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The Logic of Sex: Heteronormativity, Gender, and the Law of the Excluded Middle

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Philosophy, Politics, The End of Heterosexuality? on March 3, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The first in our on-going series of articles on “The End of Heterosexuality?”

symbols_transgender_symbol4

by Joe Weinberg

It has long been thought that there are two and only two genders: male and female. While some (such as Butler in Gender Trouble) have argued that there is actually only one gender (Male being the norm, and female, as not-male, being the only gender) and used as a basis for justifying patriarchal mistreatment,[1]  it seems more accurate to say that there are more than ‘just’ two genders. That heteronormative binary is not only inaccurate, but actively hurtful to large groups of people, those who fall ‘between’ or ‘outside’ that binary.

Once we accept that there is more to the world of gender than male and female, certain questions arise. Do we look at gender as a spectrum? How many genders are there? And where does sex come into the picture? The simple answers are “No,” “I don’t know,” and “Everywhere.” For more nuanced and complex answers, we have to take a step back and define a few terms.

First, heteronormative binary. The heteronormative binary is a very fancy way of saying “two genders.” Basically, it’s referring to the idea that there are only two genders (male and female) and that being one means NOT being the other. Similarly, it refers to the idea that sexuality is pure, either homo or hetero. I don’t like binaries; there is more to being a woman than NOT being a man, and vice versa. I also think it is possible to have aspects of both without being ‘in transition’ from one to the other. And, it’s possible to be neither one, and be perfectly satisfied with that. Similarly, even if we throw in bisexuality to the homo/hetero split, I STILL think there’s more. That’s a matter of simple logic.

Speaking of logic, there are two other principles I need to get out of the way: The Law of the Excluded Middle (LotEM) and the Sorites paradox. The LotEM basically just says that there are other more than two options, and that sometimes the decision that seems to be between two things is actually between more than two things. For some nicely inflammatory examples, abortion isn’t a matter of Pro Choice or Pro Life; someone can be opposed to abortion in all cases EXCEPT incest or rape, or can be in favor of the right to choose while choosing for themselves not to have an abortion. There’s more than just black and white. The LotEM basically reminds us that there are shades of gray.

Sorites is a bit more complex. That’s the question of when something becomes a pile. Sorites himself used millet seeds, but I prefer the image going bald. If I lose one hair, I’m not bald. If I lose all my hair, I’m bald. But one hair isn’t going to make a difference one way or the other, right? But at the same time, if I take my hair away one at a time, sooner or later I cross into the bald category. That means that there is a point where one hair DOES make a difference. So a single hair both does and doesn’t matter. That’s why it’s a paradox. Read the rest of this entry »

Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys or: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory

In Art, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Mythology, Performativity, Politics on December 13, 2013 at 10:27 am

The sixth in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

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by Chase Dimock

The Misfit Narrative and Queer Youth

The narrative of the misfit character struggling to find his place in the world is a well-used trope for popular entertainment because it is nearly universally identifiable and it lends itself to a light, yet redeeming moral at the end of the story. Everyone, in some capacity, thinks of himself or herself as a misfit to some degree and everyone is accustomed to, yet never contesting of, the simplistic message of tolerance and treating everyone equally.

Yet, the story of Rudolph as a misfit takes on a different dimension for the 50 years worth of queer American children who grew up watching the holiday classic every year on television. While these stories about kindly treating those different from us and not being afraid to be different were commonplace in the American classroom with their examples of not being ashamed to wear glasses, have freckles, stuttering, etc., the narrative of tolerating difference resonates differently for queer youth. Unlike the child with glasses who knows he is the same as other children beneath the glasses, queer youth often feel an intrinsic difference—that they inhabit a different kind of body or gender—almost another species of being. The queer youth is looking for more than a little hope that they will be tolerated and accepted; they are also looking for a subject model to emulate, a guide on how to live as a misfit.

For most of the past 50 years, lgbt youth have had to look for subject models in the abstract. Until the past decade, there were few, if any, lgbt identified characters in the media that their family consumed. Unlike today where lgbt youth have a character on Glee or Modern Family to point to in order to navigate their subject position, children of previous generations (including myself) had to look elsewhere for characters and subject models who mirrored their queerness in non-explicitly gendered or sexual forms. Coming into one’s gay identity meant identifying across a variety of different kinds of queerness and cobbling together a sense of how to think and live in a marginalized subject position by observing and learning from other forms of outsider status, like racial minorities, the disabled, immigrants, the poor—pretty much any oppressed class of people who would have some representation in the media.

