ain’t gender a drag?

Gender is the hottest topic on celebrity lips, but what does it actually mean? It’s time to integrate the work of gender theorists into the blossoming cultural conversation.

by Charlotte Gush
29 September 2015, 2:05pm

"I don't relate to being boy or girl," pop provocateur and LGBTQ youth charity founder Miley Cyrus explained in an interview earlier this year. "And I don't have to have my partner relate to boy or girl," she added. Cyrus has spoken about struggling with gender expectations as a child, saying that she resented being a girl. "I didn't want to be a boy," Miley told Out, "I kind of wanted to be nothing. I don't relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that's what I had to understand: being a girl isn't what I hate, it's the box that I get put into." The nipple-flashing, armpit-hair-baring musician is clear that her gender doesn't define her, nor does her sexuality.

For as long as pop culture has existed, there have been celebrities who challenge traditional ideas about gender -- about how women and men should dress, dance, walk and talk. Androgyny has a long and glittering history, from Marlene Dietrich to Elvis, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Prince and so many others. But in just the last few years, the issue of gender, and in particular the gender identities of those who fall somewhere between the traditional categories of "woman" and "man", has held a particular fascination for film, fashion, music and the media, as well as for the feminist movement and, of course, its conservative opponents.

In 2014, TIME magazine declared that we had reached a "transgender tipping point", placing Laverne Cox, perhaps the first ever mainstream transgender celebrity, on the cover. In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover remains the magazine and social media event of the year. From Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic to Mykki Blanco, Arca and Boychild, we now have a small galaxy of queer stars to look up to and learn from. Orange is the New Black actor Ruby Rose, who identifies as gender fluid, commented on the sudden rise in the recognition of non-binary genders, saying in an interview with Elle that she is "proud to be alive during this massive shift in the world."

Gender is certainly a focus of the global media, but does understanding and acceptance necessarily flow from visibility? Transgender, cisgender, agender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer: there's a whole new vocabulary to describe identities and modes of being that are not catered to by traditional and conservative language and structures. There is very little education about these experiences in schools or elsewhere, though, and many people feel unable to comprehend them. Often, we see examples of a person's assigned sex being confused with their gender identity or sexuality -- none of which should be assumed to dictate, or be dictated by, either of the others. Feminist, gender and queer theorists, however, have been working on these issues for decades, and their work desperately needs to be integrated into the cultural conversation. In order to comprehend the wide variety of identities, it is important to understand what is meant by, and the differences between, assigned sex and gender identity.

A person's assigned, or "biological" sex is determined by their chromosomes, hormone profile and genitalia, although observations of these attributes show a far greater variability than the sex binary (either "female" or "male") will allow. The controversial scientific doctrine of essentialism, which seeks to categorize things based on their "essential" properties, generally assigns a person's sex as "male" if they have XY chromosomes, more testosterone than estrogen, and a penis and testicles, and "female" if they have XX chromosomes, more estrogen than testosterone, and a vagina and breasts. Assigned sex and gender identity, however, are distinct -- and they do not necessarily correlate. So, if essentialist science is how human bodies come to be sexed, how does a person come to be gendered?

In her book The Second Sex, feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir stated that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." For de Beauvoir, gender is a facet of a person's identity that is developed or acquired over time. As opposed to assigned sex, gender is broadly understood to be socially and culturally constructed, with the phrase "gender binary" much later being used to describe the ways in which certain characteristics and roles are considered to be polarized, as either feminine or masculine.

"The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny; sex is understood to be the invariant, anatomically distinct, and factic aspects of the female body, whereas gender is the cultural meaning and form that the body acquires," writes preeminent gender theorist Judith Butler in a consideration of de Beauvoir's conception of sex and gender in the Yale French Studies journal. "With the distinction intact, it is no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity," Butler continues, "and neither can we refer meaningfully to natural or unnatural gendered behavior: all gender is, by definition, unnatural".

Though she acknowledges the huge contribution of de Beauvoir's statement to feminist theory, in an ARTE documentary about her own work, Butler questions it, asking, "does one become a woman, or is it an endless becoming?". This "endless becoming" is a reference to Butler's most famous contribution to gender theory, the concept of gender performativity. For Butler, gender is constructed through a type of performative process - a constant, repetitive and unconscious reproduction of body language, mannerisms and temperament, as well as grooming and styling that align with the social and cultural expectations of our gender. For Butler, gender is a doing rather than a being.

"Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame..." - that's the social and cultural constraints and expectations - "... that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, [the appearance] of a natural sort of being,"Butler explains in her famous text, Gender Trouble - a title inspired by John Waters' 1974 film Female Trouble.

"Even guys with guitars who sing about their emotions, they are playing a role of a person who does that," Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife said in an interview about their last album, Shaking the Habitual, which was inspired by the band's reading of Butler's work. It's a very rudimentary explanation of performativity, but it does manage to capture quite simply how performativity is more than just a performance: the guy is giving a performance by playing guitar and singing, but he is also performing the role of a man singing with a guitar in a mode that is informed by an image of men singing with guitars throughout history - there is an added, but perhaps subconscious layer of learned affectation, a reproduction of the image of man-singing-and-playing-guitar.

The unconscious and never-ending process of reproducing gender has an interesting relationship with the conscious performance of the "opposite" gender, that is, drag. "You're born naked, and the rest is drag" - so proclaimed legendary drag performer RuPaul. Judith Butler does not conceive of gender as drag, because gender performativity is unconscious and constant, whereas a drag performance is a conscious, temporary imitation or parody, but RuPaul's statement carries a sentiment that has illuminated for many the constructed nature of gender, and the meaninglessness of categories like "women's fashion" and "men's fashion"-- a distinction that in fact several stores are beginning to give up on, including Selfridges with its gender-neutral Agender department.

