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Not sticking to the script

Diane Dubois thinks that gender is a performance, to be played straight or endlessly improvised at the actor's discretion

Gender studies has come a long way since Simone de Beauvoir challenged the cultural positioning of woman as 'Other', and objected to the way in which being female was defined in relation to being male, as if there was nothing peculiar in being a man. In making her challenge in these terms, the script for nearly half a century of gender studies was drafted.

During this time we have learned to differentiate between biological sex and gendered activities: behaviour was acquired through culturally rehearsed gender roles and not by an accident of biology. Since it was in women's interests to scrutinise these roles in the hope of redressing societal imbalances of power, it was women who led the inquiry. Later, men got in on the act, examining how their performances as males were less directed by testosterone than a steady diet of John Wayne and Match of the Day.

In brief: we asked questions about the roles we were expected to play, and so the script was rewritten, with neat oppositions, plots and subplots. We continued to dream of a post-feminist denouement, when everybody, regardless of biology, gender or sexual preference, would be treated with equal respect.

All was well, as long as we could deal with those troublesome people who refused to fit into our neat, new character types - the transvestites, the transsexuals, and those 'trans-everythings' who seemed set on casting aside the script altogether and improvising with gender performances, sexual practices and even biology itself. They made the revised script messy, somehow.

Then, Judith Butler's understanding of gender as performativity came along. It showed us all to be the innocent, unconscious agents of gender production. We were all gender actors in a political play, and some were bent on relentlessly challenging any attempt at direction.

Yet it still seemed so much easier to adhere to our simple oppositions - male/female, gay/ straight - than deal with the questions posed by those difficult 'trans' people. Why? Because their praxis revealed to us most vividly the discursive structures of oppression that we, in sticking to the structure of the script, continued to act out on a daily basis.

They also revealed to us that our revised script needed further work. But who likes work? It's so much easier to see born-as-male transsexuals as deluded men with romantic ideas of what it is to be female, trans females- to-males and 'girlie girls' as traitors to the cause, and male transvestites as nothing more than grotesque parodies of an already risible femininity.

To avoid thinking things through, separatism is an excellent way of sticking your head in the sand. Stephen Whittle, who has described himself as 'born female-bodied', tells a story of how, in the late 1970s, he was invited to a radical separatists' party. Even though he had a full beard at the time, he was 'tolerated', while a woman left after being criticised for wearing a skirt and living with a man.

So, is growing a beard a stronger feminist statement than wearing a dress? Is it possible to be a 'good feminist' and live with a man? Or live as a man?

These are, of course, difficult questions. But we should always be asking questions. It may mean the new script is never finished, but surely that's preferable to uncritical behaviour and thought?

So, even though we had long ago agreed that gender was less dependent upon biology than rehearsal, those people who are, biologically or per-formatively, neither male nor female continue to raise important questions and challenges. What happens when a body, physical or performative, is neither purely male nor purely female?

Medicine currently recognises over 60 inter-sex conditions, and one baby in 200 is born with a question mark over its biological sex. This may be surprising; however, the issue is still one of performance rather than biology. You have this body - now what are you going to do with it?

The problem is, once you do something with your body - modifying it surgically, fucking somebody with it, even simply occupying it - you are socially encouraged to occupy a political position at the same time: think of a name for your character. Performance can mean accepting this role, and playing it for life, like a soap star; or it can mean free and endless improvisation.

Today, to ask 'am I born or am I made?' seems like the wrong sort of question to be asking. It suggests that 'I' is some sort of fixed and absolute centre of consciousness making sense of the luminous halo of life that surrounds it. If this sounds a bit like Virginia Woolf we shouldn't be surprised, as the script we are still trying to perform seems to come from a modernist, as opposed to a postmodernist, writer.

We are not made, once and for all, but constantly being made over. And over and over. And 'I' can be many things, in many different contexts. Anybody who tries to tell you any different may be after your freedom to choose, today, to play at being somebody else tomorrow.

Diane Dubois is a writer, actor and lecturer. She edits papers on performance for the Journal of Gender Studies, whose November 1998 edition was a special issue on 'transgendering'

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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