I seek to question gender and the supposed “normal” gender identities of masculine and feminine. I believe that these states, which we are programmed to accept as children and engulf us our entire lives, are just as constructed and artificial as those deemed “outside the box”.
Visual media sells us more than products to buy and fashion to copy, it tells us who we are and who we should be. Visual media reinforces a perfectly bisected society into which imperfections must be sorted. It sells us a lifestyle, values, an “ideal” image. But what’s more-it sells us the idea of “normalcy”.
My suggestion is that that there is no “ideal” or “normal” gender identity. Gender is instead a performance. We all walk, talk and act in ways which consolidate an impression of being masculine or feminine, beyond the biological factors and drives that make us fundamentally male or female. Society choses a role for us, visual media sets an “ideal” and we mimic a gender identity…just like drag performers.
I hope to convince you that whilst we may conform to a consensually normal gender role and identity, we are, in fact, all drag artists.
Feminist author Judith Butler, through her theory of, “Gender Performativity” suggests that:
“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” (Gender Trouble, 1990 p.33).
For Butler, gender is not an expression of some inner “core” our identities are free-floating. Gender, traditional or not, is “performative”. It is a series of acts; gestures and desires repeated over time to become habit.
Gender becomes a parody: an imitation of an imitation that has no essential origin. Not who we are, rather what we do: an effect of our performances. The various acts create the idea of gender and without those acts there would be no gender at all. It is not a question of whether to do a gender performance, rather it’s form: masculine or feminine.
Butler suggests that, the cultural practices of drag confirm the performative nature of feminine and masculine identities. They also display the instability between sex and gender. The drag identity is neither fully masculine nor feminine, but a complex collective of characteristics that challenge the usually divided view of gender held by society.
“In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative nature of gender itself-as well as its contingency” (Gender Trouble, 1990. P.137)
Drag performance plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. The entire persona is a caricature of the opposite gender, revealing how stereotypical and fictitious social “norms” are. Divergence from these “norms” through mimicry allows us to change the binary nature of masculinity and femininity.
Visual media bombard us with “ideals”, exceptions to which create conflict and make this medium the site of a “semiotic war” (that of symbolic representation).
Icons such as Lady Gaga revel in imitating the opposite gender and defying the gender binary. Similarly, drag queen RuPaul presents himself in both genders and is notably indifferent about gender-specific language:
“You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me, me.”
As is drag king Del La Grace Volcano. (show clip)
Photographs by Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing conflict with mainstream visual media by showing that there is no default gender position. Any image is interpreted only by reference to other images.
Their photographs offer visual experiences that hinge on our memories of other common images from family snapshots to film stills. These representations evoke the familiar: the key to their meaning stems from our cultural knowledge of the generic as well as the precise.
Sherman and Wearing both evidence how “normal” gender identities can literally be mimicked, changed or adapted by just one person.
Drag Parody in Icons/Ironics
Fashion is a cycle that constantly revives and reinstates factors that reinforce “normal” gender identities. “Normalcy” is reduced to parts, revived and remade over and over again. Before Kate Moss there was Twiggy, before Dita Von Teese there was Betty Page. Imitation of image is part of our visual culture and reinforces traditional stereotypes.
Race, class, sexuality and gender: Elvis’s appearance violated them all.
Whether through his dyed hair, stuffed crotch, mascara, or his imitation of black music and style, Elvis was a mimic.
He was produced as a series of detachable body parts, each having a life of its own: the curling lip, the hips, the hairstyle, the pseudonymic “pelvis”, all part of a presented image and all impersonated with passion to this day.
Drag king Del La Grace Volcano in “The Drag King Book” stated:
“Elvis was the consummate male performer because his entire act was an imitation.”
Marilyn Monroe, with her platinum blonde hair, curvaceous body, glamorous red lipstick and that much-copied beauty spot, was the epitome of femininity. These iconic attributes and the notion that “blondes have more fun” are, however, evident in periods long before the rise of Monroe in the 50’s. During the Renaissance period, rubenesque women dominated the ideal female body image. Evidently, the persona of Marilyn manufactured by Norma Jeane was in itself a copy of a copy.
Even 50 years after her death, Monroe is venerated still, forever referenced and imitated by adoring drag performers, Hollywood starlets and even current fashion campaigns, thus the mimicry cycle continues.
