Gender Trouble: Gender Performativity

Human beings try to make sense of the world by categorizing people into groups, labeling them and than reacting to those categories. So far I have learnt that as soon as an individual has knowledge of the fact a person whose gender, mannerisms and overall behaviour does not align with what’s between their legs, instantly react differently, but why? From an outsiders perspective if an individual appears female, acts female and sounds female or vice versa, what’s the difference if their genitals are different? A physical trait that is not always naked to the human eye. Why than do transgender people live up to social norms and gender stereotypes so overtly? Can you think of anyone who is more feminine than a drag queen?

Butler has suggested that there is no ‘core’ gender, instead is an illusion. Gender is performative, a series of acts and gestures projected onto the surface of our bodies, which have particular effects. These acts and gestures are stylized and repeated over time, up coming from culture, society and our own self-images of gender from within. From here Butler goes on to say:

“If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can neither be true or false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity” (p.136) In other words as gender is manufactured and represented onto the body than there is no right or wrong, natural or unnatural gender. It is simply a projection of the “inner” onto the “outer” of some sort of constructed gender identity.

For Butler, drag queens are the ideal example of this distinction between inner and outer psychic space and exposes the performative nature of gender flawlessly.  So what is a drag queen? A drag queen is a man who dresses up in women’s clothes, typically for the purposes of entertainment. For Butler, a drag queen evidences the instability between sex and gender and attests to the performative nature of masculine and feminine identity. Is this a man with a feminine appearance? Or is it his behaviour, his gestures, his overt femininity, which proves that his essence (inner) is actually feminine despite having a male body? Is it just an interpretation or imitation of what we are led to believe to be feminine? Or is it uprising from an essential inner feminine identity?

Butler states, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a hugely rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (p.33).  On the one hand, a drag queen’s overt femininity could be viewed as something natural uprising from within, a representation of a ‘natural’ ‘inner’ source and identity. On the other hand, their feminine identity could just be a well-rehearsed performance, learnt and constructed to have a particular effect, such as shock or entertainment (performative). Yes, the drag queen could be projecting and representing their ‘inner’ true selves or they could just be a man dressed as a woman.

Butler refers to ‘Mother Camp: The Female Impersonators in America” by Esther Newton who suggests that the structure of impersonation reveals one of the many key “fabricating mechanisms” through which gender is constructed. Newton writes:

“At it’s most complex, [drag] is a double inversion that says, “appearance is an illusion”. Drag says, “my ‘outside’ appearance is feminine, but my essence, ‘inside’ [the body] is masculine.” At the same time it symbolizes the opposite inversion; “my appearance ‘outside’ [my body, my gender] is masculine but my essence ‘inside’ [myself] is feminine.”

The drag queen exposes gender as a cultural code. They embody everything feminine and female in spite of having biologically male bodies. Their entire feminine identity relies on imitation, impersonation and reappearance, thus accentuating the ideas and representations with all have of what is femininity. Their feline grace, big hair, long eyelashes and dramatic outfits are femininity enhanced and emphasized! Is there anything more feminine than a drag queen? Could drag queens be the embodiment of the original feminine identity? The notion of their being an original gender is often parodied with the drag, cross dressing and sexual stylization of butch/femme identities and cultures. After all, they each embody and accentuate femininity or masculinity.

However, at the same time of embodying a feminine identity there is still a distinctiveness between the anatomical sexes, gender identity and gender performance of the drag queen. As much as the drag queen portrays a unified image of a “woman” it still reveals those aspects of gendered experience, which are for Butler, “falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence.” (p.137) The drag queen’s acts and gestures are ultra feminine, to appear more natural, thus being more coherent for us to view and digest. A drag queen imitates gender and by doing so the drag queen reveals the imitative nature of gender itself. We are all imitating or living up to a rule, an idea of what our identity should be, just like drag queens.

Butler goes on to say that gender is an imitation of an imitation there is no original.  The original, the ‘core’ gender is an “illusion” everything is imitation and performative when it comes to gender. And so, “…gender identity might be reconceived as a personal/cultural history of received meanings subject to a set of imitative practices which refer laterally to other imitations and which, jointly, construct the illusion of a primary and interior gendered self or parody the mechanism of construction.” (p.138) In other words, gender is a personal and cultural imitation, which are influenced and referenced from other imitations, thus tricking us into thinking there is an original or primary gender.

Overall, Butler’s theory of gender performativity suggests that gender ought not to be seen as caused by sex or construed as a stable factor or agency whereby various acts follow. Instead gender is constructed over time, expressed through the exterior through a “stylized repetition of acts”. Through this repetition of public reenactments, legitimacy is formed and gender maintained. These acts are based on imitation upon imitation and have no origin. However, through the sheer repetition of these bodily acts and gestures constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. As there is no preexisting gender identity by which an act or gesture can be measured from, there is no true or false, right or wrong, natural or unnatural gender act.

“That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex or a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.” (p.141)

As a result, gender is flexible and not restricted by biology. It is constructed through repeated and stylized bodily acts based on imitation upon imitation.  Like drag queens we are all reenacting the illusion of an ‘original’ and ‘natural’ gender which has never actually existed, certain acts and body types have been assigned to each sex category and repeated so far that they have been misperceived as stable and solid facts for each sex. Will men dressed in skirts ever become a ‘norm’?

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