Many of our clothing items, gestures, speech and behaviors are performative acts that serve to reinforce and advertise whatever gender we see ourselves as having. Some are conscious performances and others are unconscious. While there is a huge range and endless combinations of what gender performance can look like, in our society at this moment we have very strict borders of what constitutes acceptable gender performance.
I'm currently teaching a course on the Psychology of Gender Difference to high schoolers, and the students could easily produce examples of when their gender had been policed, their performances limited. One girl's boyfriend told her that she shouldn't put her arm around him because that's the boy's job. Another girl's dad refused to let her help with household repairs, insisting that only his son was fit to help. I shared with the students the bizarre experience of being told by a male friend in high school that I was dancing too masculinely.
To those who see gender as a natural, biologically-determined state, theorists like Butler and Raewyn Connell have replied--well, if something were natural then why would it need to be policed?
To help illustrate how rapidly we impose gendered notions and limits on people, I began the class by having the students participate in a classic psychology study. Half the class was given a photo of an infant named "Fiona" and the other half was given a photo of an infant named "Andrew." Except...it was the same photo. The students were instructed to silently write down 10 adjectives that came to mind to describe the baby.
While the results trended towards describing "Fiona" with more stereotypically feminine adjectives and "Andrew" with more stereotypically masculine adjectives, most of the adjectives the students used were actually gender neutral. Of course, the major limitation to my 'study' was that the students participating had all signed up for a class called "the psychology of gender difference," indicating that they are going to be more attuned to gendered language, especially in the context of the class. Whereas when real psychologists do infant studies like this one, large and statistically significant differences are found (and often they use real babies). But even still, the students saw the point: gender is not born, but made.
The other fun thing I am trying out is dressing myself in a different kind of drag each day of the five-day class. On day one, I femmed it up to the extreme--a lot of makeup, earrings, necklace, ring, a dress, high heels and fluffed my hair up. On day two, I wore pinstripe slacks, a button-up, a (pink) tie, no makeup, glasses, and flipped my hair to the other side so it looked shorter. There were a few double-takes as the students came into the room. Days three through five I plan to do some gender bending and blending.
If gender is a performance, then I want all the starring roles!