GENDER IS PERFORMATIVE

Judith Butler in Berlin yesterday received the Adorno prize for significal intellectual achievement. She is a professor at Berkeley & the author of several texts on gender studies including Gender Trouble.

Her signature phrase is “gender is performative”. Firstly, she states that her identity is shared between being lesbian, gay, Jewish, a woman, American, and she is constantly travelling between these images, the phrase “overlapping diasporas” springs to mind. From that position,  she sets out to refute the assertion that gender is an internalised readymade, “essentialist” as I’ve heard it described. She says her gender role is a construct made up from moment to moment of what is going on, etc.

This resonates so strongly for me. In my early adolescence I came to the manual attention of a pedophile priest, who introduced me to Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Later I had sex with my older brother, achieving my first orgasm at his hands. I was studying a large kitchy picture of jesus holding his pierced heart, at the moment of ecstasy I felt my soul fly out of my body to join with his image.

My older brother thought I was going down the wrong path, he stopped interacting with me on any level; in my mid teens  got drunk on claret and rolled round on my bed muttering that I was a homosexual. I read in the intro to The Picture of Dorian Gray that Oscar Wilde went about London accompanied by “rent boys”. Again the phrase resonated viscerally.

During my university days I oscillated in social images between hippie and cavalier, perfumed, coiffed, face made up, wearing a pastel blue crepe shirt with puffed sleeves. This was possibly my going to the local gay bar at night look. On campus I was a hippie wearing an ethnic waistcoat & long hair. I’m a Gemini, the look changed a lot.

Gay Lib encouraged a more robust, no nonsense look; there were demos where you got jostled. At each of these stages, given the social group I was involved in, the look and behaviour changed.

Most recently, staff in the gallery that had recently represented me styled themselves as queer; most insistent on this ambiguity was a hetero married guy. This somewhat dulled the ideological impact of the label; I have never discovered if other self-styled qr groups adopted a particular look. I was passingly curious about various radical faerie groups that used to blog and publish zines online.

The local Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were an in joke lost on me, as my primary school days had been spent under the watchful care of the Sisters of Mercy, now departed or gone [thank you Leonard Cohen].

In 1992 I moved to a working class inner city suburb; my neighbour collected helpful younger males capable of running errands and doing favours. She told me of the local Irish derivation of the expression “myrtle”, as in he’s not much of a son, but he’d make a fine daughter. In my front yard a large Crepe Myrtle flowered extravagantly pink annually in time for the Mardi Gras. She also used to say what a fine masculine pair my friend Rod & myself made.

BUT, neither of us are self-styled clones; we don’t do the look. Currently we are ready to go out as bears. But that too has a too calculated feel to it. Today in fact I went to my KMart and found a pair of black stove-pipe legged jeans, with lovely comfortable waist. Having seen Gigi on the weekend, I rather fancy a Pierrot makeover. Conversely, I also purchased a 1.5 metre piece of green/brown moire silk that I sewed as a sarong. As I said to the customer next to me at the counter, we live in an Asian country or rather context, why not live up to it. A Moghul reclining during a blazing afternoon? But, having also read Huysman’s A Rebours, the silk is the exactly perfect colour for the walls of the studio the recluse wants to construct: pseudo-monastic but actually disguised luxury. Again, which performance to choose?

At the back of my house is a deck of blackbutt timber, perfect for practising Tai Chi in the shade of the tree ferns, orchids, red variegated maranta, lily pilly, banksia and grevillia. Another setting, another performance. All these fragments compose my variegated persona. How do they meld? Facile and erroneous to stereotype gender too narrowly. Buddhists after all, talk of minds, they do not recognise mind as a constant, but something changing from moment to moment. Let’s dance!

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About anton veenstra

tapestry weaver, fibre artist, gay/qr activist, multiculturalist
This entry was posted in gender is performative, Judith Butler. Bookmark the permalink.

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