculinity and sexuality, by dressing in a figure-hugging cat-suit. The show greatly increased the popularity of the glam-rock genre and attracted a large audience (Feldman-Barret & Bennett, 2016). Some estimates suggest that almost 15 million people were exposed to a performance that deconstructed male hegemony and presented ambiguous gender. This was promising as unlike the show he did just last year, this show was received positively with affirmation and acceptance (Bradley & Page, 2017).
Ziggy, which was in stark contrast with an idealized version of what a man should be, was perceived as attractive and desirable by a normative female audience, as evidenced by a reaction of his female fans who “would queue outside just to try and touch him” (Bradley & Page, 2017). The admiration that Ziggy received from female fans also prompted other men to become less conscious of being associated with his gender-fluid appearance and behavior and challenged the traditional definition of masculinity, which implied that a man must not be a woman in order to be a real man. Though most identities remained remarkably constant, there was an ever-increasing trend of adopting and impersonating Ziggy among a younger generation, which was an open rebellion against the norm (Auslander, 2006). This suggests that masculinity was facing a radical change. This is apparent from the fact that music movements that aroused in the succeeding decades, notably punk rock and new romanticism, also presented the version of masculinity that was different from traditional ones (Feldman-Barret & Bennett, 2016). Nevertheless, forces of normative regulation were not easy to overcome. Ziggy fans had to endure both physical and verbal abuse for the alternate presentation of masculinity, and Bowie himself received condemnation and threats for his challenge to established gender roles. This also offered other artists a way to explore their identity and induce an unstoppable transformation of gender social construction (Auslander, 2006).
Bowie and the New Man in the 1980s
The 1980s saw Bowie being transformed into new personae, from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. His transformation into the latter suggests that, at the time, he was embracing cabaret-style wardrobe and was giving up on the glam rock and its flamboyant behavior (Bradley & Page, 2017). However, with Ziggy, he had already the concept of masculinity to a considerable extent, giving men a license to explore different styles. Compared to Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke can be regarded as much more heteronormative. But the Thin White Duke can be still considered as an alteration from social gender construction in much the same way as Bowie’s previous incarnations (Bradley & Page, 2017). The only difference was that this persona was somewhat more compatible with normative regulation and cultural classification and was more acceptable. This can be partly attributed to the fact that between the time of Ziggy and the Thin White Duke there had been a radical change taken place in the criteria of masculinity, which means that his appearances were less associated with queer culture than they were with a metrosexual man. This change reduced the challenge to normative regulation and the Thin White Duke was perceived as less rebellious and more a part of the music establishment. This also helped Bowie to grow into a global, mainstream phenomenon in the 80s (Bradley & Page, 2017).
Men in western culture enjoyed more freedom than they had ever before in the 1980s. This was accompanied by Bowie and glam rock initiating cultural transformation and changing of gender roles. Additionally, the second wave of feminism that started in the late 70s, which had already started impacting the concept of gender and have altered the definition of masculinity, also complemented this situation. Some experts suggest that this diminished the importance of traditional masculinity and led to the emergence of the New Man model of masculinity (Chapman, 2015). This model gave men more freedom to accept the feminine aspects of their personality, further blurring the gender divide. Despite some critics suggesting that the New Man model was merely an advertising tool rather than having anything to do with sexual politics, the commercialization of this model suggests that it was popular in the mainstream and challenged the existing standards for men, thereby implementing a further shift in masculinity. The spark that Bowie ignited through his performance continued to impact the artists that performed in the coming decades, such as Madonna, Prince, Morrisey, Marc Almond, Brett Anderson, Boy George. All of them challenged gender social construction in their own ways (Bradley & Page, 2017).
Bowie and the Lad Culture in the 90s
Bowie’s solo career faced sharp resistance towards the end of the 80s due to backlash of the younger generation of men against the New Man model and changes that glam rock and the second wave of feminism induced in masculinity. Towards the end of the decade, more men started feeling contempt towards this new version of masculinity and, consequently, the New Lad emerged (Chapman, 2015). The New Lad advocated restoring the original form of masculinity. This approach was adopted by some notable bands, such as Oasis and Blur, and began to threaten the New Man model. The movement can be rightly considered as a component of cultural regulation itself that sought to dispel the threats to male heterosexual maleness posed by the likes of Bowie and his New Man advocates (Feldman-Barret & Bennett, 2016).
This movement to restore the original forms of masculinity remained prominent throughout the 90s, coinciding with the rise of the Lad culture, which challenged views proposed by the New Man model. Some sociologists contend that these movements were simply a defensive reaction to the transformation of masculinity in the 70s and 80s due to Bowie and the likes of him. To simply put, this movement sought to assert masculinity as a male bastion. Just like the New Man, the influence of social movements and pop-culture was prominent on the New Lad (Greco, 2008). The New Lad quickly gained support among men, which can be wholly attributed to the fact that it was easier for men to adapt to what the New Lad has to offer as compared to the New Man. Nevertheless, the New Man model remained popular, especially among the ones that bought into it, which suggests that despite resistance to the New Man, these two alternative models of masculinity continued to coexist and were accepted as different versions of masculinity in society. However, Bowie returned in 1993 again and defied pop-culture that was promoting the New Lad. He continued to explore theatrical imagery, rather than the heightened and excessive masculinity of the New Lad (Feldman-Barret & Bennett, 2016).
