the letter z

On “gender performance”

Posted in Uncategorized by z on 2009-09-20

[Ed. Let’s publish this for now, maybe I’ll have the stamina to write this up as a series of posts.]

My mind drifted back to the notion of “gender performance” as famously expounded by Judith Butler today, namely that gender (as well as sex and sexuality, but I will focus on gender) is the repeated acting of certain behaviours. (As means of disclaimer, it’s been a while since I’ve formally read any of this and the criticisms of this I’ve read I don’t remember so clearly, so excuse any inaccuracy/psuedo-straw-men apparent)

I believe some use a conflation of gender performance as an excuse to explain away the notion of gender identity — they would suppose that if gender is just a matter of learned behaviour, then any idea that someone innately knows what gender they are would be meaningless. First, the term gender, I believe, has been sorely overloaded, so let us step back and define and examine some terms (not their “classical” definitions, but how they should possibly be defined to look at gender with a mind to gender performance):

  • sex: a set or element of one set of physiological characteristics (body shape, genitalia, hormonal makeup, genetics, etc)
  • gender: a particular (any) performance of behaviours, actions, clothing, etc
  • gender role: a set of genders socially thought appropriate to perform for one’s sex
  • gender identity: The classical explanation of this is to say, perhaps inaccurately, what gender one believes oneself to be — it is more correct I think to say that what sex one believes one to be. To clarify, an absence of gender identity is meaningful too.
  • cisgender: A person of one sex who has a gender identity that matches that sex
  • transgender: not cisgender
  • transsexual: A person of one sex who is changing one or elements of sex to that of another set

More mathematically, we could say that sex is a point in the space of physical characteristics, that a particular gender (a particular performance) is a point in the space of behaviours and non-innate attributes, and that gender roles are subsets of of that space deemed acceptable for two of the sex points.

Well, that’s enough definitions for now. Hopefully these definitions are somewhat self-evident; let us pick apart an example, the typical “jock” stereotype is someone with a particular sex, male, that is, male body shape, male genitalia, male chromosomal makeup, etc., who has a particular narrowly-defined gender expression amongst the male gender role, which includes an interest in athletics and athleticism, particular style of clothing and a dominating attitude towards others.

Through this lens, let us reexamine gender performance. A person may change gender performances from time to time, and not even in significant ways, for example, they may decide to change jobs (which is certainly an aspect of gender, cf., “male dominated” jobs and “female domainated” jobs, stock trader versus hairdresser), or they may choose to change their hair style, but typically, a cisgender person will change gender performance, if ever, within the confines of their gender roles. The confines of the gender roles are defined on a sociological basis, ie., the gender role boundaries exist because they have been arbitrarily decided to be this way, such as, because it is traditionally or historically defined to be this way, and not because of any real boundaries.

The idea of drag was proposed in conjunction with works such as Gender Trouble, but, as far as I know, within the confines of talking about cisgender persons only. If we consider trans people and gender performativity, the conversation becomes more complex. I also want to make brief mention of all this and intersex people, but not being intersexed myself, I’ll probably restrain myself out of fear of making myself look stupid and/or privileged. Let’s hope I can get this out for next time.

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