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Cross-Dressing with Jacques and Judy

Peter Benson ponders the construction and deconstruction of our traditional notions about gender.

According to Jacques Derrida, a distinctive feature of all language is its ‘citationality’. By this he means that any word can be ‘cited’, ‘quoted’, in a countless number of new and unpredictable contexts. The word will still be recognized as the same word, each and every time it appears. It is impossible to restrict, in advance, the range of contexts in which it could be cited. Language will always escape from every attempt to limit its possible uses.

Rather than treating each word as having a ‘meaning’, something that would be separate from the word itself, we might take the view that it refers only to its own previous uses, linking them together like a repeating echo or a revived memory. The point of such a re-orientation in thinking about the nature of language would be to prevent a futile search for ‘meanings’, as if these existed separately from the words which embody them. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously remarked in his Philosophical Investigations that “the meaning of a word is its use in language.” And though Derrida first developed these thoughts in an article about the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, he was clearly also influenced by Wittgenstein.

In a startling and original application of these ideas, the American feminist philosopher Judith Butler has asked whether we might not also be able to treat gender as a ‘citation’, rather than as an innate property of human beings. As an example of this, she asks us to consider the status of a drag performer.

What gender is Lily Savage? Such an apparently simple question might cause one to pause before putting a tick in the appropriate box (male o , or female o ). All of us have seen such boxes on official forms, and have been obliged to complete them on numerous occasions in our lives. They never offer us a third alternative.

We might simply explain that Lily Savage is a fictitious female character, and that this character is portrayed on stage by a male performer. This information would seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question. But how do we know that Lily Savage (the stage persona) is female? This is certainly not a question which could be decided by medical examination. Neither chromosomes nor hormones, the usual touchstones of biological decision, would be of much relevance. Rather, her physical appearance ‘quotes’, or ‘cites’, various aspects of dress, of make-up, of hair style, which we associate with women.

In daily life these are the same clues that we usually use to decide someone’s gender. Occasionally, such clues are ambiguous, or conflict with the medically sanctioned determinants of sex. There are many historical accounts of people who, though physically female, have lived ‘disguised’ as men (or vice-versa). They do so by successfully ‘citing’ the attributes of the other gender.

In other words, writes Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble, “acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core.” (p.136) “ ‘Feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are understood as expressive attributes of ‘male’ and ‘female’” (p.17)

Sociologists have made a distinction between ‘gender’ (referring to someone’s social role) and ‘sex’ (referring to their biological category). But Butler’s point is that ‘sex’ itself only gets noticed and classified because of the social system of distinct and separate genders. We do not, by contrast, separate people into blue and brown eyed categories, and expect the colour of their eyes to determine how they dress and behave. We don’t, at school, expect the blue eyed ones to play skipping, while the brown eyed ones play rugby. Nor do we experience anguish and unease about how to classify those rare people with green eyes. If we did distinguish between people in this way, numerous myths about eye colour would develop. (These do exist to a small extent, as one can tell from noticing the casting of characters in films, where occasionally contact lenses are used to change the actor’s eye colour.) Sex, by contrast, takes on its importance as a general classification system only because of the gendered organization of society.

Clearly, the binary distinction of the sexes provides a deeprooted categorization system within human languages and cultures. There are, after all, languages in which every noun has to be either masculine or feminine, so it is hardly surprising if people are also expected to line themselves up under these categories as well. But human categorization systems are at best approximate, a divisive net of distinctions thrown over a continuous reality.

The developmental geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling (in an article in The Sciences, March/April 1993) claims that as many as 4% of babies are born with hermaphrodite features. Medical science has distinguished at least three, quite distinct, hermaphrodite categories ‘in between’ the definitively male and female. Contemporary medical practice is to ‘decide’, at birth, on whether the baby is to be ‘turned into’ a boy or a girl, and surgical and hormonal treatment are used to effect this result. The baby’s own wishes, needless to say, can only be guessed at. This medical treatment is completely unnecessary to the physical survival of the child, but is deemed to be necessary to its social survival. So our mania for binary categorization imposes itself, through the surgeon’s knife, even on the body of a new born baby.

