Editor’s Note: Judith Butler revolutionized the debate on gender and sexuality in the 90’s with the publication of Gender Trouble. In a unique approach to the study of gender, Butler has stated that we perform our assigned sexes since we are born, a theory that has been denominated gender performativity. How can we, as women, understand the steps we take to perform our femininity? Are we even conscious of it? In search of some answers, I relied on a community that is infamous for its hyperbolization of femininity: drag queens.
Written by Vena Cava/ Anthony Velázquez
Judith Butler views gender as an open-ended process which is never fully realized. When referring to sex, she believes that it is always gendered. A body becomes gendered even before entering social existence. The sex of a baby is always something people are curious about, even before its birth. We want to know our child is a girl so we can buy her pink things, dolls and dresses and socialize her to be a woman because it is what has become natural to us.
Butler adapts Simone de Beauvoir’s position that gender is not something one is, but something one does. Meaning that gender is performed. Performativity is not a single act but a repetition, which achieves its effects through its naturalization. Gender norms are discursively created and reinforced by society. Meaning that things we take as facts were reached consensually and their very existence enables their reproduction. It is possible to re-enact gender in ways that work against heteronormativity. We’ve all witnessed this because we see humans that don’t fit our ideals of masculinity or femininity. A somewhat subversive performance of gender is seen through the parody which is drag.
The reinterpretation of gender through drag
Let’s imagine the scene: A stage illuminated by a spotlight at your local “gay” bar; the intro to a pop song plays in the background. Suddenly, in walks in the drag performer in all their shimmering glory. Suppose that one thinks one sees a cisgender man dressed as a woman. To arrive at this conclusion one is making an assumption of the anatomical nature of the body, an assumption we are not always correct in making. We take that first term, man, to be the reality of gender and label the second as a fiction, be it a performance.
This parody reveals gender as a regulatory fiction. When the categories male/female come into question the reality of gender is also put in crisis. Why do I act and have these definitions of masculinity and femininity if this person is currently choosing to perform the opposite of this binary? We realize that what we take to be real, concrete, natural is in fact changeable and mobile reality. It prompts a rethinking of these categories. What is gender? How is it performed? How is it produced?
Understanding that this “reality” could be a different one is in important step toward the acceptance of other humans who live a reality different to our own. People who do not act their gender correctly are punished by laws and cultures which have an interest in maintaining their oppressive norms. Individuals have the audacity to question bodies outside of their norms (such as the Trans, Queer or non-binary spectrum) and label them as false, unreal, inhuman. The “I don’t believe in “insert identity here” people” is a discourse that belittles and dehumanizes individuals who are different from yourself. Drag should be taken as metaphor that questions our established reality, by showing us that it is not fixed as we generally assume it to be. The realization of this should lead to a counter of the violence enacted by gender norms.
On gender expression
I understand that expressing my gender the way I do is a conscious decision, which positions me outside of a hetoronormative safe zone and into a line of fire. I risk being shunned by my family and society in general and receiving verbal, mental and physical abuse because the way I look does not comply with the norms. As sad as it is to admit, heteronormative, patriarchal society has simplified our way of living. We assume everyone is male or a female. We avoid the “What are your pronouns? How do you identify?” discourse, which would imply us learning a limitless amount of terms related to gender identity and how we are supposed to behave towards them. This comes with a steep cost because we then view people outside these norms as unnatural; positioning them in a place where discrimination and violence can be administered to them.
As an example, yesterday I was conversing with a friend on the street. I donned pastel pink hair, a Giambattista Valli A/W 2016-inspired glitter brow, Chanel Couture S/S 2014 lower lid glitter eyeliner, a black blazer, black crop top, a black short skirt, hairy legs, and some black Converse. My friend had black hair, no makeup, facial hair, a green jacket, a burgundy button-down and long pants. A cisgender, heterosexual man comes up to us to compliment my appearance, comparing my hair to pink, sugared popcorn. He says I’m mystical like Peter Pan and calls my friend a villain; a Captain Hook. He insistently tries to establish a conversation we do not wish to have. He fist bumps me to say goodbye because “he was busy touching his dick a little while ago”. What a man.
Little did he know, my friend and I were speaking about our gender expression before he arrived. Little did he know, my friend did not don facial hair a few months ago. He even quite frequently wore skirts and dresses. We both choose to dress however we please and don’t let gender norms dictate the ephemeral attire. Even though coming from a “nice place” this micro-aggression is a form of violence I live daily. I don’t mind a compliment. I love them. However, I am not a piece of popcorn. I am not a thing; do not fetishize me. Quite frankly, I don’t even like Peter Pan. I’m merely human: just like everyone else.