Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Joys of Drag

If you're down with philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, then you know that every day is a drag show.

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!


  1. Amazing. These students will remember this class for sure!

    I don't know how much we talked about it when we visited, but we deal with gender perceptions every day with Graylyn. She is almost always thought to be a boy, because there are no sparkles or pink princess ribbons on her. All other colors and fabrics indicate 'boy', apparently. It offers me an opportunity to talk about gender with tons of people :)

  2. It's good you have a smiley face instead of a weary face ;) Yeah, it's very frustrating that gender neutrality tends to be read as male. Brittany hates that even women's sports clothes (c'mon Patagonia!) must be purple, pink or teal--as though green and blue are the sole domain of boys and it would be too 'confusing' to make women's sizes with gender neutral colors.

  3. What an awesome class/opportunity (for you AND the students)! Since Felix was born it has been so striking how gendered people's comments about him are, and even how quick to apologize they are when they use female pronouns for him. When people ask if he's a boy or girl, I often say "I don't know, he hasn't told me yet" or "it doesn't really matter, he's a baby" and people look at me like I'm trying to start a fight.

    Last night I finished making him a tutu to wear at Pride so he can be genderfabulous with the rest of us!

    1. Thanks JT, it has been fun to try all this out with high schoolers. And I LOVE your responses about Felix's gender--brilliant. Can't wait to see his tutu!!!!