One man’s luxury is another man’s radical performance art

September 27, 2010

My post on gender performativity elicited an interesting comment from a reader named Alex SL:

I remain unconvinced that you can actually suppress gender roles without a 1984-like level of totalitarian suppression. It sure seems as if the vast majority – not all, but the vast majority – of people want to advertise what sex they are, and they want to exaggerate whatever it is that is considered their gender role in their specific society, especially during puberty, in order to be more attractive to the opposite sex.

Trying to completely abolish that is probably not any more hopeful an enterprise than trying to eradicate addictions, egoism, nepotism or lying. Sure, you want to minimize the negative consequences of these things, and you want to discourage them as far as realistically possible, but you will never have a 100% success because it is just too much part of what we are. Should we not be happy enough once everybody has equal rights instead of twisting our own nature beyond breaking point? Equality is already an enormous accomplishment that many cultures in the world still would have to achieve; me not being able to wear a skirt and makeup without being ostracized seems like a “luxury problem” in comparison.

It’s taken me a while to articulate a proper response, given that I did not actually advocate a top-down enforcement of androgyny by the state. The normative piece of my argument was the claim that gender roles are not benign. Transgressing them will get you stomped — not simply ostracized, but threatened, assaulted or killed — which ought to be a clue that something important is lurking beneath the surface of gender.

So where did the 1984 reference come from? I’m guessing Alex was responding to Kate Bornstein’s statement that

it’s the gender system itself — the idea of gender itself — that needs to be done away with.

I admit this is a little opaque, but trust me, it should not be read as a plea for androgyny. Gender equality does not require that we all look like the J’naii from Star Trek: The Next Generation*:

If anything, our society should recognize more genders, not fewer. From The Man Who Would Be Queen, p. 136:

[Sociologist Fred] Whitam believes that one of the most culturally variable phenomena [w/r/t transsexuality] is the willingness of straight men to have sex with very feminine gay men. In America, this appears to be a rare practice. However, in some other cultures Whitam says it is common. For example, in the Philippines many straight adolescent males have their first sexual contact with bayot, or members of the transgendered gay male tradition there. Sexual liaisons with bayot are thought of as adolescent peccadilloes no worse than smoking and drinking.

We in America would certainly like to think this practice is rare. And why is that?  It goes back to the gender system Bornstein was talking about. I think what she means by it is the idea that there are men, who have penises, and women, who have vaginas, and that the two classes are to be distinguishable at all times by outward appearances.

Now, postmodernists have this thing with binary categories such as man / woman, because a) they exclude those who don’t fit the binary (such as the bayot) and b) one half of the binary — the man, in this case — is often valued more than the other. In fact, one might argue that the purpose of the binary is to conceal the hierarchy that’s packaged in with it. The question is how to chip away at that hierarchy.

And that brings us to what is “realistically possible,” which of course depends on the reality we’ve constructed for ourselves. In our current reality, men still earn more than women, despite decades of ostensibly equal access to educational and job opportunities. Personally, I want a reality in which male public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker make their arguments about innate sex differences while wearing drag**.

Rather than twisting our natures beyond the breaking point, I think a little drag would go a long way toward calling attention to the subtle ways in which men are favored over women. And that just might result in more equality, which is a goal Alex and I share.


*The reference to the J’naii comes from Kate Bornstein via Twitter. When I asked her what we should envision instead of the J’naii, this was her response:

4 me, #genderfree ranges frm conscious blending-in to positively RuPaulesque & everything in-between & beyond. Keyword: conscious.

**If you too want to see Pinker in drag, let him know: @sapinker.

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