Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Embodiment and subversion, part one.

In the introduction to Gender Trouble, Judith Butler suggests that drag performances have the potential to destabilise “the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates. Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established? Does being female constitute a “natural fact” or a cultural performance, or is its “naturalness” constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex?”

(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
a heartbreaker

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?

Radical burlesque.

I had posted this at the Women of Colour Network blog with the title "LOCA post-show discussion: burlesque" and the following text, before moving it here: The first in a series of posts following the Ladies of Colour Cabaret at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, hoping to use the show's content to stimulate discussion around a range of topics possibly of interest to women of colour and their allies.


I like the idea of burlesque, both the noun as a medium, a tradition, and the adjective, or verb as a style of critique and parody. But in terms of my strip acts, they may be burlesque in the sense of a particular style of parody, but not in the tradition of burlesque striptease. Because the way I strip is not a tease -- if it starts off titillating, it finishes with a sort of total reveal that's anathema to the usual art of striptease.

I read somewhere that a burlesque artist is never seen naked. I think in our show we get more than naked. Which is why I'm always surprised when people are confronted by the nudity, as if that's where we reveal the most of ourselves, when we risk so much more than bare skin. If someone takes issue with stripping as selling vulnerability, then they should take much more issue with some of the things we say. In terms of objectification, I think you would only see our acts as objectifying if you've already decided a naked body must be an object. Because in this case the body looks back, speaks, points to you and asks about your gaze.

I find it boring to try to explain why our work is radical. Hell, I find that word problematic in itself, because I want it to mean something that goes to the root of things, theory that is deconstructive of structures and systems, not merely symbols and symptoms, action that is transformative not partial, additive amelioration. But for lots of people it means fists in the air and throwing things at cops and walking down the street en masse. I don't get into demonstrations because mostly I find them just that, demonstrations, displays, performances designed to show something that you could just tell, and I think Barking Coins is onto something when ey suggests most non-violent direct action is an act of masochism (if that's what was said and who said it). Which is fine, but my pain is not for show, I have audience anxiety, and now I am way off-topic. Suffice it to say that if our work is radical, it should be obvious, and if I have to explain it, either it's not very radical, or you're not, or something.

But if the way we strip is radical, these are not the reasons:

1. It's not radical because we're people of colour. I once dumpstered a giant bag of porn, and among the titles were "Ghetto Bitches" and something about teen Asian cumsluts. I am pretty sure as an Asian girl I would have an easier time breaking in to the adult film industry than any other part of the film industry.

2. It's not radical because we're not conventionally beautiful. Subversive maybe, but not radical. There are fat goth girls naked all over the goddamn internet, and old men jacking off to it; I don't really find that very interesting. Maybe if I had a massive goitre and leprosy or something it would be more subversive than it is, but then there's this whole market for gross-out porn too. Rotten.com is not radical.

3. It's not radical because our audiences are predominantly queer and female (not that they always are). Women, queers and queer women can be anti-feminist, even misogynistic, and enjoy the commercialised and depoliticised consumption of erotic imagery objectifying the female form. There may be pretty decent feminist consciousness going on in a lot of lesbian scenes but sexual relations can still involve abuse, domination and the absence of openly negotiated consent. The male gaze can reflect off anyone's eyes.

4. It's not radical because we don't get paid. That shouldn't have to be said, but though the lack of any obvious forms of coercion is important, it's not the end of the story. Oppression has funny effects, like a lot of internalised or pre-emptive hate that can get you to do weird things. Fear can get you to do weird things. I remember reading a news story about gay men having unprotected sex with HIV+ men in the belief that they would get the virus sooner or later anyway -- I'm very sceptical about this piece of journalism, but the idea holds. Sometimes it makes sense to do it to yourself.

5. It's not radical because it's consensual. Obviously that's really freakin' important (though as above, potentially a bit more complicated than saying yes) but there's other stuff that's problematic about public nudity than the exploitation of the individual performer.

6. It's not radical because it's associated with politics. Those people who get naked on a hillside and spell "no war"? Nice maybe, but not radical. PETA using Pamela Anderson and a bevy of other buxom vegetarians in their campaigns? Sorry, tits out for battery chicks is really not radical to me -- even if the individuals involved are way into it, the use of a sexed-up female body as a decorative marketing device hurts women, especially when that body is both desired and unattainable.

If it's radical, it's a combination of all those things, plus an explicit context of queer woman of colour feminism, and the fact that our bodies speak for themselves. These are politicised bodies, this is a politics inscribed on the body. This is the life that I have lived because of the skin that I am in. There is nothing more intimate than a naked body, talking, and unearned intimacy is a powerful gift. And this is me telling you to look closer.

Research project proposal.

Original project proposal submission -- written around 20 September 2008. Posted here to further elucidate my intentions and motivations.




