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David Bowie’s gender-fluid performance art inspired generations to be themselves

Flowers are laid beneath a mural of David Bowie in Brixton, England.
Flowers are laid beneath a mural of David Bowie in Brixton, England.
Carl Court/Getty Images

David Bowie, who died Sunday at the age of 69, mastered the art of gender as a performance. His gender identity and expression, and even his sexual orientation, became like a series of different costumes for different roles.

There are many reasons why he did this. One is that a young David Bowie (who was then David Jones) always felt like an outsider during his conservative Brixton upbringing, and his characters functioned as a means of escape. "As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn," Bowie said in a 1983 interview. "I didn't really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn't have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself."

The biggest influence on Bowie's identity as a performer may have been choreographer Lindsay Kemp. Under Kemp, Bowie learned ancient dramatic arts like mime, kabuki, and commedia dell'arte that operate on a grand, exaggerated scale. These forms use masks, face paint, stylized movement, and character archetypes to portray a bigger-than-life artistic truth, and Bowie would carry these ideas with him in almost everything he did.

Kemp's fascination with kabuki in particular was a major influence on Bowie's gender-bending ways. "The main thing [Bowie] got from Kemp was his taste for turning life itself into a performance, another Kabuki-like influence," Ian Buruma writes in the New York Review of Books. "In the old days onnagata actors [men who dressed as women in Kabuki theatre] were encouraged to dress up as women in real life too."

Bowie mystified and enthralled critics and audiences with androgynous, flamboyant characters such as Ziggy Stardust, and he created provocative album covers that featured him wearing a dress or posing like a Hollywood starlet.

He became a "master of drag," Lisa Perrott writes at CNN. Bowie mimicked and transformed the physical gestures of great women performers like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, as well as male music legends like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Bowie turned the macho charisma of Presley into something far more glittery, fluid, and joyously transgressive.

The music video for "Boys Keep Swinging" features Bowie winking at gender roles in his usual way, both portraying a hip-swiveling male rocker and appearing in drag as different women who defiantly pull off their wigs and smear their lipstick. The lipstick smearing would become an iconic gesture later imitated by Lorde at the 2014 American Music Awards.

Bowie's sexual orientation seemed just as fluid as his gender expression. He came out several different times in several different ways — as gay in 1972, as bisexual in 1976, and finally as a "closet heterosexual" who said he thought it had been a huge mistake to publicly identify as bi.

While Bowie's personal life and orientation were subject to much public curiosity, his performance of gender was the most consequential part of his art and his legacy. And, perhaps ironically, that performance helped inspire very real social change for young queer and gender nonconforming people.

"It’s difficult for people to appreciate now just how different the 70s were. ... Things were still terribly old fashioned, the social texture was very straight," writes Grayson Perry at the Guardian. "At exactly the same time I was experimenting with dressing up, and it felt like Bowie was giving me and a whole generation of kids permission to explore the dressing-up box." BuzzFeed collected an outpouring of social media love and grief from LGBTQ people who feel Bowie helped reassure them that it was okay to be who they really are.

Bowie's artistic style, as Buruma put it, was to "plunder high art and take it down to the street." He didn't invent gender nonconformity, but the infectiousness of his performances helped popularize it. And that helped pave the way for other "outcasts" like Bowie to both enjoy and fight for greater equality.