David Bowie: A Chameleon of Gender and Identity, a Purveyor of Humanity
When someone prominent in popular culture passes away, there's a surge of their imagery that can be seen everywhere. Notorious humans are immortalized on every surface imaginable — in print, on t-shirts, in public art. It's often that there is only an handful of already-famous photographs of that person spread around, with media focusing on only the visual career highlights. For some stars, those career highlights came decades before; they are forever remembered in the look they wore twenty, thirty, sometimes forty years ago. Even with the proliferation of the public homage thanks to the tiny altars we can create ourselves on social media, it is rare to see a famous person commemorated as something other than what they once were. David Bowie is the exception.
There is and was no defining era for Bowie; he will always be remembered by the individual at the moment he entered their lives. As a person born in the '80s, my social media newsfeed was heavy on the Goblin King era, followed closely by his Aladdin Sane times — the argument over what was his most defining image could go on forever.
Still, in the days since his birthday and subsequent passing, there isn't a moment when I glance over at my continuously updating newsfeeds and catch a glimpse of the Bowie that I have either forgotten about or never seen before. Even his less visually memorable times — like the late '90s "I'm Afraid of Americans" period — are being celebrated. He was so many things to so many people, and a huge part of his resonance is undoubtedly the way Bowie presented himself to the world.
This human presentation is what made Bowie so universally accessible — music was the vehicle he used to enter our orbit, but it was merely one component of a life as art. Fashion-forward folks loved him just as much as those devoted to his sonic canon. His acting chops gave film buffs a reason to adore him and his ability to turn a very run-of-the-mill interview into something gripping and humorous made him a dream subject for journalists. Everything he created with his otherworldly soul connected with some segment of our collective anthropomorphic spirit.
At the root of it all, though, was Bowie's ability to strip the human form down to something almost gender-less. I've always felt like "gender-bending" isn't an applicable term; bending leads to breaking. Bowie was a liquid being, unable to be broken. Between the masculine and the feminine, Bowie was the swirling divide; he was fluid and unable to be pinned down. He gave us something to marvel at and aspire to be — a human by design, but one that seemed like he was from another planet. A planet where gender wasn't instituted as a matter of black and white — it was about the space between.
When I look at the images of Bowie's many presentations over the decades now, it's hard to put a finger on how he accomplished so many changes. He didn't wear his discernible shifts like Cindy Sherman, who has made a career out of being the perfect, blank canvas mannequin for her own art. He wasn't like Lady Gaga, who creates art on her body in an elaborate and beautiful display of dress-up. Bowie managed to do it all — he was simultaneously in costume and dressed down at the same time. He was both a figure to be adorned and a living, breathing everyday plainclothes person.
Bowie coexisted with Freddie Mercury, Grace Jones, Klaus Nomi and Marc Bolan; he paved the way for Boy George, Mykki Blanco, Perfume Genius and JD Samson. But he also helped to push forth the timeless (yet still not universally accepted) idea that humans are humans, regardless of presentation, but also, in a celebration of that presentation.
Gender and sexuality are both fluid components of our living experience. David Bowie spent his life creating a legacy of acceptance by showing us that being yourself is the truest rebellion of all. David Bowie will be remembered exactly the way you saw him — in whatever era or notion of his constantly evolving amalgamation of art, gender, sexuality, identity and humanity that resonated the most for you.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
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