by Oscar Wilde
In case you hadn't noticed it already, there's a new trend going round in hip urban communities all around the globe. As far as genders and sexualities are concerned, it's not all black and white any more. Take for instance that certain type of well-groomed, well-to-do straight man (think David Beckham) who has since the late nineties generally been referred to as the metrosexual. Depending on whom you ask, this type of modern male has either taken to bor-rowing his girlfriend's styling products and accessories, or is busy copying a certain type of urban gay male lifestyle that had formerly been confined to the gay ghettos of San Fran-cisco, London, or Sydney. In the queer community, meanwhile, the boys and girls are wildly ripping off each other's styles and aesthetics, and gender fluidity generally seems to be the new thing. All of which, of course, begs the question if this is all just a fad, the latest play-ground for a capitalist consumer culture, or if we are really, possibly, witnessing the break-down of a whole system of signifiers and codes; what has become known in sociologist and anthropologist circles as a heteronormative system of genders and sexualities.
For the uninitiated, here are few definitions. The terms sex (for the biological raw ma-terial, the differently sexed bodies) and gender (for culturally and historically contingent expectations of certain types of differently gendered behaviours, gender roles, gender expressions) were introduced by Robert Stoller, who pointed out that masculinity and femininity were by no means automatically or in any way "naturally" connected to, respectively, biologically male or female bodies. This insight was taken up by second wave feminist critics in the seventies and eighties (to whom it admittedly wasn't exactly a new insight; already Simone de Beauvoir had famously proclaimed that "one is not born a woman but becomes one") and employed in their fight against the discrimination of women in a patriarchal social order.
Enter the nineteen-nineties, and along came a new star on the horizon of feminist theory who would challenge most of everyone's long-held beliefs about sex and gender. In her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler boldly proposed among other things the ultimately performative nature of gender. Gender, the cultural meanings attached to sexed bodies, i.e. what we refer to as masculinity and femininity, she argues, is not something that one is, but something that one does; it is being produced through a repetition of stylised acts; this is not a conscious performance, exactly, for there is no "subject who might be said to preexist the deed," but the acts appear naturalized to us because they are constantly being repeated by all of us. They accrue their validity through constantly being reiterated and re-cited everywhere in our culture. Butler proposes gender parody, the hyperbolic performance of genders that can be found, for instance, in drag performances, as a subversive strategy to expose these mechanisms. One problem with this idea is that far from everyone who does drag can be said to be having these ulterior political motives.
New York drag king Mo B. Dick
People do drag for all sorts of reasons. Some people cross-dress, and adopt the behav-iour and mannerisms of a gender other than their own purely for fun, in private, in get-togethers with friends, or as a form of art and entertainment in public performances on stage. Some feel they can in this way express, and often also explore, a form of femininity (in the case of drag queens) or masculinity (as drag kings) that is being denied them in their daily lives as "real" men or women. Some may discover in their drag persona a form of gender identity that comes closer to who they feel they really are, their core gender identity, and may consequently come to identify as transgendered or transsexual. In an effort to reconcile their true gender identity with the bodily experience of their own sexed bodies, they may then wish to pursue further options, like hormone therapy and/or sexual reassignment surgery to arrive at a harmonious state between their sex and gender identities. Others may come to refute a binary system of genders altogether and opt for becoming gender outlaws, refusing to identify as properly one gender or the other, with or without actually making changes to their physical bodies or adopting certain types of gendered expressions that would mark them as clearly one gender or the other.
It is perhaps not surprising that Judith Butler chose drag performances as an example for her notion of gender performativity. Drag performances tend to be characterised by an exaggerated, highly theatrical and oftentimes ironic display of either femininity or masculinity. In their theatrical manner, they perfectly embody camp, a sensibility that has become linked to gay male sexuality at least since the end of the nineteenth century. Camp, as per Susan Sontag in her seminal essay on the subject, is "a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous." Replace the term serious in the previous equation with the Wildean term "earnest" and you have one of the major themes around which the present play revolves. The kind of dizziness effected through a constant turning upside down of seemingly straightforward, one might say perfectly "earnest," cultural ideals is perhaps best exemplified with the following witty remark from Gwendolyn from the second act of the play. "The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive." Of course we as the audience understand her remark to be highly ironic, wittily self-knowing. In its cleverness it still serves to unsettle any straightforward notions we might have had of masculinity, men, domesticity, of how the two might possible go together given the ideologies of the time, and of culturally perpetuated ideas of who one's ideal sexual partner should be.
