Thursday, 11 September 2008

Clothes That Matter

Only two posts so far this month, September is buzzing away, and I have so much I could write about.

Odd times last weekend. At one social event, a woman described her distaste for “militant” looking lesbians ... then described the exact outfit I was wearing. (Striped shirt tucked into jeans, if you must know. It’s my lucky shirt, actually, the very first item of men’s clothing I bought this spring and one of my very favorite things to wear.) I knew it was about her own struggles with her sexual orientation and visibility (she’s bi and with a woman), not really about me ultimately. Still, white tall femme, as Jesse James would say? And of course I had that little moment of panic: am I an ugly, militant lesbian snickered at by all the cool kids? Sigh.

The next day was a wedding so straight, it was like queers were never invented. Except for yours truly and my faithful femme sidekick, of course. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. A measure of my own changing identity... when we were invited early this year, I joked with T. that I’d go in drag. I didn’t, of course, I went as me. Which meant wearing all men’s clothing. Which is how I would have described drag, then. Which did in fact earn me: one extremely uncomfortable older male relative, a large number of curious glances (plus one I’m pretty sure was hostile), a whole lot of feeling like a fish out of water, and the designation ‘dapper’ from the sweetheart bride who was the whole reason we even went to this thing.

During the ceremony, I got to thinking about gender theory and the latest Judith Butler book I’m reading, Bodies That Matter. The book is, in part, Butler’s response to criticisms made about Gender Trouble. Reading it, I felt for the first time like I really get what she means by the word “performative.” As Butler puts it, neither performativity nor social construction are meant to imply that gender is something you can choose to put on or take off, like the clothes in your closet. (Hussy Red makes this point beautifully in her recent post about being a femme, which also underscores how painful it is to have people suggest that your gender is like a jacket.)

So an identity isn’t performative because you “perform” it like a role, like a character you put on at Halloween. It’s performative because you create it, or a little bit of it, a version of it, with your actions. There’s no original man or woman or femme or butch or mountain-goat-gender out there, that we can each “do” better or worse. Rather, all those identities come into being, and evolve, and exist, through our doing them.

Sitting there at the wedding, the only female-bodied person in male attire, I thought to myself, I’m not imitating a thing called “man”. All of us here, any of us doing any kind of masculinity, are constantly present at its creation. We’re all a little bit in drag, and mostly not, because mostly we’re just doing us, as best we can, whatever the circumstances that might have made us the varied ways we are.

Well, it made me feel better, anyway. That, and the fact that the slightly-queer-looking caterer-woman gave me a very nice smile. That was good, too.

11 comments: said...


Shall I elaborate?

Phuck Yeah.


p.s. mountain-goat-gender? Phucking awesome. :D

Leo MacCool said...

py to you too! ;)

i have to give belle the credit for alerting me to the possibility of mountain goat gender. it opened my mind.

Sublimefemme said...

I bet you looked terrific at the wedding. And seriously, how much do you hate those straighter-than-straight events? When it comes to baby showers, I have such a low tolerance I mostly boycott unless it's for a good friend.

Getting down to brass tacks: It's difficult to think of a feminist or queer theorist who is more important than Butler is, so I certainly understand why you're a fan. The thing that I like best about her, and the point I always make when I'm teaching her, is precisely the point you make in your post: gender is a copy for which there is no original.

I do agree that B connects the dots with respect to her theory of gender performativity more in BTM than GT. That said, BTM still leaves unaswered questions and problems in my view: lack of historical context, the body as de-materialized, to name a few. I think the "rethinking" of matter in BTM points to the limitations of a certain kind of poststructuralism for queer politics. In the end, social construction ultimately remains the scene of agency for B.

I just wanted to share this perspective with you. Food for thought, even if you don't agree.

Jess said...

I remember hating times like those, now not so much. I have recently started to feel quite pleased when the way I present makes someone uncomfortable.. LOL

I bet you looked awesome in your boy clothes. :)

Anonymous said...

You're a cutie, it doesn't matter what you wear! :)

This is precisely the reason why I go out of my way to make sure that a butch sees that someone is appreciating & admiring them. It makes such a difference, especially in an environment that makes you feel even slightly insecure - I want you to see a smiling face.

I have so much respect for you guys.