In a certain way, maturing into my gay subjectivity by identifying through the similar outsider subject positions of others was beneficial because I saw my gayness as united with other disadvantaged segments of the population. It allowed me to see that some of the challenges facing the lgbt world come not simply from sexual or gender difference, but also from how society defines and polices otherness. Read the rest of this entry »

One from the Other

In Art, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory on August 25, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Picture 3(A still from David Wojnarowicz’s film, A Fire in My Belly)

by Kevin McLellan

Preface

Before the acronyms HIV and AIDS were established, there were these acronyms: the 4H disease (Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroine users) and GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). Did this precursory nomenclature further contribute to the stigma for the gay community in the early 1980s? For those within the gay community not only diagnosed with what would be named HIV/AIDS? Were there other forces that divided the negative gay community, if you will, from the positive gay community? Was fear one of those forces?One from the other by no means directly addresses these substantial questions, but rather in its compression attempts to touch upon the underbelly of a post-breakup phone conversation between HIV+ Kris and HIV- Anthony in 1998, on the heels of breakthrough medicinal therapy. Yet the psychological and sociosexual impacts for those living with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis prior to 1996 had already been set into motion.

The title of this play, One from the other, correlates to something Kris says to Anthony, “It’s killing you. The alcohol and your relationship with your mother. I can’t determine one from the other.” The intention of this dialogue, and consequently the title, is by no means to demonize mothers/motherhood, but rather to use (this particular) mother as metaphor for HIV/AIDS and how the virus has control over the body like the mother has control over her son.

Kris mimics Anthony’s mother, “Why do you speak to me that way? You know that I’m not going to live for very much longer.” This language in conjunction with Kris’ claim, “You speak with her nearly every day and fall for her guilt” is not only an attempt to set the stage for Anthony and his compromised relationships (with his mother, an ex,  and alcohol), but alternatively to fashion germane language for those living with HIV/AIDS in 1998 if they were to address the virus itself.

So, ultimately, this play is attempting to support the creation of a metaphorical conceit (a mother lode, if you will) in order to address directly or indirectly various kinds of division: within the gay and straight communities, between a positive and a negative gay man, and between sons and mothers.

One from the Other

Picture 5A still from David Wojnarowicz’s film, A Fire in My Belly

 

Cast of Characters:

KRIS, a thirty-something gay man who is HIV+ and recently separated from Anthony.

ANTHONY, an alcoholic forty-something gay man still in love with Kris.

The play takes place in their respective apartments, opens with a phone conversation in progress, one evening in the year 1998. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaser

In Art, Feminism, film, Freud, Gender Studies, LGBT, Performativity, Sex on August 20, 2013 at 9:29 pm

The fourth in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

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by Barbarism

In this BARBARISM production, we explore the visual/metaphorical dimensions of projection! As the literal screen gives rise to an aural example of cultural scapegoating, we witness a verbal soliloquy of everyday sexual humiliation-meets-cajolery of women using the symbol of the breast. But if the breast is synecdochically symbolic of woman, woman is itself symbolic of sex and mother but “‘men’ and ‘women’ in Wittig’s radical argument are political creations designed to give a biological mandate to social arrangements in which one group of human beings oppresses another. Relations among people are always constructed, and the question to be asked in not which ones are the most natural, but rather what interests are served by each construction” (Bersani, 1995, p. 38).

These symbols upon symbols create a vent for basic emotions that become perverted into one-sided disparagement. “Symbols precede us. Their internalization serves to construct us” (Corbett, 2009, p. 43). The woman/breast/sex/mother is a mere screen upon which people may project their feelings and fantasies, which are influenced by culturally-condoned misogyny which simply speaks to the fear of vulnerability/mother/sex as represented by women. When people are unable to connect with an other they stoop to Otherizing and projecting within a narcissistic realm, blinding themselves to the person in favor of their created symbol stand-in for the person.

When holistic personhood is not culturally valued, the interpersonal result of intrapsychic discomfort, people are disembodied into parts that evoke amorphously scary feelings which are metastasized into cruelty and misdirected onto the part representing the person.

But the breast doesn’t represent the person, the breast represents something in the observer’s mind which is subsequently perverted into being called the person.