But that's not all there is to camp. The stereotypical image of a camp sensibility today is the highly affected drag queen, or the effeminate gay man. Camp may also refer to an object that aesthetically blurs the line between art and kitsch, or denote a mode of perception; one finds something hilariously over the top, an overdone stage death for instance, which had been intended quite seriously. It has its very useful role as a playful, ironic strategy of resis-tance for marginalized subjects, upsetting conservative value and belief systems and de-naturalising all fictions of stable identities. Oscar Wilde, of course, was a master of the art of camp, although as literary critic Alan Sinfield has argued, his theatricality and self-stylisation as an effeminate dandy were probably perceived by his contemporaries, at least prior to the year 1895, as the somewhat immoral shenanigans of a leisure class gentleman, highly at odds with Victorian middle class values but not necessarily directly connected to his sexual preference for men. Only with the spectacle of the Wilde trials, Sinfield argues, came a camp sensibility, or effeminacy in men, to be irreconcilably connected with the specter of (male) homosexuality, an effect that has lasted through the best part of the twentieth century and a legacy that still remains intelligible for us today. One might say that a number of discourses around sexuality and gender that had been coalescing over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries managed to find their focal point at this historical moment and in the figure of Oscar Wilde himself. If same-sex practices had up to this point been regarded as an - albeit - sinful activity that, however, anyone might be capable of, the modern concept was now born of the "homosexual" as a certain type of person who innately differed from "hetero-sexual" individuals, and who came to be exemplified in the decades to come by the Wildean figure of the effeminate dandy. Wilde himself, as we know, was found guilty in the trials of having committed "acts of gross indecency" and consequently convicted to a prison sen-tence of two years of hard labour; he died, a social pariah and a broken man, a few years after his release in exile in Paris.
You might think that, more than three decades after the Stonewall riots and the start of the gay liberation movement, and with homosexuality being removed from both the hand-books of psychiatric disorders and the penal law, such acts of violence and injustice against members of the queer community (I'll leave it up to you whether to regard Oscar Wilde as gay or bisexual - he was after all married) are a thing of the past. Well, think again. Even restricting oneself to European and North American contexts, it becomes clear that homo-phobia and, increasingly, transphobia are alive and kicking. In recent years, GLBT* activism in the U.S. has sprung up in the wake of the highly publicized murders of Mathew Shephard, a "feminine" gay man, and Brandon Teena, a female-to-male transsexual whose story was brought to a wider audience by the award winning movie Boys Don't Cry. What causes, one might ask, these acts of violence which range from harassment and stereotyping all the way to physical attacks and homicide?
In her latest, and most accessible book to date, Judith Butler manages to provide some convincing answers, while outlining the challenge that the confrontation with a possible, and in some places already actual, future with people of quite diverse genders and sexualities poses for all of us. "The person who threatens violence proceeds from the anxious and rigid belief that a sense of world and a sense of self will be radically undermined if such a being, uncategorizable, is permitted to live within the social world. The negation, through violence, of that body is a vain and violent effort to restore order, to renew the social world on the ba-sis of intelligible gender, and to refuse the challenge to rethink that world as something other than natural or necessary." Wishing to extinguish the other is to relegate him or her to the status of the non-human, the unintelligible and unthinkable. This means, however, that if we wish to create a world in which all individuals, be they transsexual, transgendered or possibly intersexed, can attain the status of the human and become intelligible and thus recognized, we may find that we will have to endure our own sense of reality and our understanding of who we think we are, to be turned upside down. "What am I asking to transform in you?" one individual who identifies as transgendered and who goes by a male name, but whose body does not line up neatly with any notions of maleness or femaleness, asked me recently.
"What might it mean," asks Butler, "to learn to live in the anxiety of that challenge, to feel the surety of one's epistemological and ontological anchor go, but to be willing, in the name of the human, to allow the human to become something other than what it is tradition-ally assumed to be? This means that we must learn to live and to embrace the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious and finally, less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise form our humanness does and will take." A non-violent response to a confrontation with the Other opens itself up to the possibility of trans-formation. It "lives with its unknowingness about the Other in the face of the Other, since sustaining the bond that the question opens is finally more valuable than knowing in advance what holds us in common, as if we already have all the resources we need to know what de-fines the human, what its future life might be."
Gael García Bernal in La Mala Educación
However, this confrontation with the Other, ultimately one's own Other, does not neces-sarily have to be terrifying. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal was recently asked in an inter-view with the San Francisco Bay Guardian what it was like to be playing a male-to-female transsexual character in Pedro Almodóvar's La Mala Educación. "It was the most liberating experience," Bernal describes. "It was the best thing, not even as an actor, as a human being, to explore that kind of transgendered character that exists in each one of us and to play with that. It's like exploring the clown we have inside, and when you start to explore it, there's a kind of play. It's like exorcising demons, and as they come out, they make you gig-gle, and they make you enjoy it, and you learn a lot about the human condition and yourself." Bernal, at least, makes it sound like a lot of fun.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment. London: Cassell, 1994.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." Against Interpretation. New York: Delta, 1966. 275-92.