Gender Trouble: Gender Performativity

Paul O'Grady in Drag

Paul O’Grady in Drag

“Garbo ‘got in drag’ whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man’s arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck…bear the weight of her thrown-back head…How resplendent seems the art of acting! It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not”-Parker Tyler, “The Garbo Image”

Where does the body end and where does gender begins? Is it our body that impacts and controls our gender or is it culture and society? To what extent can mind/body be re-described as culture/nature? We are taught that biological sex (nature) is definitive and ‘natural’ but it’s never quite that simple. Our minds, society and culture (nurture) impact our gender and identity also, thus raising many complexities in regards to gender.

Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity is a highly effective one, which suggests that gender is not necessarily ‘natural’ but rather constructed and performative. The construction/performance is influenced by our desire for coherence and our need to fit within structures formed by culture and society. People try and fit into the boxes set out for them and naturalize certain taboos to fit within society comfortably. For example, lady boys construct their bodies and nature so they look as natural and convincing as possible, thus making it easier for them to live within society as regular citizens. Butler uses drag queens to describe such conflicts between sex, gender and performance. But what is it Judith Butler actually says? What is gender performativity?

A central concept of the gender performativity theory is that gender is constructed through our own repetitive performance of gender. Through the repetition of these stylized bodily acts establishes the appearance of an essential “core” gender. To begin, Butler firstly establishes a distinction between there being an internal (soul, mind) and external (body) element to each human being. Both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ strive for stability. For Butler, this stability and coherence is determined by cultural orders that approve the subject and force its differentiation from the abject. “Hence, “inner” and “outer” constitute a binary distinction that stabilizes and consolidates that coherent subject” (p.134) and so humans, influenced by culture and inner selves strive for both body and mind to be coherent, but “How than does the body figure on it’s surface the very invisibility of it’s hidden depths?” (p.134)

Butler goes on to describe how the “inner” is reflected through the “outer”.  She explains, how the soul can be understood as “within” the body and is signified through its inscription on the body, even though its main mode of signification is the fact it cannot be seen, thus the body becomes signified as a sacred enclosure for the soul. The soul is precisely what the body lacks and so the body becomes a signifying lack. “In this sense, then, the soul is a surface signification that contests and displaces the inner/outer distinction itself, a figure of interior psychic space inscribed on the body as a social signification that perpetually renounces itself as such.” (p.135).  In Foucault terms the soul is not within the body at all instead, “the soul is the prison of the body”.

With this idea in mind, for Butler gender could be re-described as a production of fantasies through “the play of presence and absence on the body’s surface” (p.135). Desires, ideas and fantasies all of which are upcoming from the inner. As a result, the body’s surface becomes a representation of the soul and inner ideas of self. But what is it that generates the rules, the stylization of gender and fantasies on the body? Why do people still strive toward an image, which is culturally and socially acceptable and coherent? Who dictates such laws and structures to live by?

Butler considers the incest taboo and the production of gender identity along “the culturally intelligible grids of an idealized and compulsory heterosexuality” (p.135).  In other words, Butler argues that sex meaning male/female is seen to cause gender, which is masculine/feminine, which is seen to cause desire towards the other gender. This is seen as a kind of continuum. This is the order of things, which we are taught and learn to be ‘natural’ and ‘correct’, a norm and inevitable “core” to each individual. If you are born a female, you shall grow to be a woman, act feminine and be attracted to males and vice versa.

This is something set out by culture/society and is taught to be ‘natural’ inevitably impacting our gender and the way we represent and view it. We long for acceptance and coherence and this continuum offers such opportunity. By following this continuum we believe we will live successfully within society, be accepted and fulfill our gender sufficiently. We also believe that this link between body, gender and sexuality is an inner ‘core’ to our gender. Hence, why people who live on the outskirts of regular gender norms are often stigmatized or outcast.

Overall, Butler believes that culture, society and our natural need for acceptance and coherence dictate the laws and norms of gender. The supposed ‘natural’ link between sex, gender and sexuality also forces a structure for gender to abide by, which we believe to be “core” to every individual.

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