This shows that the sociologist’s distinction between a person’s sex (regarded as a product of nature) and their gender (regarded as a product of society) cannot be clearly maintained. Nature and sex may seem to precede culture and gender; but it is the cultural gender system which decides what we are to regard as natural, and how the sexes are to be classified.

In contemporary philosophy, this kind of argument, which questions the basis and validity of a familiar distinction, is known as ‘deconstruction’ and is particularly associated with the work of Derrida. French philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by the influence of ‘structuralism’, which sought to show that all human thought depended on binary classifications. The ‘post-structuralism’ represented by Derrida, and other contemporary thinkers, proceeds to deconstruct these binary categories, revealing that they invariably fail to establish the very distinctions they were intended to draw.

Judith Butler suggests that stage performers such as Lily Savage are just as fully engaged in ‘deconstruction’ as are academic philosophers such as herself and Derrida. “In imitating gender,” she writes, “ drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency.” Furthermore, “drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.” (p.137)

According to this analysis, drag performers deconstruct some of the most important binary distinctions made by our society: nature/culture; sex/gender; male/female; inner psychology/outer behaviour. “Drag is subversive,” writes Butler, “to the extent that it reflects on the imitative structure by which hegemonic gender is itself produced.” (Bodies That Matter, p.125). In other words, drag reveals that the two recognized genders are created and sustained by people imitating (or ‘citing’) the accepted appearance and behaviour of each. Drag imitates this imitation, revealing that it has no natural basis.

A man can imitate a woman, taking on the attributes of femininity, or vice-versa. It’s even possible for a woman to pretend to be a man pretending to be a woman, as does Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And in Shakespeare’s day an additional level would have been added to this by the role being performed by a boy. So one can move backwards and forwards, with some degree of freedom, between male and female. Nevertheless, one always seems to end up on one side or the other. Indeed, drag performers generally seem to exaggerate the difference between the genders, rather than blurring the line between them.

In an interview published in 1982, Derrida dreamt that there might be further alternatives which would lie “beyond the binary difference that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine/masculine, beyond bisexuality as well, beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality, which come to the same thing.” He goes on to admit that “of course, it is not impossible that desire for a sexuality without number can still protect us, like a dream, from an implacable destiny which immures everything for life in the number 2.” Nevertheless, “does the dream itself not prove that what is dreamt of must be there in order for it to provide the dream?” (Points, p.108).

This last remark is not very convincing as it stands. We can hardly argue for the real existence of everything that appears in our dreams. But we can invert Derrida’s argument if we follow Butler’s elaboration of his concept of citationality. What has once been dreamt might subsequently be cited, and enacted, in our waking life. If gender, like language, is citational, this does not mean that we are condemned to the changeless repetition of existing social categories. On the contrary, it is the citationality of language which is the source of its creative potential. When words are imported into new contexts they modify their meanings, acquiring unexpected possibilities of use. This stretching and expanding of language is engaged in at its most conscious level by literary writers. In the same way, it may be through a poetics of gender that we could expand the range of our available possibilities. If our gendered behaviours are always imitative, we can find models to imitate as readily in literature as in the social life around us.

In 1992, Jeanette Winterson published Written On The Body, a novel whose narrator is of no specified gender. Not a single detail in the richly descriptive text gives any reason to assign the character to one sex rather than another. Even more remarkably, this is in the context of a fevered tale of passionate sexual love. This love is evoked in precise, sensitive and sensuous prose. Yet it is impossible to classify the love as homosexual or heterosexual. Any such classification would add nothing to the characterization of its nature. The emotions described are fully recognizable to anyone, of any sex, and any sexual orientation, who has ever been in love.

In most areas of contemporary life and work, gender has already become irrelevant. In the majority of fields of employment, it is illegal to make it a significant issue. Winterson’s novel proclaims the additional possibility that gender may now be irrelevant even in matters of the heart. If, when reading the book, one identifies with the feelings of the protagonist, one is not (like the drag artist) identifying with an ‘opposite’ sex. Instead, one is identifying with a place of intense erotic feeling which is beyond the binary of sex

To create such a possibility required linguistic skills on Winterson’s part. Notably, the protagonist had to be the narrator, referred to as ‘I’, never as ‘he’ or ‘she’. But the effect of her poetics need not remain solely within the realms of language. It could herald new possibilities of social life.

