I would like to introduce the concept of « dividual androgyne » introduced by the British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. In her book The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia, published in 1988, she has brought out a conception of gender she had noticed in the study of Melanesian people that are at the opposite of the Western’s conception of gender. I qualify the Western’s conception of gender as a social construction notion of masculine and feminine, where the biological sex of a person is defining her as a male or a female.
The book follows an anthropological study of the Melanesian culture (a sub region of Oceania which includes Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guina), where the masculine/feminine distinction (as we have as Westerns) is questioned.
Contrary to Western beliefs, which the author criticizes, the person is here thought as being constituted through his relations. An ‘attack’ against Western’s ethnocentrism, which puts at the margins society in which system of values, conceptions, religions are far from ours.
Following the Melanesian’s conception of gender, the person is both dividual and relational. A person contains both masculine and feminine aptitudes and her “delimitation” into one is made possible through specific time/place/ and in relation with others.
The gender is not considered as a specific category that is unchanging through time, but rather as a process. It is an understanding of a gender as always moving, evolving. Being ‘male’ or ‘female’ emerges as a unitary state under particular circumstances.
This notion leads me to introduce a few words about cross-gender’s dancers in Java Island. There is already an article dealing with the approach of the third sex in Indonesia on the blog which I invite you to read it to get an overview of its gender’s culture.
The concept of ‘dividual androgyne’ can be applied to the Java Island’s transvestites dancers. Didik Nini Thowok, one of the most famous Javanese dancers (as a male dancer performing into woman), talks about ‘mystical gender’. He made an interview with a Senior lecturer in South East Asian Anthropology, Kostas Retsika in which he explains how, when he puts his mask on for the show, he can thinks of himself as a woman. ‘When a woman dances the male mask, she is transformed – it is mystical. And when a man dresses up as a woman, in bedhaya, we don’t always recognize that the dancer is male – it is mystical. He, too, is transformed.’ I find this conception of ‘becoming gendered’ really interesting and important to highlight, it also highlights that identity is a process. I find it also interesting because of the relational idea: we can only define ourselves in comparison to others.
The sorcery of gender: sex, death and difference in East Java, Indonesia by Konstantinos Retsikas (September 2010)