So what is gender? Call it society's version of a literary conceit — a useful, somewhat artificial way of reading ourselves — or call it a safeguard against a hazardous descent into practices deemed sexually aberrant or abhorrent. However you construe it, gender, as opposed to sex, is a pieced-together, culturally dictated and consensually validated form of identity. We are born, that is, chromosomally, male or female, but we become definably and recognizably — and, perhaps most of all, constrictedly — masculine or feminine through the intricate process of socialization.
Gender, as anyone who has sipped at the supremely relativizing potion of postmodernist theory has come to understand, is a fragile construct, wobbling atop its binary foundation. These days, "queer theory," which insists on the fluid and optional aspects of gender, is a flourishing academic specialty, with its own superstars like the critic Judith Butler, who conceives of gender as an elaborate fabrication. In her book "Gender Trouble," Butler observes: "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results."
Of course, the stability of gender as a concept was in doubt well before anyone used words like "performatively." Psychoanalysts have been aware of its arbitrariness since the time of Freud — who, notwithstanding his palpable misogyny, was ahead of his time in accepting the notion of innate bisexuality and in his belief that homosexuality was not an illness. (At 79, Freud wrote sympathetically to a distraught American mother who had sought his counsel about her gay son that she had nothing to be ashamed of and that her son was not suffering from a disease.) And Simone de Beauvoir famously declared in "The Second Sex," "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."
So what is gender? Call it society's version of a literary conceit — a useful, somewhat artificial way of reading ourselves — or call it a safeguard against a hazardous descent into practices deemed sexually aberrant or abhorrent. However you construe it, gender, as opposed to sex, is a pieced-together, culturally dictated and consensually validated form of identity. We are born, that is, chromosomally, male or female, but we become definably and recognizably — and, perhaps most of all, constrictedly — masculine or feminine through the intricate process of socialization. It begins with mandated blue bunting for boy babies and pink for girl babies and goes on to encompass myriad prohibitions and choices. (Although until the 40's, blue was deemed the more "delicate" and hence more feminine color, while pink was seen as more "decided" and more suitable for boys.)
None of which is to suggest that it would be wise to throw the bath water of innate difference out with the appropriately garbed baby; anyone who has ever spent 15 minutes in a playground would have trouble going along with this radically chic notion. Still, our fear of what is clinically termed "gynemimesis" (men imitating women) or, conversely, our fear of the Bearded Lady, is sufficient to make us go to great lengths to rear our children to conform to gender-true styles of being — lest they grow up to become drag queens or leather-clad lesbians. Little boys who long to dress up in their mothers' skirts are steered away from this inclination quickly enough, just as little girls who show a preference for roughhouse pursuits are often nudged toward tea parties and ballet lessons.
One might imagine that, with increased exposure to alternate lifestyles in plays like "I Am My Own Wife" and in films like "Transamerica," we would have become more comfortable with some degree of gender jiggling. But much as we may toy with the perverse and the transgressive in the realms of entertainment and art, in our ordinary lives most of us remain deeply uneasy about the androgynous potential that lurks within each of us. If anything, I would argue that the aftermath of feminism and the ubiquity of the homoerotic ethos in the broader culture (think "Brokeback Mountain") have led toward ever greater confinement of gender roles. Strong women like Hillary Rodham Clinton have to demonstrate their skill at baking chocolate-chip cookies when they're not heading a political committee; young women in college are eschewing their liberated mothers' choices for the cozier domain of home and children, while young men frequent cigar bars and bond over the testosterone klatches of sports events with greater ferocity than ever.
In opposition to this straitjacketing, there have always been adventurous souls whose longing for unfettered creative expression has led them to violate the prescribed limitations of gender. The spirit that animates such types goes well beyond a metrosexual interest in self-tanners; it is the spirit of self-invention, as deeply felt as it may be frivolously expressed. A fetching if somewhat visually disconcerting group of like-minded gender benders, featuring the 24-year-old psychedelic folk singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart and members of his mixed entourage, is gathered on these pages. They strike various poses, reclining or slouching or lying odalisquelike across a couch; some of them carry dolls or flirtatiously bare a stockinged leg, while one bearded fellow pairs a puffed-sleeve granny dress with hiking boots.
Banhart, who has a compelling, quavery voice and whose latest album features a song called "Little Boys" ("I see so many little boys I wanna marry/I see plenty little kids I've yet to have"), looks seductively out at the camera, daring us to place him in any category except that of the rarefied. His dark, wide-apart eyes are rimmed in kohl, and above his full lips sits a mustache that turns up with a Salvador Dalí-esque flourish. His hands are large and hirsute; they might belong to a construction worker, were it not for the fact that his nails are manicured in a dark varnish. Whether he is dressed in a regulation suit and tie offset only with a brooch and a bracelet, or decked out in flowing robes accessorized with strands of oversize beads, there is something about his presence, as there is about the rest of this languishing tribe, that subverts our cruder expectations of what it means to be feminine or masculine. Perhaps it's only that they give those of us who sedulously avoid the taint of transgression in our own more workaday performances pause to reflect on the endless mystery of gender. Might it be more of a floating signifier than a fixed set of attributes? And are we, in the end, only as blue or pink as we feel?