By contrast, Derrida and Butler both remain disappointingly sceptical about such possibilities. “I do not know if it is to a change in representation that we should entrust the future,” writes Derrida (Points, p.106). In this statement he implicitly doubts that a writer of fiction could have a role in transforming life. And Butler notes the possibility of a “limitless proliferation of sexes,” only in order to suggest that this “logically entails the negation of sex as such. If the number of sexes corresponds to the number of existing individuals, sex would no longer have any general application as a term: one’s sex would be a radically singular property and would no longer be able to operate as a useful or descriptive generalization.” (Gender Trouble, pp 118-9). In this she ignores the many options lying in between n=2 and n= 8 Even on those official forms, we could (by a simple logical operation) multiply to some degree the possibilities: male ☐, female ☐, both ☐, neither ☐ (tick if appropriate).

For all their radical analyses, both these deconstructive philosophers seem to remain trapped within the binary terms of gender. And yet, according to Derrida, the process of deconstruction, in each area to which it is applied, should lead to “the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept’, a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.” (Positions, p.42). No such concept has yet emerged within the philosophical deconstruction of gender. The concept of drag cannot fulfil this role because, as Butler recognizes, “there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion” because “the denaturalization of gender [can be] the very vehicle for a reconsolidation of hegemonic norms.” (Bodies, p.121).

Derrida’s own career provides an example of this. His ‘real’ name, the one his parents gave him, is not ‘Jacques’ but ‘Jackie’. He changed this when he began to publish works as a philosopher (Points, p.343), with the evident intention of making himself seem more masculine and authoritative. He has therefore conducted his whole professional life in a form of drag, donning a new name for his public persona.

Butler, too, has been fussy about her name, disliking the diminutive ‘Judy’ which she finds patronizing and excessively feminine (Bodies, p.ix). This did not stop a group of lesbian students, enthusiastic about her work, from starting a fanzine called Judy devoted exclusively to her. They dressed her up in their minds’ eye as an image of that gay icon Judy Garland (who, of course,conducted her own career under a stage name which was thought more appropriately feminine than her original name of Frances Gumm).

Butler and Derrida, therefore, have both manipulated their names towards a less feminine form with the aim of preserving and enhancing their authority, rather than with the aim of subverting and mocking gender conventions.

As both a feminist and a lesbian, Butler has moved back and forth between the analysis of gender and discussions of sexual orientation (her theories about the latter being largely based on psychoanalysis). In her view, homosexuality disturbs a certain conventional idea of gender in which there is believed to be “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice and desire.” (Gender Trouble, p.17). But one could equally argue that homosexuality simultaneously confirms a certainty of gender, reflected in the specific category of people desired. Hence it is that Derrida can say, in the passage I quoted earlier, that “homosexuality and heterosexuality come to the same thing.” To continue to identify herself as a lesbian, Butler must maintain the very gender categories which she is elsewhere calling into question.

The distinction homosexual/heterosexual is amenable to exactly the same process of deconstruction as the categories male/female. This is not to deny that the majority of people are predominantly attracted to one sex rather than the other. But there are always many other qualities that must be present before we can feel sexually attracted to someone. That they are of the appropriate gender may be necessary, but it is never sufficient to generate sexual feelings. We might be attracted by a particular hair colour, or by any of the many other qualities which are evenly distributed among the sexes, such as intelligence, humour, blue eyes, or long ear lobes. If we are attracted only by people with blue eyes, this is a specific sexual orientation which is given no particular name within our society’s categorization of behaviour patterns. It is only the excessive social significance of gender which singles out one aspect of erotic orientation to be given a specific designation: homosexuality or heterosexuality, which is then treated as if it were a central part of a person’s ‘identity’.

Butler’s identification of herself as a lesbian, therefore, produces a limit to her deconstruction of gender, even though it may also have been the source of her dissatisfaction with prevailing social attitudes. All binary categories (straight/gay; male/female) blind us to the multiplicities which, with inevitable inadequacy, they seek to organize and classify.

© Peter Benson 2000

Peter Benson is a writer interested in philosophy and film. He lives in London.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, Routledge, 1993
Jacques Derrida, Positions, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981
Jacques Derrida, Points : Interviews 1974-1994, Stanford Univ. Press 1995

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