Perception and categorization is everything in relation to gender and sexuality. Society and visual media have a habit of churning out the same images, “ideals” and “normalcies” for men and women and so people believe and comply to the rigid realties of the gender binary, where men and women are expected to act and look a certain way. In reality there is so much more diversity and vibrancy to be found and gender categories are fast evolving. As an outcome gender and sex categorization provides an interesting example of the intersection of natural and artificial as well as biological and social categories.
Biological sex has been assumed to be the basic category into which we categorize others as well our own self-identification and membership to one side or the other side of the gender binary. We learn from a young age that people come in two sexes, male and female, depending on their endowment of sex chromosomes, XX or XY. Females will be feminine have vaginas and breasts whilst males will be masculine have penises and testes. This is the “norm”. However, things aren’t always this simple. Transgender individuals feel a difference between their internal gender and the gender roles set by society. Transsexual individuals feel their assigned sex at birth is wrong and their correct sex in one that matches their internal feelings. The existence of these individuals proves that the socially accepted formula that biological sex equals gender equals sexuality is false. Gender is free-floating and can change. But even those who are transgender, transsexual and intersex identify themselves as either male or female and represent themselves in such ways. It made me realise how difficult people find it to deviate from the categories of male and female. However, there is now a new category emerging with society, one which has been highlighted beautifully by photographer Bettina Rheims and one I too wish to expose.
Bettina Rheims began working as a model, journalist and art dealer before moving behind the camera in her late twenties. Since the 1980’s her work has focused of gender and sexuality, capturing individuals ranging from the androgynous to transgendered. Her works highlight the fluidity of gender and challenge our ideas of gender “norms” as well as what is beautiful. It is this very concept of gender fluidity and individuals which break away from the rigid gender binary, which makes Bettina Rheims and her photographic works so magical.
In “Modern Lovers” (1989-91) which was exhibited at Hamiltons, Rheim’s depicted a series of androgynous and transgender adolescents. Each black and white, dead pan image is a statement of individuality. The images encourage you to question what is masculine and what is feminine? Puberty is a time of bodily change and these images highlight how males and females at this age can closely resemble one another. It proves how gender can be fluid and taken on by anyone, regardless of sex. Males can be feminine and have long hair, females can be masculine and have short hair is basically what the series evokes. It shows how we associate certain looks and styles to men and women also, mocking our ideas of “ideal” or “normal” gender identities.
However, in her series entitled, “Gender Studies” which was triggered by the images produced for “Modern Lovers” Rheims pushes the gender binary further, by depicting a new form of being. Rheims depicts transsexuals and a third gender; those that prefer not to choose a sex and exist as both, adopting a dual identity. These individuals are not just girlish boys and boyish girls like Rheims has captured in previous series, these individuals outright refuse to categorise themselves as either male or female. And it is precisely this which is what gives this photographic series on gender its edge.
In choosing to capture such unique individuals Rheims’s not only highlights that gender is malleable but that now more than ever gender identities, beauty and normalcy are at the peak of change. The images suggest that the socially accepted “norm” that there are two sex categories: male and female, could one day be a distant memory. It’s exciting and perhaps even odd for some audiences. Rheims in a beautifully subtle way shows that the gender binary should be pushed, challenged and questioned. Rather than male or female, these are beautiful, gender bending, convention breaking human beings.
What I adore most is not just the subjects depicted but the muted colour palette of the portraits, which gives them a mystical allure. It emphasises an element of mystery as these sorts of individuals are still not entirely mainstream or fully accepted in society. By highlighting and capturing the essence of these gender-bending individuals and transforming them into mystical creatures, it elevates them into almost godly characters, above regular society, as opposed to outcasts. These boys aren’t afraid to wear wigs or mascara; the girls don’t mind flexing their muscles. Rheims cleverly highlights the individuality within each identity captured, resulting in a truly mesmerizing but what’s more political and evolutionary photographic series. These individuals are refusing to be categorized as male and female, but as an audience we still seek to do so. There is a delicacy to the images in the sense that what is hidden and revealed has been carefully constructed. What will reveal this person’s biological sex? How do we categorize this person? Is it by their make-up? Is it by their posture? The images reinforce our human need to categorize and fear of ambiguity. But how do we categorize such elusive identities?
First, it’s important to distinguish the difference between categorization and concepts, something I feel Rheims understands. Categorization is the information we retrieve through stimuli, the physical attributes and properties of an object or individual. A concept is a mental representation of a category. We each have our own experience, memories, ideas and pre-existing knowledge, which help us categorize something. Concepts serve important mental functions: they group related entities together into classes. Generally, we think our mental concepts as being derived from the actual categorical structure of the real world, but it’s not always the case. The question is then whether the mind is solely influenced by the categorical structure of the world, or whether the mind imposes such structures. In other words, do these categories already exist in the world, or do they only exist in the mind. Is there really only male and female, masculine and feminine? How do we distinguish these things, our own concepts or particular properties? What objects or looks do we associate with masculinity and femininity? Is it really that simple? Rheims invites us to ask such questions.
For example, let’s question the parts being presented in the following image (above) from the series. The defined eyebrows, flick of mascara, painted pink lips and black beauty spot all echo the look of Hollywood screen siren Marilyn Monroe. The slender limbs, pale skin, deer like eyes and black cropped hairstyle resemble the waif-like Audrey Hepburn. These parts: make up and small frame we would consider feminine. These are the “norms” we associate with females. And so at a glance this could be an image of skinny girl. The parts accentuated or added also echo the appearances of “ideal” and iconic female beauties as I stated which proves not only that gender and beauty can be reduced to parts which can be expressed by anyone but that gender is a parody. This links to the ideas expressed by Garber and Butler, who use the act of drag to prove the performative and parodied nature of gender and identity itself. Gender is an imitation of an imitation and reveals how ridiculous hegemonic norms are, as gender has no origin or ideal and we can all express different genders. However, to me the image is still of a boy, a very boy. And this is what’s so intriguing about the series of images. Sometimes you just really can’t tell and end up arguing with yourself, whereby accepting this idea of a third gender becomes a great idea (for our peace of mind).
Rheims images invite you to take them a part and question gender and I want to do the same. I want to create images which invite the audience to investigate and deconstruct what is being shown before them. The sheen of a bottom lip, a painted finger nail, a flat chest all act as signals for masculinity or femininity, within “Gender Studies” and are things I wish to emulate within my own images. I want to show that gender is an imitation of an imitation with the capacity to be reduced to parts which prove its fluidity.
Rheims’ images highlight the fluidity of gender and stylishly challenge the binary nature of gender in a subtle and intriguing way. The simplicity and minute details within the images is what makes these portraits so powerful. Rheims is clever. The images are not flamboyant or excessive nor do they need to be. Despite appearing effortlessly stylish and unpretentious, the images have been carefully constructed, all seen through the artistic eye of Rheims. She knows what to reveal and what to keep hidden and I need to make the same conscious decisions when photographing my subjects. “Gender Studies” has inspired me to create images that are simple and subtle but hold a political agenda. I want to photograph similar subjects and highlight the fluidity of gender by accentuating masculinities in females and femininities in males. To learn more check out the video below of Rheim’s talking about “Gender Studies”
Blogspot Reel Foto (27 October 2012) Bettina Rheims: Gender Studies [online] available from< http://reelfoto.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/bettina-rheims-gender-studies.html>[4 March 2014]