Saturday, December 04, 2004


Show and Tell: Drag/Passing/Performing/Being

1. Drawing the same circle a thousand times: Repetition and Synthesis

This week we have been exploring the idea of performativity in a number of different contexts and valences (hereafter referred to by the synecdoche V), the extent to which performativity constitutes identity, or fails to as the borders of same escape the edges of the performance necessitating repetition. Further some of the texts and film we have looked at explores conscious performance and the implications on that on the necessity of the subject to “pass”, without revealing any split between their assigned sex and assigned gender so as to prop up the conceit of continuity between and within the two categories even as its logic undermines the very primacy of the original. Judith Butler posits a link not only between all gender and drag, but also between repetition and constitution, in effect concluding that gender is a kind of spell made true by repeated incantation, a mantra with no original form that both is and does.

2. V for Vicious

Implicit in the idea of this mantra of gender/sex is the idea of passing, for though, as the film Boys Don’t Cry (and countless other examples) shows there are members of the gender/sex continuum whose process of “passing” is more acute, more dangerous, practically violent and filled with trepidation, we all “pass” to a lesser or greater extent, and not only in terms of our physical appearance. Indeed it is perhaps less of a case of “womanliness” as masquerade as it is “personhood” as masquerade, where, however the mask and the face are part of one another, as I have argued elsewhere. In semantic groups, in grouping within groupings we reduce the variety of the individual as a flow of social and biological into logical and workable groups for better or worse, and this fact becomes particularly noticeable in those places where our own logic shows its multitude of flaws, and disrupts the epistemological net upon which phallogocentricity is supported. These more potent points of confrontation between the conceit of the natural and the (not-necessarily-self-identified-as…) subversive performative, are perhaps the very loci of which Butler speaks where there may be a “political imperative to use…necessary error or category mistakes” to reuse names that divide sharply… like “gay” and “lesbian”, “butch” and “femme” but I consider that it can be a thorny problem; essentially we face the perennial difficulty of using such dichotomous logics in attempting to disrupt them, we try to keep a subversive hand on the wheel, though the road ahead seems straight, but that is not to say that such terms are not useful at times. Processes of thought, modes of expression are all converted for acceptable use within dichotomies of “pro” and “anti”, “left” and “right” within which we may or may not feel comfortable, indeed much psychotherapy whether focused on the sexual strata of psychoanalysis or on cognitive behavior is about learning to “pass” comfortably in society. To return to the idea of gender in particular, as an aspect of this self-constitutive process, and to the parallel concepts of drag and passing, first let us consider what is involved in drag, in dragging. Whether we are seeking to emulate the “male” the “female” or a vision of ourselves, constituting oneself can always be seen as a process of becoming the other, since the ideal is the mirror image, the imago and thus not the self, but a vision entering into the realm of desire, and therefore, ultimately, an impossibility. Thus to a degree we are all cross-dressers, perhaps. But in the process of acting a “gender” or “type” this process becomes more obvious, and the potentials and pitfalls of the dressing, the drag and the detail are revealed. In repetition, as Butler argues, we can see the self, or impossibility of a Self balking at a label, so that the label like some band-aid on a swimming child’s knee needs to be attached and reattached to cover the wound where move, change and growth is happening. In fact, this re-iteration of category is, even in those who willingly conform to heteronorms, obviously and evidently unstable…a person’s vision and presentation of themselves is in fact expected to change over time, as age and experience of various kinds act upon us, and we upon them, but the limitations of this expected to change are interestingly closed off…for someone to seem to become less or more masculine or feminine, if moving “away” from their proscribed sex ( a sex that is socially inscribed and constituted in this other to which they move) would be considered unacceptable or suspect, as can be seen in the attacks on the perceived “masculinization” that occurs in menopause as Anne Fausto Sterling explores it in Myths of Gender. In the repetition, and the inability to produce a stable definition, or even a truly reliable copy, we can see the potential disruptive and creative force within the layered gender. We can also see how the effect of this incantation is to make it seem natural, and internal, because in fact, it is no more external than internal, it is no more other than self, since as indicated above the other and the self are linked across a fluid chain. When “re-performing” a “gender” or “type” however, certain other problems come to the fore…although such performance may have disruptive power to the idea of the primacy of the natural as implicated in gender performance, the cluster of concepts around the gender remain fairly fixed, and the dichotomy is repeated. To act like a woman, even for a man remains to be ladylike, emotional, and concerned with personal grooming, among other things, so to be a woman still carries this baggage with it, clearly. Thus although the being of a woman may have become disengaged from a “female” body per se, what it is to have a female body and to be a woman is still circumscribed within the focus of the performance…the “real” that is striven for but that is precisely not real. While it may be true that there is “no proper gender, a gender that is proper to one sex but not another” in practical terms, in problems like the “urinary segregation” spoken of by Judith Halberstam et al. we see that the unstable perimeters that circulate sex, gender and self are constantly policed through a network of hegemony, and that they are policed precisely because they are unstable, and it is for this reason that drag may at once signify a valence that is v for vicious and a v for victory in both directions.

2. The Insightment(sic) to look

In her article “Decking Out: Performing Identities” Butler speaks of the content of this interstitial space between and inside self and sex in the following terms...”Part of what constitutes sexuality is precisely that which does not appear and that which to some degree, can never appear”(p.25). The tensions between the unseen nature of this realm and its status as part and parcel, and indeed centre to an economy of desire is at the heart of both the creation of sexualities that run along a continuum in relation to social sex designation and sex object, and to the contradictory desire to see what is not there, that is found in the bathroom drama described in Halberstam’s essays, and in the dialogue of revealing, both violent and “voluntary” that takes place in Boys Don’t Cry. In this film the audience is made party to a series of revelations on the nature of Tina/Brandon’s “Sexual Identity Crisis”, we are put in a position to see the line of cleavage, to his menstrual drama, and to his forced confessions. But in the end though at times we are in intimate and sympathetic relation to the character, we are party to his undoing, we are implied in his rape, and are forced, like Lana to look at his genitals which have no bearing whatever to his conception of himself. We are made culpable and our gaze is involved in a visual rape that prefigures the physical rape to which we are also invited. To add insult to injury perhaps, we are then presumed to have seen the truth of Tina/Brandon’s sexual status as a woman, a lesbian, as is evidenced by the lesbian lovemaking seen, where Brandon takes on an incongruous female role , which seems preposterous, (a result of his being taught by the phallic eye and the rape, perhaps a “true” role?) especially in relation to his nearly immediately preceding rape. The rape, the necessity to rape as a punishment for transgressing gender roles is in fact a site of the more violent aspect of this afore mentioned policing of gender. The rape, the use of the penis as weapon, seems to be the only way in which the characters, in this film can regain a sense of the importance of this organ after the true castration they undergo upon discovering that Brandon does not happen to have one. This castration is absolute, rather than physical or phantastic, because it reveals the true semantic distance between phallus and penis, and the import or LACK(sic) of same, in the organ in the making of masculinity.

There are many more questions to be asked about the nature of identities that, like Brandon’s self describe within the binary dichotomy of male and female even as they challenge them. The objects of desires, and natures of desires can be seen to create a multiplicity of different identity formations within the realm of “gay” and “lesbian” in a way that can be an effective tool for reflecting the reification of desire in the heteronorm if they can be excised in part from dichotomous schemes of their own, so as to highlight the constitutive and synthetic functions of repetition and to allow perhaps some basis for practical movement on these issues that so violently impact the lives of many.

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