Works Cited

Bersani, L. (1995). Homos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Corbett, K. (2009). Boyhoods: Rethinking masculinities. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Read the rest of this entry »

Constitutionality of Recent SCOTUS Decisions — DOMA and Voting Rights

In Instinct for Research, LGBT, Politics, Uncategorized on July 25, 2013 at 12:00 am

Neon Supreme Court

by Matthew Nelson

(This article originally appeared on As It Ought To Be)

The Supreme Court has been getting a lot of attention lately. With the deluge of end-of-term decisions over, it seems everyone is taking turns surveying the damage. But while most commentators ask “helping-or-hurting” questions – How big of a setback was the Prop 8 ruling for marriage traditionalists? Did racism win the day at the University of Texas? – I want to draw attention to a different set of questions raised by two of the year’s biggest decisions. These decisions, on gay marriage and voting rights respectively, offer an excellent opportunity to revisit our government’s famed system of “checks and balances” and ask just what we expect the various branches to do to get along.

In United States v. Windsor, the Court struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prevented even already-married same-sex couples from receiving the benefits of a federally acknowledged marriage. It did so because it found that the law violated the so-called “due process clause” of the Fifth Amendment.  So far, so good – this much accords well with our ordinary conception of how the federal government works – the legislature enacts laws, and the judiciary reviews their constitutionality. But in order to get to a place where they could even rule on DOMA’s constitutionality, the Court first had to answer a strange procedural question – was there even a real case to decide?

The problem was that the two sides seemed to agree on the correct ruling. Both the plaintiff, Edith Windsor, and the defendant, the U.S. Government (as represented by its Executive Branch), agreed that the law was unconstitutional. Accordingly, Ms. Windsor ought to be entitled to a refund of more than $350,000 in taxes that she was forced to pay on the estate of her deceased spouse, Thea Spyer, because under DOMA her same-sex marriage did not qualify her for surviving-spouse tax exemption. This led Justice Scalia, in oral arguments, to ask why the case had made it to the Supreme Court at all. What made it different from a debt-related lawsuit where the debtor agrees he owes money but just refuses to pay? In that case, there is no case – the debtor owes the money, no questions asked.

But the Executive Branch disagreed…kind of. Although they refused to defend DOMA’s constitutionality, they insisted on enforcing it and requested that the Court continue with the case as if everything were normal. However, because the Executive refused to defend the law, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group from the House of Representatives had to step in instead. Their representative, Paul Clement, pointed out that this convoluted scheme had already led at the District Court level to “the most anomalous motion to dismiss in the history of litigation: A motion to dismiss, filed by the United States, asking the district court not to dismiss the case.” Justice Kennedy noted that that is enough to “give you intellectual whiplash.” Indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tea

In Art, film, LGBT, Performativity, Queer Theory, Sex on May 21, 2013 at 8:46 pm

The third in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

TEA By Matthew Terrell

by Matthew Terrell

Picture 11

Pre-TEA:

When I was a kid I had the feeling that the world—those around me—perceived me as off. Not that I was a bad kid—I was a fantastic, smart, active boy. But a little something was off kilter about me. Something was wrong. Something about me was a bit queer.

Today, I know what others saw in me. I was clearly gay.

Children are quite perceptive, and I grew up convinced I was not normal. I was that little boy who steadfastly watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I claimed to really identify with Mary. My body, my voice, my interests—every detail betrayed me to others. At age 8, I knew I was marked.

I knew I was marked even when I was too young to grasp what made me different. I knew I would never be what adults wanted of me. I would never become a man.

This is why so many people struggle to come out of the closet. Despite how freeing the act is, you know you are marked as different, lesser than the rest of the world. Before I realized what gay was, I

knew I was bad—bad in a way I could never change. Gay people have been marked for generations— we are the weirdoes, the sissies, the ones who will never be able to recreate the nuclear family.

I don’t know where flounce comes from, but it’s the fabulous little demon that has followed me since my Mary Tyler Moore days. My wrists are limp, my voice is high-pitched, and my style is garish. This is my tea, and I’m ashamed of it. I believe that nobody respects a mincing queer, and I struggle to accept who I am, love what makes me different, and live a life free of the expectations of others.

I struggle because I know I am still marked. When you are gay, you are always cognizant of who you portray. We all want so desperately to pass. I ask myself: How gay do you seem today? Is your level of gayness audience appropriate? Gay men fight to be neutral in the eyes of others. Some of us revel in being “straight acting.” We are convinced people outside our community judge us on how gay we act. How queer we are.

