Blue, Red, and Purple: Garbage’s “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips”

Images from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

Queerness is not necessarily an immediate signifier of same-sex attraction. To be queer does not mean that you must be a man who likes men or a woman who likes women, yet, in the most political sense, being queer involves being LGBTQ+. Examining the idea of what it means to queer gender norms, I examine two particular music videos for two songs from the band Garbage’s Beautiful Garbage (2001) album. These two music videos are for “Androgyny” (2001) and “Cherry Lips” (2001), both released as singles from the band’s album.

Before examining queerness in the context of these two musical artifacts, we could perhaps ask three questions:

1.) What does it mean to perform gender in a particular way?

2.) How does the spectated performance affect the perception of gender?

3.) Why do spectated performances of gender engender or transgress certain deeply held perceptions about masculinity and femininity?

When we consider the ways in which people queer gender performances, we must think of masculinity and femininity not as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as inclusive categories, areas that overlap and oftentimes mix together. To help visualize this idea, one could consider the way in which the color purple is made from both blue and red. Without either blue or red, the color purple is not the color purple, yet blue and red can sometimes be unequally distributed throughout what we understand as a strictly purple mixture. In fact, what we interpret as purple might be a large portion red and a small portion blue or vice versa. Given this example involving how both blue and red constitute the color purple, we then can apply this to gender because both masculinity and femininity combine to constitute the particular gender identities of people. Gender, however, is far more difficult to bring into conversation than the color purple; it is problematic because of its perceived restrictiveness. People moreover push themselves—and other people—into silence over gender because they would rather not face a reality in which their initial simplistic perceptions are contested by the complex reality of human difference. On gender, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014) writes:

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice […] Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable. Both men and women are resistant to talk about gender, or are quick to dismiss the problems of gender. Because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable. (p. 21; p. 40)

The trouble with gender (the “gender trouble” in reference to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) is that people think masculinity and femininity are exclusive categories that cannot be transgressed. People create boundaries around what they perceive as masculine and feminine, defining anyone who transgresses these boundaries as a stranger or as an “Other.” In Garbage’s music video for the song “Androgyny,” the band contests what much of American society might perceive as “the masculine” and “the feminine” by queering expressions of gender, sexuality, and desire. Here is the music video for “Androgyny” on YouTube:

Regarding “changing the status quo,” Garbage’s “Androgyny” presents images that contradict what we perceive in our civilization as a familiarity of gender. Shirley Manson (the lead singer) performs gender in a queer—and androgynous—way which exists between the masculine and the feminine. Manson’s performance in “Androgyny” represents the color purple, consisting of both blue and red. In the music video, gender becomes a visible mixture of masculine and feminine.

Image from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

When Manson presents this androgynous gender performance, she takes gender and puts it under a process of making strange, a means through which the familiar is reinterpreted into a newly perceived unfamiliar. Z.D. Gurevitch (1988) writes that the “process of making strange,” occurring only when one looks at a “normal”—and “abnormal”—aspect of life previously taken for granted, may not only bring out “new understandings and recognition,” but also potentially “threat and anxiety,” a sense that the gatekeepers of normalcy are being attacked by the perceived stranger (p. 1186). In the case of Garbage’s “Androgyny,” an obvious discomfort arises as Manson pushes back on images of heteronormativity, on the ways in which gender is constructed rigidly in civilization.

Images from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

Exploring the fluidity of gender, Garbage performs their other single “Cherry Lips” in a video that creates an ambiguity around the gender of the character portrayed by Manson. Here is the music video for “Cherry Lips” on YouTube:

Further queering gender, Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” involves a “delicate boy” who “look[s] just like a girl.” As she performs in the video, Manson’s character is essentially invisible, yet we see him/her on the TV screens with short platinum blonde hair. By the end of the video, the invisible character Manson plays, even while dressed in leather gloves and high-heeled boots, walks into the bathroom and pees while standing. The character in “Cherry Lips” represents not necessarily the androgyny of gender, but rather the ambiguity of gender. The boundaries of what an audience perceives as finitely male and finitely female are transgressed as the character expresses his/her gender fluidly rather than rigidly.

Images from Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” (2001) music video

Garbage’s queering of sexuality and gender in both “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” reveal how what civilization perceives as “normal” is not to be taken for granted. What society often understands as “normal” is not the standard by which to measure all other people since there can always be people who exist outside of a normal. Discussing how queerness creates an uncomfortable environment, Kathy Rudy (2000) writes:

Queer politics are explicitly and intentionally designed to make ‘straight people’ feel extremely uncomfortable in order to make them think about how contingent the foundations of the repressive ‘normal’ world really are. (p. 204)

Rudy’s discussion of the “contingent” foundations of normalcy goes back to my third question from earlier in this piece: Why do spectated performances of gender engender or transgress certain deeply held perceptions about masculinity and femininity? 

