584: Weekly Position Paper #14: Performativity and Subversion: Thomas Beatie Televised in a Gay Bar

This is about two weeks old now, but I forgot to post it.

In Chapter 7 of Beyond Identity Politics, Moya Lloyd discusses the difference between performance and performativity in order to discuss the potentials for parody as subversion. Performativity, she argues, cannot be reduced to simply performance, in part because performance relies on autonomous agency with a “will” before the act. A performative, as Lloyd describes it, is akin to a speech act: it is a citation of a previous discursive act that puts effects into action. Because gender is a discourse that precedes the subject, one “does” gender. According to performative theory, one is not essentially a man or woman, but is only recognized as man or woman. Their gender is an effect of performativity.

Lloyd’s articulation of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful as we consider the potential for transgender identities to offer subversion to the gender regime. Much like the gay man Lloyd discusses, who is gender normative and passes as straight, trans people who pass for cisgendered do not, in most cases, offer subversion. A theory of performativity allows us, instead of seeing gender as something someone has, to see gender as something read, because it is created by discursive practices.

Let me offer an example of possible subversion, but I’d like to preface this example by stating that I agree with Lloyd and Bulter that subversion cannot be easily calculated. This means I’d rather see this example as possible subversion rather than necessarily subversive. I was sitting in a gay bar a few weeks ago while Thomas Beatie, the transman who is now pregnant with his second child, was being interviewed on television by Barbara Walters. Some of the men in the bar were completely confused — confused by Beatie’s biological “plumbing,” by his ability to get pregnant, by his gender. At first, I was annoyed, because all too often I see gay men who refuse to study up on trans issues. However, I soon began to revel in the confusion. Here was an interview, attempting to make Beatie’s gender stable and understandable — but the interview was failing at this attempt because of the disruptions of a loud bar that distracts viewers from the framing of the interview. While Beatie was attempting to assert that essentially he is a man, the performatives of gender (a beard, a voice coded as male, but a pregnancy!) disrupted gender to the viewers at the bar. Of course, there is still a voyeuristic impulse in viewers (what is he?), but there is also confusion (how can he be both a man and pregnant?). It seems that the performatives (the reiteration of gendered practices) offered by Beatie, at least in this one context, offer some subversion to the regime of gender.

This entry was posted in English 584 Rhetoric Writing and Identity (Fall 2008), Identity and Identification, Queer issues and theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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