I carry this with me every day. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on the Assassination of Judy Garland (Series of Paintings 2008-2012)

In Art, Gender Studies, LGBT, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory on April 16, 2013 at 9:03 pm

The second in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

duke_Killshot 2 Judys Gopalkrishnan 2013-1

by Carl Gopalkrishnan

Between 2008-2012, I created paintings with an ‘old school’ queer cultural affinity with vintage Broadway and Hollywood musicals. I used the life of Judy Garland as an internal narrative arc, a reflective tool, as part of my personal response to the 9/11 consciousness we inhabit today.  It became a metaphorical exploration of American politics from the period of the Obama/Clinton primaries, through further conflict in the Middle East amid the background of drones and the war on terror.  I think Judy kept asking the same question too, but kept singing the whole time, so keeping her fucked up life beside me as I painted was oddly grounding.

To me, Garland is more than a gay icon. She represents the best and worst of America – and their inevitable interoperability. The flipside of her talent helped me to understand the American partisan split personality in a more sympathetic way. I also had no difficulty with being sympathetic because I can’t not be sympathetic to one side of Judy without acknowledging the damage on the other side. And this ‘otherness’ in my paintings is how I conceive what is queer in this series of paintings.  This led me to looking at Hollywood movies and musicals as metaphors for the political intransigence of both Bush and Obama’s foreign policies. I call the series The Assassination of Judy Garland, because I feel that we are now separated into those that see Judy in 2 dimensional tragic terms; and those that see how tragedy shaped her genius in glorious 3D.

I also used French medieval epic poetry – chansons de geste – roughly translated as songs of heroic deeds because they were used at that time to support the political narratives of the Crusades in ways that reminded me of how many Hollywood products supports the War on Terror.  So the queer lens I created for these paintings is a prescription lens made for a specific time and place. And this lens acts as a screen to both hide and reveal motivations and desires, as much the screen icons I reference.  So the modern political stage I see is through recent history (Judy Garland’s life) and medieval history (chansons de geste).

As a queer-identifying man of colour with multiple geopolitical and sexual identities, I found myself directly affected by the political climate of the last decade.  It was the first time as a painter that I was looking outside to constructively use what was inside me to create an alternative to the narrative War on Terror, which always insists that I use my cultural heritage to position my loyalties in a dangerous time.  When I looked around to find how I could use my queer identity, I found that it was so busy trying on clothes that it had gone way beyond the body it was made to clothe. It had changed as I had aged.

People seem to forget that queer theory breathes within a time of terror that smashes lenses and burns books. It fancies itself immune. But I could not find a queer framework that helped me to paint what I saw.  I no longer understood what I call the new normative queer, and so I returned to what I knew was ‘naff’ and old school.  I allowed myself to visually languor in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1950s. I felt quite alienated from the new normative queer climate influenced by a hyper-masculinized LGBTI culture that was becoming increasingly nationalistic in it’s desire to go beyond its backroom history into the light of mainstream acceptance.  Part of that process seems to relegate our screen culture history into the domain of soft power forever, which I really resist.  Screen culture has a power equal to that of the chansons de geste, which could inspire entire populations to lay down their lives through songs orally memorised and sung from village to village in the time of The Crusades. So I painted within that retrospective space, choosing sense over sensibility, perhaps.

I have taken away from these paintings a deeper appreciation for how our queer histories have become silent pictures that sit patiently and move slowly behind the interactive and hyperactive edges of this new normative queer. So while I reference moving pictures, the surreality in my paintings is happening on the silent screen inside us. Applied to the bigger stage, this screen can affect momentous change. We should respect that power. Read the rest of this entry »

How Fashion is Queer

In Feminism, Freud, Gender Studies, Lacan, LGBT, Performativity, Queer Theory, Transgender on March 14, 2013 at 3:04 pm
Leigh Bowery

Photo by Leigh Bowery

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by Alison Bancroft

There are a number of popular ideas about fashion: That it demeans and oppresses women, or that it is a capitalist plot to extract money – either that they do not have, or that they do have but do not appreciate – from the gullible and the credulous. Attached to both of these is the idea that fashion is vacuous fluff, something trivial that is only of interest to women and gay men and thus pointless by virtue of those who are interested in it. If it were serious, significant, relevant in any way, shape or form, then straight men would take an interest in it. The fact that, on the whole, they don’t take an interest in it, and the people that do are, on the whole, marginalized and discriminated against, is enough to move fashion to the back of the queue for cultural and political importance.