Leo MacCool said...

sf, thanks for such a thoughtful comment! i'm a bit infatuated with butler at the moment, it's true. i tend to find her explanation on the "what about the body" point compelling-that of course there is a material body, but we access and understand it (at least partly, i would say primarily) through language and ideas. it's not that the material world is really a linguistic illusion, but that our interaction with that world is so heavily mediated by language that there can be no recourse to an agreed-upon "real thing" that exists outside language. on the historical context point... i like her insistence on the historicity/genealogy of concepts such as the body or sex or whatever. and i accept that she's working within a specific tradition and context within philosophy, and can't (and doesn't) try to make statements about, say, the gender identity formation of medieval Burgundian peasants. i'm interested in your point about social construction as the arena for agency and hence, possibly, political change... will ponder that more. ok, end of lengthy defense of judith butler! i'm reading this stuff in something of a vacuum here so it's so cool to engage with you on it, thanks again.

jess, sometimes i feel, reading your thoughts on gender & stuff, that i'm reading about my future self. i'm living your life, at like a six month lag or something. i hope that's true, cause i'd really like to get more of a kick out of these weird events. i get more practice on sunday, i'll try your technique there!

greg, thanks, your smiles mean the world. ;)

Clementine said...

Uber-straight formal events can be tough, huh? I used to struggle mightily with the compulsory heterosexuality at those things, but now I just take my place on the dance floor during the Anniversary Dance along with all the other couples and try to enjoy myself. It's interesting to watch all the aunts, uncles, and grandparents gape and gawk at us, though. Sometimes it's uncomfortable, sometimes I feel defensive, but sometimes I feel like any other person married for nearly 7 years, merely grateful to have found such a loving spouse. Petunia may have a different perspective on this (probably does, in fact--she's butchy and I'm not), but for me the bottom line at these things is dignity. If I'm living my life with dignity and other folks have a problem, it's on them.

And PS--I'm all old and married and whatnot, but I LOVE seeing butchy folks in formal wear! (Um, true confession: I love seeing butchy folks out & about in any circumstance, actually.) I bet you looked hot at that wedding. Good for you for wearing what was comfortable for you!

Anonymous said...

militant lesbians...yum! (umm, that is, stupid description, but the look as described is hot)

also, what greg said =)

Sublimefemme said...

Hi Leo, I actually would like JB a lot better if her argument were closer to the moderate social constructionist position you outline. But her "rethinking" of materiality is very explicitly something much more radical: "materiality will be rethought as an effect of power," which of course for her is discourse (as it is for Foucault).

JB and Foucault offer extremely important postmodernist arguments, but they really can't be assimilated to a moderate social constructionist position. This is why JB talks about "materialization"--a term which signifies that there is no outside to discourse and power for her.

As for the question of historical context, I wouldn't expect her to talk about
"the gender identity formation of medieval Burgundian peasants." (I've heard this kind of thing before; it strikes me as a rather flip response to a meaningful critique.) I would, however, hope that when she talks about butch/femme, as she does in GT, that she do so with more care. In my view, theorizing difference also means historicizing it. Eg. the meaning of butch/femme as a "gender performance" is probably different for kd lang and a working-class African American butch in the 50s.

I'm surprised to hear that you're reading "in something of a vacuum"--I was under the impression that you're a grad student. I'm happy to engage with you about Butler, queer theory, etc. so feel free to email me anytime at!

Firebolt said...

I'm sure you must've been looking real cute (and if a militant at all, then hot).

I can totally identify with your insecurities about being a masculine female queer among all those straight-as-an-arrow people, some of whom might've been queerphobic. I have been getting that for years now, ever since I was a little one. You'll get used to it, just like I have. Although I still feel wierd sometimes when I'm in public and subject to too many glares and/or loud, nasty comments. It hurts, too, but I can face that.

I agree with your opinion of jess. In fact, that's exactly how I see her as well. I hope I can turn so out and prove in the future as well as jess has.

Love your blog, and k.d. lang.

Cheers! ^_^

@ greg

Thank you. If everyone thought your way, the world would be a much better place for us butches. Still, one person at a time ain't bad. ^_^

Firebolt said...

I meant "out and proud" in my comment in that paragraph about Jess. Stupid typo. That's what you get for using T9 dictionary on your phone.

And using phone internet right now is the reason I can't watch those k.d. lang videos just now. Dang!