I&I

Gender performance and power

Talking about performing gender seems so 90s, but Judith Butler is lecturing in Toronto today so I thought I’d write about my personal experience with gender performance over the years.

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In recent years, I have noticed people describing me as very feminine, uber feminine, what have you. I find this amusing because it is so dissonant with how I perceive myself. While I don’t consider myself manly, society has made it very clear that I deviate from gender norms in ways that most can only think of as masculine. And these deviations have often not been appreciated.

Years of socializing taught me it was wrong, un-female, to do whatever came instinctively to me: picking physical fights on the playground, asserting my intelligence, propositioning men, whatever. Even as a young girl, I was aware that my femininity was a performance. Because for all my attempts to be more indirect, more conciliatory, more empathetic, more quiet, to be nice, I often felt like people could see right through me. I was too independent, too crude, too violent, too unladylike.

Things turned around when over the course of a year or two, I dropped over 10% of my body weight. In other words, I became more conventionally beautiful. And to my surprize, people began to find me more feminine than masculine.

I still swear like a sailor, still spread my legs when I sit down, still punch (affectionately!) people on the arm if I really like them. Because my appearance now conforms better to our society’s notions of beauty, I am classed as feminine – very feminine in fact – in spite of these behaviours. Subsequently, I have far more latitude to display my masculinity without reprisal. I’m no longer threatening and repellant. Pretty objects are not threatening afterall; they exist to be looked at and used. No one tells me I “think like a man” anymore even though I’m more aggressive, more dominating, more risk seeking, than I’ve ever been before.

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Women in N. American society are primarily defined by their adherence to socially conventional beauty. So it goes to follow that the more you stray from the beauty ideal, the less feminine you are in society’s eyes. The ugly woman is neutered. Or, when she performs gender, she is a caricature of a woman, a kind of burlesque side show to what a “real” woman is: thin, white, pretty. A “real” woman is one who is deemed sexually desirable to (straight, rich, white) men, and preferably, is subservient to male sexual desire.

Because I grew up neutered by society, I’m not sentimental about how I perform my gender. Today, I use and adorn my body to present an image of the ultimate feminine female: heels, makeup, poise, deference. I do it because I enjoy wearing a costume that lets me get away with being my crude-ass self now that it’s easier on the eyes. The passibility of my gender performance may now weigh more toward a feminized appearance than feminized behaviour, but in both cases, I am very much aware that my femininity is something that’s constructed and negotiated. And as time passes and I change, I will find other ways to perform my gender.

This is why I’d prefer to be glamourous than conventionally beautiful, to continue to actively perform my gender as I see fit. I’d rather have the skills to seduce you into thinking I’m beautiful and feminine than to effortlessly embody such things. Now when I perform gender, I don’t feel fraudulent the way I did when I was younger. Because instead of feeling at odds with my performance, I’ve learned to identify with the intentionality, creativity and discipline I exercise to perform my gender. Instead of trying to claw my way closer to an essentialist feminine ideal, I’d rather show you precisely how I construct femininity to fuck with that ideal and amuse myself while doing it.

So I don’t feel more feminine despite the fact that I look more feminine to others. The closer adherence of my flesh to conventional beauty is nothing more than biological drag to me. The power I derive from my physicality or the delight I take in seducing others has nothing to do with societal beauty norms. It never did when I was many pounds heavier ago, and it never will.

It makes me laugh when people expect me to give a shit about conventional beauty, as if having more of that would boost my self esteem. I’ve spent the majority of my life being excluded from the female gender and in many ways, I will continue to be. Fitting the mold better may change how others perceive me, may garner me more privilege in a Patriarchal society, but it doesn’t change how I perceive myself. And in my view, it’s really not worth a damn to gain a better hand in a game where the house always wins.

I’ll maximize whatever privileges I can get because I’m an opportunist that way. But I never forget that the kind of power I get from my gender performance is a pale kind, because it is ultimately, a power that is a derivative of a man’s. I don’t need the power of conventional beauty to make my way in life and ladies, neither do you. If women are going to stop choking on Patriarchal cock, they need to cultivate better power sources. Despite what mainstream society would have you believe, trust me, there are other kinds of power that are far more potent than turning a man’s head.

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