There are two different understandings of how gender works. Judith Butler writes about them in her book “Gender Trouble” and in her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” One of these understandings is that gender is “performative” and one is that gender is “expressive.” The two understandings are vehemently opposed, but maybe they don’t have to be.
An understanding of gender as “performative” implies that there is no inherent or essential gender before the “various acts, postures, and gestures by which it is dramatized.” That is, gender roles and tendencies are purely constructed. On the flip side, an understanding of gender as “expressive” is to say the opposite, that there is innate gender before its expression, and gender roles and tendencies merely express that gender.
If you know me or my blog at all, you know I have always tended toward the former explanation, that gender is constructed, and therefore “performative.” However, Joanne Leal’s exploration of gender depictions in three German films has made me consider more thoroughly the implications of such an assertion.
In her essay about the construction of masculinity in film, Leal suggests that American masculinity is depicted in film as performative, because of the fluidity of its expression. Close your mouth; I know it’s shocking.
But it may just be true! American masculinity is often depicted as having a soft side that comes in waves, rather than being a constant companion to its strength and stability. Men in American cinema often stop and question themselves, are tempted by desire and distraction, and submit themselves to bouts of rage and aggression indicative of a lack of control. This suggests that their stability is merely a performance that is difficult to sustain—a hardened shell covering up some weak interior, but a shell with cracks in it.
My point is: maybe we’re going about this all wrong by preaching a world-view of societal gender construction and essential fluidity.
My thought has always been that if people understand that gender is fluid rather than rigid, they will loosen up and relax their gender presentation, rather than feeling confined to it. Maybe that is wrong. Maybe our American gender trouble originated as a defensive reaction to the claim that gender is fluid! Maybe if people think everybody has equal access to all “gender traits” and is equally susceptible, as the term’ fluidity’ suggests, they will only hold tighter to the traits they believe are ‘good’ and reject even more strongly the traits they believe are ‘bad.’
If you’ve noticed, the women’s movement so far has not really resulted in more fluidity between the genders, but rather with a masculinization of women. The world-view used to be that men were superior because of inherent superior qualities, such as logic, strength, and emotional stability (which manifests more as emotional repression). As a culture, we no longer openly profess that men are superior to women for these reasons, but we still have a fondness for those ‘superior’ qualities deemed masculine. In order to gain equality in the eyes of the law, women had to show that they also had these qualities.
Equal rights for women has not been a process of equality between masculinity and femininity, but a process of equal masculinity between men and women. Obviously, this process is not complete.
Maybe the best way to move forward with gender and sexuality activism is not to convince everybody that gender is fluid or that traits deemed masculine and feminine are open to both parties. Instead, let’s work on convincing people that traits deemed feminine are not so bad and do not have to take away from traits deemed masculine.
This inequality between qualities deemed ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is where the real gender trouble lies.