Monroe was the personification of a stereotypical 50’s woman – beautiful but submissive. Conversely men were portrayed as dominant and sexually aggressive, something still prevalent within visual media today. (show ads).
Influential in constructing gender roles, omnipresent advertising instils and reinforces the collective expectations of gender, beauty and “normalcy”. The result – body image, homophobia and sexism issues still permeate our culture. Whilst drag queens and arguably drag kings are becoming more main stream, the “ideals” depicted in adverts, which engulf our lives, still deem them as “outside” the “norm”.
RuPaul and Photoshop
RuPaul – writer, model and performer, is perhaps the leading drag queen in the world today. In a quest to liberate people’s notions of “normal” beauty, RuPaul has built a successful career by accentuating all things feminine: dewy skin, big eyes-even bigger hair, seductive gestures and immaculate make-up. His imitation of perfection, which is deemed elaborate and hyper-feminine is in fact almost identical to the unattainable yet “ideal” images of women in everyday advertisements.
Visual media has a strangle hold of our social reality and perceptions of “normal” gender identities. From our earliest experiences, the marketing machine conditions us to employ copious resources to achieve perfection or else be deemed a failure.
But failure is inevitable as “ideals” of beauty and gender identity are false, the misleading outcomes of digital airbrushing, advertisers and Photoshop.
Images of “ideal” femininity and masculinity are now so abundant that they are deemed “normal” representations. The sheer volume of the same faces and bodies make these exceptional standards seem more and more achievable. In reality, these images are edited to a staggering degree.
As feminist author and filmmaker Jean Kilborne once stated:
“They are never seen to have any scars or blemishes-indeed they have no pores!” (Killing Us Softly 3).
Digital editing has become so extreme some advertisements have even been banned (show ads)
The heavy use of digital editing has distorted our ideas of “normal” masculinities and femininities. In reality, these visuals are just as constructed and accentuated as the appearances of drag queens, Photoshop becoming digital drag. “Evolution” launched by Unilever in 2006 was a part of Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty to promote their Self-Esteem fund. The clip reinforces how easy it is to distort our perceptions of beauty through clever lighting, make-up and digital manipulation.
We may all be conforming and expressing stereotypical gender “norms”, even by direct opposition to them. The act of drag serves to reinforce these gender conventions in an overstated way. It could be deemed over-conforming as easily as being deemed “outside the box”.
Gender ideals and “normalities” engulf our day to day visual culture, impacting upon our perceptions of drag kings and queens. It could be argued that in reality everything is parody and almost everything we do is simply a variation on what has been done before. As stated in RuPaul’s autobiography, “Lettin’ It All Hang Out”:
“We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”
The theme to my overall project was initially focused on transgender and transsexual identities. Having been inspired to question the binary nature of gender and what it is that makes us fundamentally male or female beyond our biological functions; focusing on gender in relation to transsexual and transgender identities seemed a perfectly plausible and interesting one.
I began by exploring both the biological and cultural notions toward gender identity. These often-conflicting viewpoints allowed me to understand and open my mind to different perspectives diminishing any bias or one sidedness. However, this research formed only a solid base for my ideas and project to expand from as well as develop my own opinion on the matter. Up to this point my research and project became too much of a sociological exploration and I needed to bring my project into a visual realm.
I was encouraged to make more use of the works of feminist author Judith Butler, whose ideas are key within queer theory and gender identity. For Butler (Gender Trouble), the act of drag implicitly reveals the performative nature of masculine and feminine identities and the instability between sex and gender. Butler’s theory entitled, “gender performativity,” suggests that all gender identities are free-floating: that normative gender “ideals” are an “illusion” and that there is no “core” gender. Instead, gender is performative, a parody, a copy of a copy, with no original. A series of acts, gestures and behaviours repeated and stylized over time, which give the impression of being a natural sort of thing. The act of drag evidences this notion perfectly and puts into question the gender binary as well as what is considered a “normal” gender identity.
Here, it became clear that the act of drag reinforces and challenges the binary view of gender much further and so more successfully compared to focusing on trans identities. Transsexuals want to change their biological sex by becoming the opposite sex and gender, whilst drag artists just “perform” a gender identity, which conflicts with their biological sex. Drag artists become a caricature of the opposite gender and sex: highlighting how fictitious hegemonic norms are. They prove that gender can literally be mimicked, adapted and changed by just one person without having to change their biological sex, unlike transsexuals. As an outcome, the theme to my project gradually evolved and became focused on the act of drag.