In this short essay I would like to propose another way of looking at fashion, one that will emphasize the ways in which it reframes notions of gender and sexuality. What makes fashion so remarkable is that it has zero regard for heteronormative ideas about men and women, masculine and feminine. In fact, it offers one of the only cultural spaces there is for variant models of sexed subjectivities. In fashion, the usual categories of man and woman do not apply.

Also, before this essay continues, it should be said that fashion here refers to creativity in dress and bodily ornamentation. It is a branch of the avant-garde that makes people say “but you can’t wear that” as if a garment’s unsuitability for everyday life is a problem when, actually, it is the whole point. Fashion is not about shopping, and if you think it is, you have missed a trick. Fashion is not going to change the world, of course. It is never going be truly revolutionary. It is seditious though, it subverts from within, offering challenges to the presumed naturalness of existing hierarchies within the terms that are available to it.

Sheila Jeffreys is the most vocal exponent of the standard criticism that fashion reflects and serves to maintain female subordination. In her book Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West she argues that the appearance of the drag queen Ru Paul in adverts for MAC cosmetics and on the runway for the designer Thierry Mugler is a testament to how much fashion hates women. By Jeffreys’ logic, using a drag queen as a model tells the world that fashion thinks women are irrelevant.[i]

Unfortunately for Jeffreys, anatomy is not destiny. It is not the case that fashion hates women so much it makes them redundant by using a man in their place. Instead, fashion ignores the very idea of men and women from the outset, and it puts men in the place of women, women in the place of men, and trans becomes the default, the norm, rather than an oddity or an abasement. This disregard for the usual categories of man and woman is evidence firstly that gender binaries are irrelevant in fashion, and more generally that gender identity is not located in the anatomical body anyway. For anyone familiar with the development of Queer Theory in the last twenty years, this second point is no surprise. Queer Theory, though, is a bit niche, and beyond the confines of the humanities and liberal arts departments of Western universities where it is researched and taught, no-one has really heard of it. For people outside of universities, the ideas of Queer Theory are communicated differently – and fashion is one of the ways in which queer ideas become culturally active. Indeed, it could be said that fashion was queer avant la lettre.

Andrej Pejic, on the cover of Schon magazine

Andrej Pejic, on the cover of Schon magazine

Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing History From the Margins

In Feminism, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Politics on February 27, 2013 at 12:04 am
The first in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”
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peck mirage

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by Bonnie Morris

“What’s wrong with you, Mr. Stillwell? Don’t you want to remember? No; you don’t. That’s why you’ve blacked it out. You’ve stubbed your conscious mind, and you’ve put a bandage of forgetfulness on it until it recovers. Have the courage to face that terrible thing that made you forget.”

Mirage, Universal Pictures, 1965

Screen techniques, the subconscious mind, and the political messages imbedded in Hollywood film are all important tools for me as a professor of history. What the camera’s eye “uncovers” is a means for discussing how we hide historical truths, only to reveal them later in the screenplay of American culture.

At George Washington University, it’s my job to acquaint first-year college students with everything their high schools couldn’t or wouldn’t teach: scholarship on gender and sexuality. The history of slavery and segregation. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exclusion of women from schools and jobs and athletic fields. The utter suppression of lesbian and gay lives. Usually, such unflattering pictures of discrimination in not-too-distant America were skipped over in my students’ K-12 curriculum. Too often, the history of the Other is buried–marginalized. So, how do we begin to uncover it and restore it to collective consciousness? On the very first day of class, we start talking about seeing history from the margins; from the authentic perspective of the marginalized.

It’s exciting work. Unfortunately, the rich disciplines of women’s studies/black studies/gay and lesbian studies are still reserved for college courses and advanced degrees, and kept separate from “regular” American history. The subject of American women, who today make up over 51% of the population and almost 60% of college enrollment, is still a “special topic.” That’s as problematic a marker in the academic world as “special interests” are in government. It means my classes only reach self-selecting students; no one has to take women’s history. It also means that even these committed, interested students, who may have attended progressive private high schools, are stunningly unfamiliar with the ugly side of American history. My challenge, each fall, is simply convincing these sheltered and privileged students that racial segregation and No Women Allowed actually happened, and happened right here in the nation’s capital.

“No way—that’s crazy! That couldn’t possibly be true!” is a familiar outburst in my Western Civ class.  Some want to know: am I exaggerating? Inventing? Indoctrinating? No. But encountering the unfamiliar in a humanities class lesson bewilders some students, who, moreover, are anxious to do well and to earn an A.  Teaching “from margin to center”, to use the great book title by critic bell hooks, means teaching students to see what was never made visible in their schooling before now.

