David Bowie, Glam Rock, and Gender Rebellion
As many in the world mourn the passing of musical icon and innovator David Bowie from liver cancer on January 10, 2016, the influence of his 1970s, androgynous, glam rock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, lives on in contemporary discussions about gender.
The Separation of Gender and Sex
Even if you are not a child of the 70s or if you would rather just forget the era that brought us lava lamps and bell bottom pants, Christians need to be aware of the social commentary and change that occurred during this time. From Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics that argued that gender was essentially a cultural construct rather than a biological reality to second wave feminism’s mainstreaming of Simone de Beauvoir’s claim in The Second Sex that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, the concept of gender became a hotly discussed topic.
In fact, before the late 1960s “gender” and “sex” were used as synonymous terms. However, in 1968, psychologist Robert Stoller desired to explain why some people felt that they were “trapped in the wrong bodies” so he pioneered the use of the term “sex” to denote biological traits and “gender” to describe the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. The distinguishing of these two terms has had a disastrous impact.
Glam Rock as Gender Rebellion
What does all this have to do with David Bowie? Within the swirling social discussions on gender in the 1970s, glam rock entered the mix, and David Bowie became one of its most acclaimed practitioners. Glam rock, also called glitter rock, “began in Britain in the early 1970s and celebrated the spectacle of the rock star and concert. Often dappled with glitter, male musicians took the stage in women’s makeup and clothing, adopted theatrical personas, and mounted glamorous musical productions frequently characterized by space-age futurism.”
This style of music and performance was regularly called “gender bending” or “gender rebellion.” The lyrics often touched on taboo topics and pushed the boundaries of sexual norms as seen in Bowie’s song “All the Young Dudes” that became a glam rock anthem (he wrote this song for Mott the Hoople):
Now Lucy looks sweet
’cause he dresses like a queen
But he can kick like a mule
it’s a real mean team…
Feminist scholar Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae, reflected on the impact of Bowie on her own life:
“Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early 1970s had a staggering influence on me. I had been writing about androgyny in literature and art in my term papers in college and grad school, so Bowie’s daring experiments seemed like the living embodiment of everything I had been thinking about.”
Ziggy Stardust for Paglia was a “bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female” and viewing one of his costumes for her was “a sacred epiphany, like seeing a splinter from the True Cross.” In fact, another columnist recently noted that David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust “paved the way for future generations of androgynous, gender-bending icons in pop” and Bowie himself will always be remembered as a “barrier-busting hero who acted as an avatar for gender fluidity before that was even a term.”
Bowie’s gender activism continued throughout his career even though he retired his Ziggy Stardust persona after only a few years. In 2014, he appeared in a PSA that proclaimed, “Gender is between your ears, not between your legs.”
Remembering Bowie, Madonna commented that she “was so inspired by the way he played with gender confusion. [He] was both masculine and feminine.” Martin Scorsese, who directed Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ, said that Bowie has “left a deep imprint on the culture.”
Current Forms of Gender Rebellion
Unfortunately, the glam rock movement of the 1970s is not very different from the gender rebellion movement we see today through the likes of Bruce Jenner. Glam rock sought to defy sexual stereotypes through sexual and gender ambiguity and androgyny. The leaders essentially desired to thumb their noses at constructed understandings of gender. They wanted to define themselves.
The problem with claiming the right to name ourselves is that we are created beings. We have a Creator God who has already defined us. With great intentionality God created two distinct genders (Gen 2:18-25). Gender is a gift from God, not something that is socially constructed or self-determined. As the book of Isaiah declares, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Is 64:8).
Truth be told, human beings really made a mess of things when we rebelled against God and decided to claim the right to define ourselves. Conceptualizations of gender have evolved quite a bit since Stoller’s 1968 definition, and current definitions describe gender as representing several distinct things:
- Our bodies (gender biology)
- How we dress and act (gender expression)
- How we feel inside (gender identity)
Add to those understandings the concept of sexual orientation, and you get a staggering number of ways that people are choosing to identify themselves today. Back in 2014, Facebook came out with over 50 different “custom” gender options other than male and female. Terms like gender expansive, gender fluidity, and genderqueer are just some of the new entries into the current lexicon. It is difficult just to keep up with all the new and evolving definitions!
David Bowie’s gender rebellion in the 1970s paved the way for the gender fluidity movement of our day. His legacy is found in comments by the likes of young Disney starlet Rowan Blanchard, who stars in Girl Meets World. This 14 year old teen and self-proclaimed feminist activist recently declared herself “queer” in a tweet because she doesn’t want to be labeled.
Blanchard tweeted, “In my life – only ever liked boys…However I personally don’t wanna label myself as straight, gay or whateva so I am not gonna give myself labels to stick with – just existing.” In a follow-up to that tweet, she said, “Yes open to liking any gender in future is why I identify as queer.”  Time magazine named Blanchard one of the 30 most influential teens of 2015.
Blanchard, like Bowie, is claiming the right to define herself. At its heart, this act is rebellion against God.
Sadly, we have made complicated what is very clear for God: “Male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27).
 David Daley, “‘A bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female’: Camille Paglia remembers a hero, David Bowie,” Salon.com, January 12, 2016, http://www.salon.com/2016/01/12/a_bold_knowing_charismatic_creature_neither_male_nor_female_camille_paglia_remembers_a_hero_david_bowie/
 Kyle Anderson, “David Bowie,” Entertainment Weekly (January 22, 2016), 29.
 Interview with Kyle Anderson, “David Bowie,” Entertainment Weekly (January 22, 2016), 30.
 Ibid., 33.
 Rebecca Rose, “Girl Meets World Star Rowan Blanchard Opens Up to Fans: ‘I Identify as Queer,’” Cosmpolitan (January 18, 2016), see http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/news/a52308/rowan-blanchard-identifies-as-queer/
Photo Credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charlie-vazquez/david-bowie-will-always-m_b_8956106.html