I began to research the representations of gender identities within visual media: adverts, films, television and so on. I wanted to show how the sheer bombardment of artificially constructed (Photoshop, advertisers, brands, surgery, celebrity) gender identities as well as the same beautiful faces within visual media influence societies ideas of “normal” gender identities and roles. I wanted to prove that visual media sells us much more than products, its sells us “ideals” but what’s more the idea of “normalcy”.
In reality I found that, as Butler suggested, everything is parody and “normalcy” is just as constructed and artificial as the appearances and acts of drag artists. I feel my research into current brands and advertisements as well as the use of Photoshop evidenced my slowly developing opinion, which coincides with Butler’s works, that we are just like drag artists. I felt in particular my suggestion that ‘Photoshop=Digital Drag” reinforced and evidenced that even those “normal” gender identities which engulf our lives within visual media are just as constructed and artificial as drag artists. If these “ideals” are deemed “normal” representations of “normal” gender identities, it’s hypocrisy to deem drag artists as “outside the box”. If anything the appearances and acts of drag artists overt and conform more aggressively to the hegemonic “norms” which engulf our society. From here I wanted to suggest that drag artists which are still deemed as outside the normative framework of the gender binary and are still not a regular thing within everyday visual media, could be deemed as over-conforming just as easily as being deemed “outside” the norm.
I wanted to prove that the binary nature of gender and representations of “normal” masculinities and femininities are flawed. I feel my research on representations of “normal” gender identities within visual media helped convey and inform this idea. However, I feel I’m lacking research on the representations of drag identities within visual media. Whilst I researched successful drag artists RuPaul and Del La Grace Volcano, I wish I had researched more on how regular drag artists are portrayed and seen within society.
Drag artists are still marginalized and stigmatized whilst homophobia still permeates our culture. I feel by evidencing these representations and different opinions on drag performance it would have proved further how ridiculous our ideas of hegemonic norms and gender ideals are. For example, here is a drag queen that is more feminine than a biological female, despite having a penis; from outer appearances this person is accentuating all those hegemonic norms of femininity, which reflect representations of femininity within visual media as well as our own ideas of femininity. However, they are still stigmatized. I feel it would have reinforced just how fictitious gender norms are and the performative nature of gender further. I had also done research on body builders and other trans identities, but due to lost files ran out of time to include them.
When it came to constructing my final video my key ideas were in place, which made building the video quite a straightforward process. I wanted to create a video as I felt it would be more successful in conveying my ideas clearly to the audience as well as the opportunity to create a visual experience as opposed to a stiff presentation. If I had more time I would have included more on how “normal” gender identities are portrayed as well as how regular drag artists are portrayed within visual media and compare the two. This would have reinforced more clearly that gender is performative, a parody and that we are all like drag artists. We are all conforming and act in ways, which consolidate an impression of masculinity or femininity and feel by drawing more comparisons between these representations would have reinforced my idea more successfully.
Sometimes I wonder if rather than featuring both Marilyn and Elvis in my video, I should have picked just one. Both icons represent a “normal” and “ideal” gender identity, which in itself was an act of imitation and still imitated today. Thus, reinforcing my suggestion that “normalcy” and gender is performative just like drag artists. By choosing one it would have freed up more time and may have made my point punchier. However, I wanted to include an icon that represented a different sex and gender to link to the appearances of both drag kings and drag queens.
Overall, upon reflection, I feel my final piece was sufficient in conveying my key idea that gender is performative. On the day of symposium I was relieved to have made a video as all my ideas and visuals were set in place, ensuring that no key idea or hiccup would occur. I did panic about the sound levels at one point but a sound check before ensured that the audience were able to here my video presentation just fine. The time limit meant I had to remove some supporting material. However, I feel I could have condensed some of my ideas further to show more material on how gender is mimicked by everyone. Perhaps through clips of men in heels or women stuffing their crotch. I feel these comparisons would have reinforced and convinced my audience on my suggestion that ‘we’re all in drag’ more successfully. I feel I could have made this point come across more aggressively by showing how far “normal” acts and gestures are mimicked just like drag performers. I wanted to convince my audience that gender is free-floating, using the works of feminist author Judith Butler, to support and evidence this as well as videos and images of drag identities, which I felt has worked.
From here I hope to continue researching notions and theories surrounding “normal” gender identities and push the boundaries of the binary nature of gender identity through my own photographic works.