(Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge: London and New York, 1990, viii)
In setting up this blog I kind of imagined conversations like this:
Me: So, when I devised the Marilyn act I was wanting to compare the transgression of racial and sexual identities in drag and blackface, but it ended up being less critical than I intended.
You: That's a pretty problematic comparison; maybe onstage female impersonation can be a sort of minstrel show but are you suggesting that wanting to live in another gender is akin to wanting to live in another ethnicity?
Me: No, but maybe it's worth asking. I guess I didn't think enough about the real-life transgression of those boundaries for trans, intersex, interracial and ambiguously raced people. And there are a bunch of ways you can move into or towards a new ethnic identity without needing to change your racial embodiment, like marrying into or being adopted into a community -- particularly when it's an ethnic identity based less on physical appearance. Whereas only specific communities are likely to accept adopted gender identity without some kind of physiological change. But like, what about Michael Jackson? I mean, maybe it's a pigmentation disorder or whatever, but if he did just want to be white, how and why is that different from wanting to alter one's sex? There may be no exact parallel to the "x in a y body" line that has (quite problematically I think) become the rhetorical norm for transsexual desires -- conceived of as gender affirmation rather than reassignment -- but I can imagine that even that discourse might apply for an individual brought up in a family with a strong racial identity, who wants the body to fit.
Whenever there's a conversation about the ethics of cosmetic surgery in a women's studies class, it tends to end up being about measures of authenticity: It's okay to remake your body after an accident or surgery because you're only recreating what was there but lost -- even though one could argue that combating the effects of age is the same idea.
The typical defence, then, of gender reassignment surgery (or, to a lesser extent, hormone therapy) is that it attempts to create an authentic body, in line with one's sense of identity. The argument that a supermodel figure might also be essential to one's sense of identity seems facetious to most, and rightly so, I think: The desire to modify one's body to better comply with dominant cultural standards of beauty can never be proved to have decisive, independent motivation, while the desire to change sex, being in defiance of mainstream societal pressures, appears more easily authentic. While there may be some individuals that believe they would be better off minus a healthy limb, or with the face of a cat, such scenarios are too rare to present a significant challenge to our ideas of embodied identities.
Me, I'm no earth mother goddess natural woman. I'm 20mg of this and 150 micrograms of that, keeping me sane and sterile and able to sleep. My body stripped bare is easily, entirely female, but far from womanly.
The Marilyn act: I begin facing away from the audience, in the famous white satin frock from The Seven Year Itch, stockings, heels, feather boa (all white), red lipstick and curly blonde wig. To the sound of 1950s Chinese chanteuse Grace Chang's "Jajambo", I strip away each of these items (plus some horrible chicken fillet breast inserts) until I'm standing, bald and flat-chested in bare feet, facing the audience with a fist in the air. Then I say the following words, while collecting my clothes:
she was a bombshell
but even marilyn wasn't marilyn
she was norma jean baker
it was the studios that made her
with a new name, a new nose
yeah she learnt how to walk the walk
and strike the pose.
but every bombshell
has to explode
and as i pick up the pieces
i find i feel
it can be a drag to be a woman
even for a girl.
It's an explicit argument for a performative understanding of embodied identities -- I tend to think, now, too explicit, too prosaic, rhetorical, uncritical. Obvious. But it's also a lot of fun to enact, which I think is important too. Butler says (ibid.) that feminism "continues to require its own forms of serious play". More than that, I think I need to take play seriously.
I've spent a fair bit of my feminist life (hereforth shortened to "SC", since consciousness -- please don't take this seriously!) thinking of gender as the Big Bad -- something nasty forced upon innocent children, which as adults we should identify and detangle and resist. If I can identify a moment of epiphany, it would be a conversation I had with a (really gorgeous) trans woman at a club, during which she exclaimed "I love being a girl!", before acknowledging the bad shit like a whole lot of misogyny. But it made me go all gooey femme pride, thinking "hell yes, girly is good". And since then I've had a lot more fun with gender, both recognising the patriarchal, heterosexist discourse keeping us in oppositional and hierarchical roles, and seeing potential in a plethora of characters to play with.
Obviously it's not enough to be able to cross-dress for a night out. Boys in eyeliner does not post-patriarchy make. But realising that butch-femme can be pretty darn hot, not just an antiquated, androcentric approximation of gender-normative heterosex, means moving to a pretty different perspective on what feminism should do with gender. What if we could take sex and gender off the "natural" body? What would that even mean? Does masculinity always occupy a position of power and privilege (even "female" masculinities)? Do femininity and masculinity have to be oppositional?
Is it possible to truly pluralise points of identity, in an open field of sex and gender identification, invented off the body (or at least the "natural" body) in a spirit of serious play?