Yang: Performing Gender
By Lorelei Yang, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, May 8, 2012
We are categorized into a gender before we are even born, squeezed and confined into tightly defined conceptual boxes for the sake of easy identification. Expectant mothers are often asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” There is an assumption of a binary system of categorization that assumes the child is either a boy or girl. This harmful practice constrains our potential for understanding ourselves and others while also othering those who fall outside its bounds. As members of a progressive society, it is our responsibility to question and challenge this construct.
Reducing gender to an either/or linguistic proposition — that a person can be either a woman or a man but not an amalgamation — generates false distinctions that define and demean non-heterosexual individuals and those who do not identify as one gender or the other as outsiders to the realm of “acceptable” society. Applying this heteronormative standard to all sections of society makes sex, gender and sexuality unassailable monoliths, insensible to the plight of those who exist outside a narrowly defined set of norms.
American philosopher Judith Butler argued that the apparent coherence of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality constitutes a set of “regulative discourses,” making gender a more insidious concept than merely the answer to the question of what color to paint a nursery. Rather, gender is a culturally constructed prison that, despite our unawareness of its presence, pre-limits our experiences.
As a mechanism of control, gender is remarkably effective and is hardly ever singled out as a cause for concern. Apart from gawking human-interest pieces or athletic controversies (the case of South African runner Caster Semenya comes to mind), intersex and transgender individuals are shunned or ignored by society at large. While the “gay rights issue” is a perennial election season topic, public debates on same-sex marriage and the theology of homosexuality miss the core issue: Why do these things matter so much? If everyone has equal rights, why should one’s sexuality or gender identity affect one’s treatment under a system of laws purporting to hold equal rights as its theoretical foundation? Furthermore, given the shift toward “gender-neutral” language (for example, “police officer” instead of “policeman”), why is the acceptance of gender-nonconforming people so much more difficult to achieve?
The answers to these and similar questions reside in our concept of gender itself. Our binary understanding of gender blinds us to the existence of non-heterosexual sexualities and non-binary gender identities. A world where we can ask, “Is it a boy or a girl?” without recognizing the inherently problematic nature of such a question is one that fails to leave conceptual space for those whose identities subvert the status quo.
This is where parody comes in to expose gender as a performative practice. Parodies destabilize gender by subverting and re-appropriating normative expressions of gender in new contexts. They blur the distinction between inner and outer psychic space, mocking both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a “true” fixed gender identity. Drag in particular is a double inversion, allowing one to make the contradictory claims of feminine appearance and masculine persona or vice versa, with the first character set embraced during the act of drag and the second embraced when out of drag. These concurrent contradictory claims reveal gender as more than a matter of choosing between a male or female identity. As an imitative practice, drag reveals the imitative structure of gender itself. By separating sex and gender, then combining them in an “unnatural” way, drag dramatizes their fabricated unity, revealing them as distinct.
Parody destabilizes the very concepts of sex and gender, showing the absurdity of a binary gender economy. It undermines sex and gender by mocking the notion of an original predetermined gender-signifying economy, leading to the realization that there is no original. The realization of this fact propels the movement away from the gender binary.
Because parody reveals gender’s constructed nature, it establishes the political nature of the very terms — “man,” “woman,” “male,” “female” — that define sex and gender identity. By revealing gender’s construction, parodies liberate us to move beyond limiting questions such as “Is it a boy or a girl?” to a society that can not only comprehend, but also embrace, those of non-heterosexual and gender-nonconforming identities.