Critique and Complacency in Examining Gender as a Performance

A couple of years ago, photographs of men in stereotypical ‘pin-up’ poses circulated the Internet. The photographs, featuring men accessorized with ‘masculine’ items but contorted in ‘feminine’ poses, are by artist Rion Sabean, and I encountered them rather early on in the feminist blogosphere. The general consensus by feminist commentators was that they were exceptional–an exhibition, it was declared after examination, of gender and sexuality as a performance.

I did not find them quite so brilliant.

The artist is a man, I believe, but in this instance I am unconcerned with his sex or his intentions. I don’t believe they were malicious, and I don’t believe it matters in this case. What I am critical of, however, is the reception of these photographs. In many articles, including the one linked above, the project is described as ‘humorous.’ And indeed, the reaction of most people, when first seeing a picture like this, is to sneer uncomfortably.

This I can say with the certainty of observation, because roughly a year, or maybe even just a few months, after I came across these photographs, my women’s studies professor at the time (I was an undergrad then and, for those of you who don’t know, minored in women’s studies–a decision I came to regret) introduced them to our class. I remember this clearly because I might have been the only one to groan. She had believed they were exceptionally clever. And it did not disturb her the least that every single student, with the exception of yours truly, reacted to them by laughing.

Instead, she interpreted the laughter as indicative of an awareness that the performance of feminine sexuality is just that–a performance–and therefore looks out-of-place anywhere where one is not used to seeing it. Because, you know, performing femininity is ridiculous and such. And this project just draws focus to it, employing the displacement as magnification.

Expecting women to confine themselves to restrictive expressions of sexuality is ridiculous. But what’s not ridiculous are those expressions of sexuality themselves, especially when they are something that have come to define femininity, to temper it, to make it recognizable as gentle, expressive, playful or alert, invitingly sly. In front of a camera and a photographer, it can be argued that this is laughably disingenuous. But in life, in every day, in the flickering glance of a woman walking by or the fluttering motion or suggestive smile, it is not a “performance”–it is a mannerism. It is something she has become, that I’ve become, that we have become, have adopted as fluid to our gender and sexual identities. And that is what the photographs relocate onto these men. And that is what is supposed to be ‘humorous.’

The disparagement of feminine gestures or behaviors, even when embedded in the critique that they are constructed, is violent toward the feminine psyche. And the ridiculing of men who adopt them, who are ‘feminized,’ is a continuation of that violence. The photographs themselves don’t do this; as art, they simply ‘displace’ indicators of femininity onto male subjects for our interpretation, but our quick reaction to laugh—not in surprise, but in contempt—certainly does. And I would say this is a case where the reaction of the audience, and our involvement in the perpetuation the hatred of femininity, is to be critiqued as part of the artwork itself.

Unfortunately the idea that feminine behaviors are worthy of ridicule, even when those particular behaviors are demonstrable of intelligence, is something to which our culture is all too well-accustomed. On another “humor” site with a complete list of things women “need to understand” about men (as if) is the following:

ALL men see in only 16 colors, like Windows default settings. Peach, for example, is a fruit, not a color. Pumpkin is also a fruit. We have no idea what mauve is.

Dude, if you can’t tell the difference between peach and pumpkin you’re an asinine blockhead. Here, let me help you out:

Can't tell the difference? You might be suffering from Giant Douchebag Syndrome.
Can’t tell the difference? You might be suffering from Giant Douchebag Syndrome. Common causes include people pretending you’re funny, having been raised as though you’re precious & insightful, and the XY chromosome.

Being so dense you can’t see that? That’s not a thing to brag about.

There’s an article… somewhere on the Internet… (let me know if you’re able to locate to what I’m referring) written by a woman describing how men actually benefit from the blonde stereotype. That is, when women lack any common knowledge in an area, they are ridiculed (and are the subject of an entire series of well-known jokes) whereas when men are unable to figure out how to use detergent or cook a meal, their ignorance is not only forgiven but indulged. The writer explains that her partner was quite active before they lived together, but as soon as they moved in he began to whine about how to do things and to feign not understanding, which resulted of course, in her doing them for him while he sat back and watched T.V.

17 thoughts on “Critique and Complacency in Examining Gender as a Performance

  1. orathaic

    Reminds me of another recent example. Hatred of Bronies (a bronies can be defined as any fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic who is not in the target audience of 6-12 year old girls. The average Brony is 19 years old, and ~89% are male¹) – There is some confusion among non-bronies, who suspect that all of brony-dom is an example of trolling, intentionally taking on these characteristics just to get attention and cause annoyance. (causing grief for the tears) However, regardless of the intention, reactions along the lines of “shouldn’t even count as a man”² highlight this misogyny.

    Military Bronies³ give a great example of masculine men being feminine, and i think may be a great example of male leadership, which i suspect any equality movement needs – a group of male leaders which little boys might listen to.

    Along with the hawkeye initiative (http://thehawkeyeinitiative.com/) and similar trends in Japan from the past 20 years, i hope this is a sign of progress yet to be made.

    ¹https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woUeRjj-vzI
    ²https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzozSSGETJo
    ³https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZdeMGFKFMk

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    1. Thanks Molly Rose. Yes, I had the same reaction toward any projection of humor on the photographs. When interpreted through that culture, the artwork is mocking femininity. And (aside from mean-spirited) that’s misogyny.

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  2. KGB

    (I was an undergrad then and, for those of you who don’t know, minored in women’s studies–a decision I came to regret)

    Why? Did it pose difficulty for getting jobs or something?

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    1. Nahida

      Oh no, nothing like that. I’ve never had trouble finding work. That comes quite easily to me, masha’Allah. I regret it because I should have minored in music.

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      1. Narjis

        But Nahida, music is haraaaaaam! Just kidding, I don’t really believe that. But I would love to hear what you would say to those people who do; I’ve always found the whole idea so baffling it was hard to come up with something reasonable to say in response.

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        1. LOL!! Ah, Narjis, how I’ve missed you. *hugs* I think I have a post around here somewhere about that back when I was too impatient for irrational things (still am), but yes, I should get on with writing a more detailed one.

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    1. Argh. Cis privilege, that’s how. =( Thanks for mentioning that Lisa!

      I was having a discussion with a coworker the other day about how one of her friends has to “over perform” femininity to “pass” as a woman, and how infuriatingly unfair and exhaustive that is. I think that’s a point that makes laughing at these photographs as depicting over-performance even more sinister.

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  3. Heh it was a while ago but I’m still just as pissed off about it! And this “gender swapped pictures to demonstrate misogyny” meme comes round like clockwork, each time conveniently forgetting what trans women said last time around. I see it from a lot of cis women who are my good friends, too, and it’s so disappointing/angering.

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    1. Absolutely. I’ve make note not to be angered by the meme for my own sake and to also point out how especially horrible, transmisogynist, it is to trans women as well should I ever comment on it again.

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  4. Pingback: Wednesday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion | Clarissa's Blog

  5. Brilliant post. Lucid and insightful. On my blog, I celebrate the feminine. I’ve done several types of cross-gender explorations, always with respect. I agree with your analysis of this. Our society is so deeply sexist that people don’t even see it.

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