Drag has been interpreted in very different ways by different gender theorists and feminist commentators. bell hooks (who doesn't capitalize her name) sees drag as a form of vile misogyny, an imitation of women based in ridicule and degradation, and - specifically in Jennie Livingston's film Paris is Burning - as the sexist embodiment by black men of the weak, emasculated/feminized image of a black man created by the racist establishment. For Butler, drag isn't misogynistic, but it isn't necessarily subversive either -- though it can be. Some of the "children" documented in Paris is Burning, notably Venus Xtravaganza, are consciously performing the binary gender ("woman") that is socially constructed as the opposite of their assigned sex ("male") during the drag balls, but they also identify as trans women, and crave the privileges they believe come with "passing" as a woman (wealth, security, love), therefore reinforcing the binary gender of "woman" as an ideal.

However, drag can be subversive if it is used to hold up a mirror to the imitation of gender that we all partake in, through performativity. According to Butler, drag is subversive if it is used "to suggest that 'imitation' is at the heart of the heterosexual project and its gender binarisms," and "that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality…" - the idea that normal/natural people are men or women who are straight - "… is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations". That is, through gender performativity, cisgender (where sex and gender align) women are constantly imitating, or trying to live up to the construct of a "woman", and cisgender men are constantly imitating, or trying to live up to the construct of a "man". There is no pinnacle of "man" or"woman", so no matter how much doing of gender we do, we will never be done, we can never fully realize a binary gender; regardless of our sex, our gender is always a failure.

For some people, their own gender failure is an impetus to get breast implants or take steroids, to remove hair or add it, to wear "feminizing" make-up or have elocution lessons, and perceiving gender failure in others can provoke gender policing through ridicule, exclusion and violence. For many, their perceived gender failure means discrimination and death.

People with non-conforming gender identities are at a much-increased risk of violence, with 20 murder cases concerning transgender people in America this year so far, some by complete strangers, some at the hands of their own family. Although it is possible to name a raft of pioneering transgender actors, models and other public figures who have recently broken into the mainstream, the advancement in trans visibility has not created an environment of trans acceptance, and according to Laverne Cox, violence against trans people is at "state of emergency" level.

As Cox noted in a blog post about the public's warm reception of Caitlyn Jenner, many non-binary celebrities (like them) are "able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards "that enable them to achieve a privileged degree of acceptance, and they have more protection from harm due to their wealth and status." Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV recently questioned Jenner's value as a spokesperson, saying, "Apparently Caitlyn is already saying things like, 'It's so difficult being a woman and having to decide which designer gown to wear when you go out at night'... That's not being a woman, that's being a glamorous Hollywood figure and that's not how it is for most people. There are lots of teenage kids on the streets of New York who are hustling and risking AIDS because they need to get money to transition... they're prepared to risk their lives because it's such a deep need, and they don't have that back-up system."

We need only watch American Reflexxx, a film by artists Signe Pierce and Alli Coates to find evidence that people can respond violently to identities they find confusing. The short film follows Pierce as she struts through Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, wearing what the artists describe as "stripper garb" (high plastic stilettos, and a skin-tight mini dress), her face covered by a mirror-reflective mask, with her mane of blonde hair flowing out behind. "That's a man right? Look at them feet!", "Ohhhh. That. That is some fucking shit," members of the public shout; others refer to her as an "it". "Get it,"someone cries, before a girl tries to hit her, people throw water over her and a guy warns his friend, "Don't get arrested for her, man". Literally hundreds of people are following Pierce -and the camera -down the street when a woman tries to trip her up, and then shoves her violently to the ground, where she lies, bleeding and surrounded. "We had anticipated maybe a few catcalls, maybe some light crowd interaction," Coates told Artnews, "but never anticipated that an angry mob was going to leave her bleeding on the sidewalk."

The subversion and deconstruction of heteronormative structures, including the gender binary, is a frightening prospect for many, with the Pope proclaiming in April this year that, "Getting rid of the difference [between the sexes] is the problem, not the solution," and comparing gender theory education to the indoctrination of the Hitler Youth. Of course, the Pope was championing the gender binary in an attempt to preserve the meaning of the Adam and Eve story and the tradition of marriage, but he is echoing a sentiment that has been voiced by feminists, too. These feminists ask: If there are no women, how do you build a women's movement that can dismantle the oppressive structures of the patriarchy?

It is a hot topic for feminists, not because there are no women left to fill the movement, but because it has brought the question of who the movement considers a "woman" to the fore. In 1981, bell hooks published Ain't I a Woman?, which criticized the predominantly white middle- and upper-class feminist establishment for failing to articulate the needs of poor women and women of color. More recently, the essentialist, transphobic elements of second wave feminism that claim trans women aren't "real women" have been challenged. You only need to read the Instagram and Tumblr posts of Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard to understand the increasingly mainstream acceptance of an intersectional feminism that focuses on intertwined factors including race, class and sexuality that influence how a person experiences oppression.

As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, "We should all be feminists," and indeed the feminist movement must find space for all those who identify as women, LGBTQ people and people of color oppressed by powerful, global structures, establishments and elites that are both racist and sexist, in order to take a wrecking ball to them and achieve liberation for all.


Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Paola Rizzi

charlotte gush
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