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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Theoretical Foundations with Eric Rice – Feminist and Gender Analysis

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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Theoretical Foundations with Eric Rice – Feminist and Gender Analysis

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Performing Ourselves

As the first piece in this series of short essays introduced, the methodologies and ideas that guide the theoretical foundations of how we can engage with cultural objects such as arts and culture have a self-reflective impact. I look at the roles I’ve played as administrator, playwright, and producer in Edmonton theatre since 1985 — and I’ve come to acknowledge these roles from the standpoint of being an aging cisgender white male. While last time, we focused on Critical Theory to explore how cultural objects are expressions of social conflict and antagonisms often perpetrating a dominant ideological set of values, this other piece turns to Feminist & Gender Analysis

The emergence of feminist and gender studies should be situated within the larger political and social framework of patriarchy and the long struggle for women’s emancipation — be it through legal frameworks, social relations, political equality, economic material conditions, or even from the very notion of The Woman as defining of anything substantial at all. Therefore, the feminist/gender theoretical perspective for theatre developed in conjunction with the growing feminist movement. Feminist theorists questioned the implicit normative realism which trapped female characters within existing socio-economic norms and gender roles, and different schools of thought developed practices to subvert male dominance in the arts and in society. As gender studies developed, however, theorists such as Judith Butler in her early text Gender Trouble began to question whether the idea of feminism itself constituted part of a false binary, and that by positing the feminine in opposition to the masculine, feminists might be isolating and reifying something that does not in essence exist (Butler, 6 and 33; Gherovici and Steinkoler, 1-3). In “Paradoxes of Visibility In/And Contemporary Identity Politics,” Anne Emmanuelle Berger and Catherine Porter discuss the work of Erving Goffman, a foundational sociologist who argues there are no such things as selves, but only what is performed as self — as they comment in the specific case of gender: “As in a play that is produced at regular intervals, and whose regularity is prescribed by multiple organizational considerations, gender identity is ‘put on’; it displays itself ritually on a certain stage and at a certain hour, in a space-time entirely governed by some particular social and cultural organization” (Berger & Porter 95-96; Goffman, 14-15 and 122-124). What this argues is that gender is not an intrinsic part of identity, but rather a performance, an act, a costume we adopt depending on the circumstances. This may feel uncomfortable, because for some of us the idea of gender as performativity questions the very basis of our identity as something coherent and fixed. Gender studies, however, did not stop there with its questions. 

Judith Butler questioned the very idea of identity. They pointed out that even if we consider gender to be a performative act, constituted by the daily tiny rituals we undertake like putting on makeup, trimming our beards, or gesturing a certain way, we are still assuming that there is some identity, some core of our being, that can perform these daily rituals, and ‘put on’ the costumes of gender (Butler, 32-33). Butler, along with others, contend that our identities only come into being through the performance of them, that there is nothing stable or enduring about them, and that they are changeable and mutable since there is no necessary and substantial basis for them but only a contingency that acts as an arbitrary foundation — in this sense, Butler adopts the aphorism by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: “The Woman does not exist.” At a certain level I think most of us realize this, because we are different people in different circumstances, and we have all grown and changed many times in our lives. 

For people who engage with theatre, what does it mean to say identity only manifests itself through the performance of it? Professional performers get to wear characters and roles for their job; they’re livelihood depends on the fluidity of identity. For directors, designers, and other theatre artists, the ability to understand the performativity of character is critical. What about for the audience? If we look at identity as the repetition of ritual acts, then the answer is clear: attending a play is a ritual that reinforces the identity the audience member has chosen to perform for themselves. This is too obvious a concept to belabour. Why else do people gravitate to the same theatres, the same playwrights, the same plays? Why else would someone attend A Christmas Carol at the Citadel year after year if it didn’t in some way reinforce their basic values, their family and social positions, and their perceptions of their own identities? Attending plays is part of the costume people wear to display who they are. 

A significant part of the work of feminist and gender theorists has been devoted to problematizing and disquieting our notions of gender and identity accordingly. Despite the categorical difference between the theatre space and the social space, we should be aware as we watch a play what kind of gender roles are being portrayed, whether they represent destructive and limiting stereotypes, and how we personally react to them. Do they reinforce the identity we’ve chosen to perform, or do they challenge it? This is important, because, to quote a theatrical authority for traditionalists, all the world’s a stage as Shakespeare said. The stage extends into and beyond the audience, and the roles and costumes we take on extend into the reality of our everyday lives. The costumes we wear, whether that of an officer of the law, a businessperson, a drag queen, a theatre critic, or an aging student, are the visible representation of the identity we perform. None of us should assume that the identities we perform are the only valid roles in the play of life, and nobody is in a position to establish themselves as the arbiters of what other identities are allowed as norms and values. As a Gender Analysis theoretical perspective teaches us, we are all merely players among players.

   

Works Cited

Berger, Anne Emmanuelle and Catherine Porter. “Paradoxes of Visibility In/And Contemporary Identity Politics.” The Queer Turn in Feminism: Identities, Sexualities, and the Theater of Gender. Fordham University Press, 2014, pp. 83-106. 

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2002.

Gherovici, Patricia and Manya Steinkoler. “Introduction.” Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Sexualities: From Feminism to Trans*. Eds. Patricia Gherovici and Manya Steinkoler. Routledge, 2023, pp. 1-40.

Goffman, Ervin. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. University of Edinburgh, 1956.

 

Further Reading

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Vintage, 2011.

Beauvoir, Simone de. “On the Publication of The Second Sex.” Marxists.org, 2005. 

Copjec, Joan. Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation. The MIT Press, 2009.

Cuboniks, Laboria. Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation. laboriacuboniks.net, 2015. 

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gendered Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume I. Trans. Robert Huxley. Vintage, 1900.

Gherovici, Patricia. Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference. Routledge, 2017.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2021.

hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press, 2000.

Kojama, Emi. “The Transfeminist Manifesto.” Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century. Eds. Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier. Northeastern University Press, 2003, pp. 244-259. 

Mitchell, Juliet. “Women: The Longest Revolution.” Marxists.org, 1971.

Preciado, Paul B. Can the Monster Speak? Report to an Academy of Psychoanalysts. Trans. Frank Wynne. Semiotext(e), 2021.

Preciado, Paul B. Countersexual Manifesto. Trans. Kevin Gerry Dunn. Columbia University Press, 2018.

Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I a Woman?” Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, n.d. 

 

Special thanks to Simone A. Medina Polo for editorial support and compiling the further reading list.

Eric Rice (he/him) is currently pursuing a Master of Arts ‒ Interdisciplinary Studies degree through Athabasca University. Eric has a long background in amateur and professional theatre, educational television, and communications. Currently working with  Taproot Edmonton on a series of articles around housing and with the Postmarginal Edmonton collective, he’s grateful for the opportunity to share some of his learnings through the Theatre Alberta blog, and grateful for a vocation in the arts that constantly challenges perceptions of the self and identity.

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