(approx. 500 words)

  1. Name

    Real Name Lia Incognita

  1. Title of your project

    Performance and performativity -- the politics of the Ladies of Colour Agency (LOCA)

  1. Brief description of project (including the types of material to be used)

    My project studies a Melbourne-based group called the Ladies of Colour Agency, self-defined as an “autonomous anti-racist activist group, performance troupe and superhero trio”, of which I am a founding member. I will attempt to examine the ideas and intentions of the group through its theatrical performances and written statements, drawing upon existing feminist, queer and anti-racist literature, performance and action to situate the group theoretically within broader academic, activist and artistic contexts. My project will be structured around the idea of performativity, and the emancipatory potential of such a theory as a dynamic conception of identity, as well as when deployed strategically to deconstruct and counter dominant ideas of identity. I intend to devote a good proportion of the project to methodological considerations, including reflections on my research experience.

  1. What are your key questions?

    What are the core ideas of the Ladies of Colour Agency, as evident in their performances and written statements?

    How do these ideas relate to broader themes and trends in feminist theory?

    Is the idea of performative identities a viable one, and if so what are its implications for our understanding of (ethno-cultural, racial, gendered, sexual) identity?

  1. Why do you feel this topic is important and interesting?

    Obviously I feel the group is interesting as otherwise I wouldn’t have helped to found it, but also I feel that I would be intrigued by the particular intersection of queer, feminist and anti-racist politics in performance even if I weren’t involved in the group. I find the idea of performative identities curious, intriguing and exciting, and I would like to look at how the idea might be actualised in relation to different identities (for example comparisons of drag, burlesque and blackface minstrel shows).

  1. How would you describe your intended research method(s)?

    My primary text for studying this group will be two performances, one in November 2007 and one in October 2008. In conducting a close reading of these performances I hope to draw out the group’s actions, intentions, challenges and responses, and situate the group’s politics within women of colour feminisms. This will compose the first half of the project, which I will send to the two other members of LOCA for review.

    The second half of the project will consist of the review of my work by the other two ladies, my response to their review, and an overall report on my experience of attempt feminist research.

  1. Do you see your method linking to any issues raised in readings so far?

    Yes – very much so. I chose this topic as I have never before specifically researched something I am part of, and I think that would be an interesting response to feminist methodological concerns of the relationship between researcher and researched: My project addresses the need to examine power relations in this relationship and the benefit to the researched, and attempts to enable both reciprocity and accountability in this relationship, particularly by submitting the draft for review by my peers. I think working with a group I am part of also destabilises ideas of authority and authenticity.

    By choosing a small, specific group that has come together out of political affinity, I feel I am addressing the essentialist assumptions underlying the choice of a category of research subjects.

    I have identified several methodological challenges I think I will face in this project:

    - accepting dynamism and subjectivity while maintaining academic rigour

    - the need to articulate my agenda and involvement given lack of distance from group

    - the difficulty of critique given my intimate relationship with research subjects

    - the narrow scope of my project — problems of representation, though I will avoid attempting to make broad judgements upon women of colour feminisms

    - consideration of ethics — need for explicit permissions from all involved

    - ongoing process of review by research subjects: does this limit research and have an impact on honesty/forthrightness?

    - question of self-representation — indulgent, arrogant, unimportant, uninteresting?

  1. What form will your project take or how will it be documented (e.g. essay, website, Powerpoint etc)?

    An essay in two sections, the first part examining LOCA, particularly through its performances, and the second part examining my research methods.

    Changed: The first half will cover similar content, but be published as a blog, enabling entries from the other members of LOCA as well as responses from our audiences, allies, friends and strangers. The second half remains as in this proposal but will also draw on comments on the blog and potentially responses through other media.

Introducing ...

I started this blog partly just because we all have a lot to say, and the idea behind LOCA was always to stimulate and facilitate discussion on race, gender and other topics that might concern women of colour. My other motivation is more selfish: I'm studying a subject called Feminist Research at uni, and I wanted to do my research project LOCA -- looking at the anti-racist feminist politics of the group through its/our shows, and particularly ideas around performance and performativity -- how identity is negotiated, expressed, performed and played in life and theatre.

It's important to me that research is relevant and accountable to the subjects of its "study", especially when those research subjects are a marginalised, under-represented and misrepresented group like women of colour. I thought a blog might be a better format than a traditional academic paper as it enables dynamism, demonstrates subjectivity, solicits interaction and thus perhaps suggests a greater reciprocity and responsibility -- all characteristics I value in research. But it also risks less theoretical rigour, a degree of self-indulgence, and insularity within a particular ideological community. I'll try to avoid these risks but I think I prefer to speak with excessive solipsism than unearned authority.

As well as submitting the blog itself, I will be writing a paper discussing my experience of undertaking this research project. So at the risk of sounding like a Centrelink disclaimer, I would like to use any discussion on this blog in my research so please let me know if you don't want that to happen. I will try to contact people whose comments I use, and post the finished paper here so everyone can read it and respond. It's unlikely to be seen by anyone other than my lecturer while obviously comments here are visible to the whole wide web world, but I understand that some people have reason to be suspicious of academia and are reluctant to participate in anything labelled "research", so let me know if you think this whole exercise is problematic, pointless or perfunctory.

At the same time, while it'd be nice if it helps me with school, my primary hope is that this blog will provide a space for some interesting conversations on things I would like people to think and talk about more.

Lia Incognita