Literal Gender Performativity
Performativity of gender – a stylized repetition of acts, behaviors and mannerisms that is to mime the dominant societal conventions of gender
In recent years, it has become more established in mainstream society that gender is a construct- a form of self-expression that is independent from biological sex. According to author and philosopher Judith Butler, gender is performative. It displays a series of social cues that easily alerts others as to personal gender identification. It allows society to use the labels that so many are comfortable using because they’re simple. It is not necessarily a performance, but it is performative. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it can become one if performative conventions are forced upon a person, as they so often are. Luckily, in American society, it seems to be becoming slowly more accepted to express one’s gender the way one pleases. For more information about gender performativity in a more adorable way, check out Dr. Hannah McCann’s Judith Butler Explained with Cats.
How does gender performativity tie into performance, though? This is a long, convoluted question that goes back all the way to the beginnings of performance both in Greece and Japan. It was unacceptable for women to perform in both emerging cultures, so men had to play female roles. Specific conventions and signals had to be established and performed to show that the character being played was female, even though it was being played by a male. Does anything sound familiar? Specific social conventions to display someone’s gender were heavily utilized, just like they are now and how they have been in conventional gender expression. The societal norm of men playing female roles carried on broadly until just after Shakespeare’s time. This means, yes, some of the biggest feminine roles in theatre were originally played by men. Juliet, Ophelia, Viola, Kate Minola- all men defining femininity. When the Japanese theatre style Noh was reviving in the 20th century, there was even an argument as to whether women should be allowed into new Noh performances! The style of performance was so nuanced and specific, some argued that women would be unable to portray femininity as well as these niche actors, onnagata, would be able to. Their years of training were argued to perfectly capture the ideal femininity: gracious, submissive, gentle, and beautiful. Therefore, the practice of performing a gender, and being taken seriously for doing it, is clearly not a new concept.
But as our definitions and understanding of gender become more complicated, so do our expressions of it. It is clear that film and television has catered to specific portrayals of genders in the past, but the latest dilemma in gender performance is with transgender performance. Transgender meaning a person who identifies their gender as something different from what they were identified as at birth. Transgender actors and transgender stories are being more accepted in Hollywood, and therefore Hollywood is trying to find room for them. Laverne Cox, for example, made a name for herself by playing Sophia, a transgender inmate in Orange is the New Black. She then portrayed Dr. Frank-n-Furter in the TV reboot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (to some controversy). And finally after exclusively acting her transgender identity, Cox is to star in ABC’s The Trustee. Not as a transgender character, but just as a female character. It is a satisfying moment to see a transgender actress be so completely accepted in her gender identification.
But on the other side of that coin, there is the Hollywood practice of casting cisgendered actors in transgendered roles. Cisgendered simply means a person identifies with the gender that they were assigned at birth. The more this occurs, the more people of the LGBTQ community seem to disagree with it. Two recent huge roles in film, the lead in The Danish Girl and Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club were transgendered roles played by white, male, cisgendered actors. Both films fell under controversy for taking those opportunities away from transgendered actors. Many argued that there weren’t enough parts for transgendered actors to begin with, and to give away huge roles to cisgendered people was disrespectful. In addition, others believed that transgendered actors would be able to offer a more effective performance. That being said, both actors won Oscars for their performances, so they clearly did an exemplary job. Therefore the entertainment industry has to ask itself, how far does gender performance, and performativity, go?
It has been established that cisgendered actors can play transgendered roles (and transgendered actors are beginning to play cisgendered roles), but is it the right thing to do? Should Hollywood be more sensitive to accurate representation? I would argue yes, but keep in mind that gender is performative. Specifically transgender roles are probably better off being played by transgendered actors, both for representation and accuracy’s sake. But I believe exceptions can be made. If a cisgendered actor is truly what is best for the film or show, then yes, the role should be theirs. In the end, the quality of the story is most important. In addition, of course transgendered actors should be able to play cisgendered parts- no question there. The difference between the two situations is that all their lives, trans people have often been practicing how to appear cisgendered, while for many cisgendered actors they’ve never truly considered the trans experience. In the end, we all just have to remember that gender is fluid. People have been performing, and will continue to perform gender for as long as performance has existed. And in that same vein, the more we understand gender, the more performative it will appear. The best that the entertainment industry can do, as a whole, is continue to strive towards fair representation and acceptance for all people. This means recognizing flaws in the system and fixing them, and making sure that actors who are most appropriate, respectful and effective are playing their roles.