Thursday, March 5, 2009

All the World's a Stage (or why my head is burning from Butler)

Bartky writes that at least in 1988, “the current body of fashion is taut, small-breasted, narrow-hipped, and of a slimness bordering on emaciation” (64). This is a stark contrast from what I understand to be the more full-bodied look glamorized in the 1950s and 1960s with sex icons like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Tailor and an incredible departure from classic conceptions of beauty depicted in paintings as evidenced here. What cultural and historical factors shift conceptions of beauty, and how has the feminine ideal changed throughout history (in the West), and for what purpose? In addition, why is, as Bartky argues, “femininity a ‘set up’ [which] requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined in some degree to fail?” (71). In other words, what function does creating an impossible ideal serve, knowing in fact that both genders have such an unattainable ideal that they are encouraged to pursue? Is there a connection then between ideal femininity/masculinity and the divine? If so, in what ways do our insatiable imaginations and desires for perfection and categories or perfect categories help in the construction and performance of gender?

Butler writes in “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire,” that “the juridical structures of language and politics constitute the contemporary field of power” (8). Also, she borrows from Lacan who seems to argue that language itself, or the symbolic, which constitutes autonomy and adulthood, is a communication dominated by the Phallus, a male-dominated set of symbols and signs. How do we (everybody, but perhaps specifically feminist and/or LGBT activists, etc.) escape the prison of language then, assuming that the language is at best a co-opted one we have to constantly struggle to evolve and shift, and at worst, a constraining method of binary thoughts and delimiting categories that hinder our ability to discuss these issues? In other words, how do we co-opt a language that is arguably constructed to regulate modes of thought regarding sex, gender, sexuality, etc. without running the risk of being co-opted by it? For instance, Butler writes, “for Irigaray, the possibility of another language or signifying economy is the only chance at escaping the ‘mark’ of gender which, for the feminine, is nothing but the phallogocentric erasure of the female sex” (35).

In Subversive Bodily Acts, Butler writes, “that the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (173). Moreover, she argues, “that various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions” (178). So, can one escape gender, as it were, or rather, can one escape the performance, can one stop the “act,” or is the “act” all we have to work with, to “be?” What would a genderless world look like and can we even conceive of it with our available lexicon? Finally, since gender is only a “tacit collective agreement” and since it is so dependent on a continued performance, since it is, essentially, fluid or clay in our hands waiting to be shaped, aren’t we in the advantageous position to reshape the conceptions of gender as we see fit? Provided we are, is this only a futile victory considering it does not so much do away with the chains of gender as rattle them a little?

Continuing on this ominous, if not tenuous, platform of optimism, Butler argues in “Gender is Burning” that the drag queen performances in Paris is Burning are “not an appropriation of dominant culture in order to remain subordinated by its terms, but an appropriation that seeks to make over the terms of domination, a making over which is itself a kind of agency, a power in and as discourse, in and as performance, which repeats in order to remake – and sometimes succeeds” (137). Here Butler reiterates the agency and resistant power present in the act of performance, an act of being that simultaneously offers support and friction to hegemonic conceptions of gender. With such a powerful tool at hand, then, the tool of performance, can we assume that every performance has the same potential for subversion, or does the performer matter? Of course, if there is no gender without the performance, what is the performer without the performance? How do the men in Paris is Burning (sometimes) succeed, as Butler suggests, in remaking the “terms of domination” and what prevents that hideous modifier – sometimes ¬– from being always, or at the very least, regularly?

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