At this point, Bowie’s masculinity and gender did not concern much his fan-base and the contemporary audience who continued to define this by themselves. The models of masculinities to chose from expanded rapidly and this also gave Bowie a much-needed space to liberate himself from restrictions of self-regulation and pressure to remain ahead of popular-culture by re-inventing himself. However, it is pertinent to mention here that the forces of normative regulation remained in effect, but largely content with the fact that changes to traditional masculinity are inevitable, given the popularity of opposite forces. These attitudes were also complemented by the impact of post-modernism and consumerism, prompting society to re-evaluate the criteria of what constitutes a man in western culture. This, therefore, resulted in the development of a culture that was far more accepting, rather than condemning, of the new models of masculinity than the previous ones (Bradley & Page, 2017).
Bowie and the 2000s
At the turn of the millennia, Bowie was entering into the fourth decade of his career. However, despite his long presence on the stage, his album sales declined, which can also be somewhat blamed on piracy and some changes in the distribution of music. But it still suggests that his works became less relevant for youth culture, who wanted to identify themselves with younger artists (Chapman, 2015). Although Bowie had explored gender fluidity throughout his career, along with other artists including Madonna and Prince, their works struggled to find relevance among the young generation who was born decades after these artists performed. Against the backdrop of this situation, David Bowie became reclusive after he had to go through heart surgery due to a heart attack. Although many versions of masculinity were still available, no representation of gender was as fluid as what was presented by Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s (Bradley & Page, 2017).
At this point, cultural regulation could be seen driving the society towards conservatism, where men were becoming commodified as women and there was the feminization of men, marked by an ever-growing interest in fashion and beauty products became the new normal of masculinity. The failure of Adam Lambart and Mika to gain global popularity by gender-bending performances and fashion suggests that such attitudes were not being seen as rebellious acts as they were perceived in the 1970s and the audience started to judge bands solely based on their music performances (Chapman, 2015).
Bowie, however, left a legacy for other artists to follow. One example is that of Lady Gaga who erupted on the music scene in 2008 and gained much fame and popularity, especially among the gay community, thereby setting an example that a female model can also challenge masculinity. In many instances, Gaga’s intentions seemed similar to that of Bowie’s, in that they both challenged the traditional norms of masculinity and gender and were inclusive of fluidity. She, in fact, tried to further popularize and redefine the notion of gender among new generations. Gaga, in some of her shows, performed as a male character with heightened and excessive masculine traits, which is, in fact, a representation of the New Lad model. Her direct challenge to binary gender was showcased at many points and in many of her shows. Therefore, it can be suggested that Bowie left behind a legacy (Chapman, 2015).
This paper covered how Bowie helped redefine a different perspective of gender social construction through his performance, image, and media. It was seen that David Bowie was one of the first musical artists to promote the idea of gender-bending in public with the use of concerts and media. He created this persona through what became glam rock. The paper was divided into five main sections. The first section of the paper discussed the performance of Bowie in the cultural context of the 1970s. It was seen that Bowie, as a part of the glam rock movement, presented new norms of masculinity, through his performance and appearance at a time when society was not very accepting of any altered form of masculinity. Consequently, he faced resistance from the forces of so-called normative regulation and cultural classification. The second section of the paper discussed Bowie’s gender-bending in the 1970s. It was seen that Bowie, by releasing Ziggy Stardust, presented a form of masculinity that was in stark contrast with the established norms. In doing so, he became the first mainstream voice of suppressed sections of society, especially queer and gay men. Additionally, the newly presented form of masculinity by Bowie also received much admiration from her fans. The third section of the paper discussed Bowie’s gender-bending performances in the 1980s. It was seen that Bowie introduced a few more incarnations of gender-bending, but they were less radical than Ziggy Stardust, which he introduced in the 70s. It was also seen that gender-bending performances of Bowie were also adapted by other notable performers of the time and all of them altered the social gender construction in their own ways. The fourth section of the paper discussed Bowie’s works in the 1990s. It was seen that this was a time when the New Man model presented by the glam rock movement of Bowie was challenged by the New Lad movement. Both of these movements lied on opposite spectrums on gender roles and represented masculinity versions that were in stark contrast with each other. The last section of the paper discussed Bowie’s contributions at the dawn of the new century. It was seen that by then, the rebelliousness surrounded against gender-bending had waned and the public judged performers solely based on their music performances. Nevertheless, few artists continued to get inspiration from Bowie and presented altered gender roles.