What does it mean to focus our “eyes” on the previously unseen and unspoken history too often consigned to the footnotes of a page? When I ask my American students what they know about World War II, for instance, most reach for an emblematic American memory, one that sticks out from a lifetime of rote memorization. Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima. D-Day. We won. Part of what I’m asking is for them to shift the way history is retold, in the same way they might reassess their own “life moments” as individuals. When we sift through our personal memories, we may find they are stacked top-heavy with proud achievements and celebrations, the first kiss, the winning game, graduation.  These happiest images are the ones kept in the slide-show carousel (or, updating technology a little, the personal power-point overview.) But when are we old enough to find the extra slides, the buried images that tell other stories?  This is where the film screen helps my students with recovering, and thus completing, our marginalized national memories, both good and bad.

I tell my students that what helped me was a movie called Mirage.  Directed by Edward Dmytryk and released by Universal Pictures in 1965, it tells the story of a man [Gregory Peck] suffering from amnesia. As he wanders through New York he becomes aware that men are out to kill him. He’s being followed, shot at, and threatened by a mysterious bad guy called “the Major,” while desperately trying to understand the meaning of it all: the past two years and his own career identity are a blur. A nervous psychologist, a brooding detective, and a cynical ex-girlfriend each give Peck small clues to his circumstances. Then, at last, one shard of memory floats up to the surface: Peck begins to see an image of himself in a Southwestern setting, clearly not Manhattan, meeting with the leader of a prominent peace foundation–a man who recently suffered a fatal fall from a top-story window. What does this memory reveal—or conceal? Did Peck play a role in this other man’s death? Read the rest of this entry »

Why Don’t You Come Up Sometime and Queer Me?: Reclaiming Mae West as Author and Sexual Philosopher

In Feminism, Foucault, Freud, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Masquerade, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory, Transvestite Souls, Uncategorized on November 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm

  by Chase Dimock

  

We know Mae West as an actress, a sex symbol, a cultural icon, a comedienne, a master of the one liner and the double entendre. What we don’t think of Mae West as is an author. It has been largely forgotten that Mae West got her start on stage, in a series of salacious plays she wrote for herself in the late 20s. West was by then a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit appearing mostly chorus line gigs and bit parts. But when she grew tired of waiting for the right part and her big break to come around, she decided to write her own roles. With early plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil”, West invented the vamp persona that defined her career over the next five decades. If we think of Mae West as playwright and an author that wrote the character that she ultimately became, then we can view her iconography as its own meticulously plotted text and her careful crafting of figure and image as a finely formulated semiotics of the body. If we think of Mae West as an author, then her pithy one-liners and double entendres transcend the ephemera of comic relief and reveal her as one of the most astute observers of sexual and gender politics of the modernist era. If we think of Mae West as an author, a quote like “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing”, becomes an insight into gender performativity. Her quote “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution”, becomes a critique of the state’s power to enforce heteronormativity through marriage. And finally her quote “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning” becomes a post-modernist play on the endless veils of irony and metaphor that obscure and inflate every day speech. It is this Mae West as author and sexual philosopher who put her text into her curves, that I want to recover and illuminate.

While West marketed herself as an object of heterosexual desire, she not only understood her appeal to a gay audience, but she also engaged with the newly emerging gay community in her plays. Thus, I want to also think about Mae West as queer theorist—as an interpreter of queer sexuality who saw the newly visible figure of the homosexual in society as a product of power relations—a figure determined by the interplay of institutional powers, medicine and the law, and his own creative power to define himself. For this, I turn to her 1927 play, “The Drag”, a text centered on the question of the male homosexual’s position in society. Unlike her previous play, “Sex”, which launched her into notoriety and stardom on Broadway, “The Drag” was not a vehicle for self-promotion as an actress. Mae West did not write a role for herself. Instead, “The Drag” sought to cash in on what contemporary scholars have called “The Pansy Craze”, a period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and the Jazz age youth went slumming at gay bars and drag balls. The “pansy”, often known as the “fairy”, was a figure that created gender confusion; a male that interwove signifiers of masculinity and femininity on his body. He paraded feminine mannerisms, walked in high heels with a swish, and even used feminine pronouns, but he was not a trans-woman. The fairy became the dominant image of what was termed the “invert”, before “gay” hit wide usage two decades later; a biological male with the soul of a woman on the inside.

Read the rest of this entry »

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