Why Gender, Sexuality and Sex Is About Performance

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Catelyn and Brienne, played by Michelle Fairley and Gwendoline Christie, in Game of Thrones.
Catelyn and Brienne, played by Michelle Fairley and Gwendoline Christie, in Game of Thrones.
Woman? Man? Other? Michelle Fairley and Gwendoline Christie in Game of Thrones.

Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, argues that sexual orientation, gender and even our concept of biological sex are a performance in our contemporary culture. For Butler, these qualities as defined by contemporary Western culture are a performative cultural concept, and not a biological or lived reality. Instead of the generally known biological sexes of “male” and “female,” the accepted genders of “man” and “woman,” and the often used sexual states called “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” there are a multitude of other states which can intersect and even contradict each other.

As Butler puts it:

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Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.

In general terms, Butler’s work argues that while gender, sex and sexuality are at their core a performance, that does not mean that they are a choice. They are classifications created by social interaction and cultural cues that constantly reinforce each other to the point where they are treated and believed as if true. For example, it was a cultural truth in medieval Europe that the earth was flat and the cosmos orbited around it. Obviously these were not objective truths, but cultural classifications treated as fact.

Gender theorist Judith Butler
Gender theorist Judith Butler

Similarly, Butler and other prominent figures in gender studies, biology and anthropology argue that sexuality, gender and even biological sex do not exist in a static binary state, but along a fluid, highly variable spectrum. This has profound implications for the performance of sexuality on stage. At first glance, this should mean that actors have a clear and effective set of qualities to strive for when playing a “straight” character. However, with deeper exploration, the very concept of a “gay” actor playing a “straight” character falls apart. When definitions of biological sex are unclear and at times contradictory, what does it even mean to be attracted to “men” or “women”?

Many researchers now agree that the number of genders and their classification and expression are wholly dependent on one’s cultural context. In India, a third gender is recognized; some ancient cultures recognize more. In our own culture, gender and biological sex seem inexorably tied; even some medical professionals at times will use gender and sexual terms interchangeably. But these qualities are not synonymous. Gender refers to a social role, a set of cultural narratives and assumed personal qualities. Biological sex refers to genitalia, physical characteristics, to the chromosomes of an individual. One does not determine the other.

Intersex: Rudy Alaniz
Intersex: Rudy Alaniz

While many cultures embrace multiple genders, few recognize multiple sexes. However, some scientists, medical professionals and others have begun to question the sexual dichotomy of male and female, arguing that taking into account the possible combinations of physical sexual characteristics and chromosome pairings, there are as many as five major sexes. Male and female merely represent the more commonly recognized possibilities in this scenario. (The IOC is currently struggling to adapt an acceptable test for athletes to determine if they can compete as women.) The problem is that physical characteristics, hormones and even chromosomes are not iron-clad indicators of sex. Some people display the physical and hormonal characteristics of the female sex while having the chromosomes of the male sex, or vice versa. Surprisingly common conditions such as Klinefelter’s syndrome, which affects about one in 1,000 births, creates sets of three chromosomes — in this case XXY. People with Klinefelter’s will exhibit a mosaic of masculine and feminine qualities, such as external male genitalia but small breasts. What sex should we classify such individuals? What sexuality would they have? If you date such people, are you homosexual? Heterosexual? Both? Many people unknowingly have internal gonads of one sex and the external genitalia of another. Some men find through unrelated MRI’s or other medical diagnostics that they have ovaries, or even small wombs. And these are not always feminine people, but people like Rudy Alaniz, who fought in the Gulf War as a male marine.