Image from Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” (2001) music video

We know that people particularly in our society and culture (Western culture) tend to see two colors when thinking of gender: blue and red (NOTE: Gender exists in rigid forms across other cultures besides American culture). People tend to visualize masculinity and femininity as a strict dichotomy, yet Garbage’s “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” destabilize the strictness of gendered confinement. Through these presentations and performances of gender and sexuality, the contingency of both gender and sexuality become more evident. Masculinity and femininity, after all, are inventions because humans must first be socialized into manhood and socialized into womanhood. A baby is not born with knowledge of masculine acts just as a baby is not born without knowledge of feminine acts. Society, however, takes masculinity and femininity for granted and any deviations to this imposed normalcy generate “threat and anxiety,” a sense of newly conceived strangeness that contradicts preconceived sameness. Babies are not born with the knowledge to differentiate blue, red, and purple until they are taught the difference between the colors, understanding that blue, red, and purple are supposedly definite in their differentness and sameness, yet the babies forget that purple is not as definite upon closer inspection.

Images from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

But Just What is Queer Theory, and What is Feminism? And How Do They Work Together?

“While earlier forms of feminism centered their politics on the transhistorical, transcultural subject of ‘woman,’ queer theory prods us to question our attachment to the stable categories of men and women.”

– Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism” (2000)

Flack by Donovan Cleckley

Feminist theory isn’t just about finding badass women, it’s about looking for women in literature, and in all aspects of life, as characters, creators, and critics, seeing how they’re portrayed or how they portray things, and then considering what that says about women and society as a whole. And, like the feminist lens, queer theory is not just about making everyone gay. It’s about subverting and reinterpreting all of the things which we would consider “normal.”

Over time, these two lenses have become so intertwined that most scholars don’t even say queer theory or feminism, but rather sexuality and gender studies, lumping them together under one umbrella. And while some might consider this a disservice, abridging the two in a kitschy two-for-one deal, feminism and queer theory actually benefit greatly from each other’s influence.

Where feminism would look at a text and ask what it says about the role of women, queer theory would tell the feminist to stop and consider the very idea of a “role” for a “woman,” and encourage the feminist to slant or skew their viewpoint to consider not just their function within the societal construction, but the very society itself. Feminism misses a key component without queer theory, as it comes to rely on the very system it is attempting to subvert, becoming so caught up in fighting the patriarchy that they never even think to question the patriarchy itself.

Likewise, queer theory can become so insistent on advocating for the tearing down of the system that it can forget about the roles of house and home that women have, historically, fulfilled. Feminism holds up traditionally “feminine” aspects of existence and glorifies them, revels in and celebrates them, whereas queer theory is so academically minded, it can toss those thing by the wayside.

The two theories work best in tandem, feminism fighting to defend the roles of motherhood and the traditionally sweet, soft, and feminine while simultaneously defending women who look to defy those roles, and queer theory questioning while all of these things are considered “feminine” in the first place, instead of just aspects of personhood.

While feminism advocates for those who might be perceived as “strange” or “Other” by society, attempting to widen the molds available for women, queer theory looks to make society itself into the “Other,” and the idea of molds for womanhood “strange” in and of itself. Both look to improve society and make it more equal, but do so from opposite ends of the spectrum, in a partnership that might, on the surface, even itself be considered “strange.”

Strangeness/Queerness: Making Strange, Making Queer

Christ Anther Mum by Donovan Cleckley

“Queer theorists assert that what we often see as a fairly uniform past is in fact filled with glitches, differences, and irregularities smoothed over by our own interpretive impulse to make things ‘normal.’ […] Being queer is not a matter of being gay, then, but rather of being committed to challenging that which is perceived as normal.”

-Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism” (2000)

In Rudy’s quote, we see the way queer theory and being gay or lesbian (queering normal sexuality) intersect with ideas of strangeness, with what it means to “make strange” from the familiar. As humans, we possess a tendency, an “interpretive impulse,” to simplify the otherwise complex. In this regard, we overlook the areas in which life is strange such as particularly in the cases of gender and sexuality.

When bodies are gendered in particular ways, they are typically configured based on the given cultural discourse about gender. In this way, a biologically born male is typically assumed to conform to masculine standards and develop a heterosexual interest in women while a biologically born female is typically assumed to conform to feminine standards and develop a heterosexual interest in men. These idealized images defining “what is man” and “what is woman” really do not tell a complete narrative at all. Rather, these exclusive images create a uniformity that is unnatural in itself. If anything, as Rudy writes, we must understand that what we perceive as a “normal” reality is in fact layered with inconsistencies, uneven places, wrinkles that we thought were entirely smooth.

What we see as “normal” is perhaps really just masked in what we perceive as “normalcy,” masquerading until we dig beneath the surface to the strangest depths of the familiar.

Sarcophagus by Donovan Cleckley