There is something very special about performance. Unlike film or TV, it is live and in person. There is something unique about the live-ness of performance. When people gather together to see a live performance, to me it represents hope. And our society certainly needs way more hope. The live-ness of performance elicits an emotional response that is hard to find in pre-recorded media. I rarely see live plays but when I do I am very much transfixed and brought right into the present moment. I would like to start seeing more performances because there is nothing like them.
The other thing I would like to talk about in relation to performance that queers the subject is the way in which gender is a performance. In 1990, queer theorist Judith Butler wrote the groundbreaking academic text Gender Trouble. It is brilliant, difficult and foundational. She applied a postmodern lens to gender and took social constructionism to the next level. In the book she interrupts the specious notion that gender is constructed while “sex” [the category] is real and essential. Both sex and gender are thoroughly constructed and imbedded with multiple cultural meanings. “Gender is performative” has become a common slogan now within the fields of women’s, gender, sexuality, queer and transgender studies.
What does it mean? If we think about drag, we can easily see how someone of one assigned biological sex/gender is performing the expression of the “opposite” sex/gender. Drag performance highlights the constructedness of gender. Gender is not a real, stable or coherent essence. It is something that is filled with social, cultural and political meanings. The meaning of gender is constantly being created by social actors. It is constantly being made, remade and unmade. Its meanings differ across cultures and across historical periods. But drag is simply the more obvious manifestation of the performativity of gender. It is literally performed on a stage. We see an exaggerated version of femininity or masculinity that the drag queen or king is typically portraying on that stage. So while it highlights the constructedness of gender, it should be known that this “drag” performance moves beyond the stage to the realm of everyday life. RuPaul said you’re born naked and the rest is drag.
Some misunderstand the performativity of gender to mean that it is as easy as wearing a suit one day and a dress the next. While that may be true for some non-binary or gender fluid people, for others it is not that simple, including many trans people. Judith Butler states that this mistakenly see gender as voluntarist. In Philosophy, voluntarism is the doctrine that the will is a fundamental or dominant factor in the individual or the universe. What makes people perform gender in a particular way is not entirely known. Just like we don’t know why some people are trans and so thoroughly dis-identify with the sex/gender assigned to them at birth. Gender performativity for everyday people is usually not done in a willful manner like it is for drag performers.
But we must not stop the analysis there. Why is gender expression so automatic for so many people? Is this due to something essential within the person or due to the fact that the binary gender system is so ubiquitous and so tyrannical? Gender expressions that do not conform to one’s assigned sex are heavily punished, even to the point of violence or murder. If all gender expressions from A-Z were routinely accepted, I doubt if people would feel so boxed in to the gender role expectations of only one rigid category. In fact, I believe expressions of gender would become so variegated and multiplicitous that gender would cease to have any meaningful existence, hence my desire for gender abolitionism.
Performance is live and agentic. It gives spectators hope and inspiration. With gender, however, gender is performative but not voluntarist. We do not know the limits of gender performativity because we live in such an oppressive binary gender system that punishbes people for transgressing assigned gender roles. If we lived in a radically different culture, there’s no telling what gender would look like and how its expressions would multiply due to a lack of fear of reprisals for stepping outside of the narrow box.