“Cosmic fear or angst or despair suggests, even if only temporarily, that the world lacks the secure structure and meaning that we ordinarily assume it to have.”
-Stephen T. Asma, excerpt from On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears
“Queer theorists are thus devoted to rereading past events, texts, and social theories—especially those related to sexuality—with an eye toward disruption, on the slant if you will.”
– Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism”
How does something such as one’s gender performance and gender expression become strange? How does sex in itself become a process of othering?
Over the course of the semester, I enjoyed our explorations into readings on what it means to make strange and how to define the process of “making strange.” When I consider our past readings and how they tie in with topics in gender and sexuality which Annika and I have explored, I think about how we’ve waded into topics so often left unexplored or rather disregarded. As Annika and I have discussed othering and what it means to other femininity, to make it strange with discourse, we’ve also considered the way outsiders are often treated with violence and brutality. In “Torturers, Terrorists, and Zombies: The Products of Monstrous Societies,” Stephen Asma writes: “Chimps, like humans, can perceive their enemies as monsters and then respond with torture and other forms of excessive brutality. Perceived monsters bring out monstrous reactions” (p. 239). Within our studies and research, we view how gay feminine males often become the outsiders whom violence is committed against. Particularly, in Boys Love (BL) manga, we view how the status of being feminine is not only othered, but also constructed as essentially a “deviant,” feminized, and often demonized type of maleness.
Topics such as what I’ve mentioned above have been part of our discussions over this past spring semester.
Making a website/blog-type project about “strange” gender and sexuality has been a rewarding experience this semester and also a process of “making familiar” from what was once alien to us. In combining the fields of English studies, rhetoric, sociology, communication studies, gender studies, and philosophy, we created an interdisciplinary multi-feature that allowed us to wrangle making strange in terms of gender and sexuality.
On further improvements, I would have really loved to spend more time analyzing more media and further integrating sources. There really was so much Annika and I wanted to do beyond what we’ve accomplished, even if we are proud of our accomplished project.
Moving forward, I know I will take much of what we’ve done with me. I’ve loved sharing my analyses with Annika and discussing queer theory with her. More than the content itself, I’m so happy for the work I’ve done with Annika this semester and how dedicated and wonderful she’s been to work with as a colleague and as a peer mentee in our Honors Program at the University of Montevallo.
Through our explorations, we’ve, in ways, made the strange more familiar, unmasking the obscure figures at the masquerade, and, at least, engaging in a discourse of otherness. Employing queer theory, we dispel the layer of normalcy that people ascribe to reality and thus view a queer—and strange—reality in a way that makes it familiar.
When a boy wears a dress, we often see people responding to him negatively. Seeing feminine characteristics on a biological male alarms people—horrifies them—because they perhaps visualize masculinity and femininity as separate statuses that never transgress their respective boundaries. Civilization weaponizes gender against men who are “too feminine,” men who look a little bit too ladylike. These men, as masculine males view them as Other, become the sissies and the fags, unacceptable deviations of “proper masculinity.” In breaking from proper masculinity, a male could do something as simple as appearing to have lips that are a bit too red or by displaying feminine features (e.g. a shaven face).
Being Biologically Male, But Embodying and Performing Femininity
The ideals of proper masculinity in themselves create confines and restrictions that define men according to a hypermasculinized measuring stick. Feminine men such as myself are oftentimes beaten over the head with this measuring stick of manliness. In her short printed essay We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014) writes, “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change” (p. 21). While I discuss my embodiment and performance of femininity, I furthermore find it necessary to discuss the struggles of trans women. Even if trans women share different experiences from my experiences as a queer feminine male, we understand what it means to be feminine in a civilization that hates femininity when it cannot put a proper box around it. I do not exclude feminine heterosexual males from this discussion of performance violation, but I must note that the public recognition of their heterosexual status can oftentimes alleviate the liability of a feminine gender performance. In transgressing gender norms, we, queer feminine men and trans women, are the ones with the cherry lips, hated for embodying and performing femininity because civilization views us as traitors to the ideals of masculinity. We’re quite disloyal to civilization in the violation of gender norms which dictate that someone born biologically male must embody definite masculinity and perform definite masculinity in only the most “proper” ways.
Hegemonic Masculinity: When Appearing Feminine Becomes “Gender Treachery”
Providing a history for the case of gender norm transgression by queer feminine men and trans women, the symbolic nature of appearance plays a role in the communication of masculine or feminine gender identity, yet I do not consider these mutually exclusive considering people can perform masculinity and femininity simultaneously in an act of androgynous transgression. In my analysis of gender norm violators (including me), it becomes necessary to address the symbolic pieces of one’s appearance that communicate with the audience and signify masculinity or femininity. Defining symbols, Julia Wood (2013) writes, “Symbols are abstract, arbitrary, and often ambiguous ways of representing phenomena. […] The fact that symbols are abstract, ambiguous, and arbitrary makes it impossible to think of meaning as inherent in symbols themselves” (p. 35). To modify Wood’s provided definition, I add that symbols, such as the aspects of one’s feminine gender performance (e.g. cherry lips and a shaven face) can be interpreted by the onlooker as signifiers of masculinity in a male or his lack thereof. Based on her study titled “A Very Straight Gay: Masculinity, Homosexual Experience, and the Dynamics of Gender” involving the critical analysis of qualitative responses of gay men, R.W. Connell (1992) writes, “The relation between hegemonic masculinity and homosexual masculinity includes criminalization of male-to-male sex, homophobic speech and culture, and a bitter history of intimidation and violence. […] Heterosexual masculinity, then, is encountered in everyday relations with straight men that often have an undercurrent of threat” (p. 745). In the case of biological males who are gay, we see the exertion of social pressure for them to adhere to more masculine means of presenting themselves in everyday life. Femininity becomes threatening because it undoes the embodiment of masculine gender. In the case of biological males wearing makeup—or even just seemingly wearing rouge—these individuals are often perceived as if they are committing an offense against the “gender binary,” engaging in an act of visible deviance. With this gender treachery, hegemonic masculinity comes into play as the enforcer of the “proper” performance of manhood acts vis-à-vis one’s appearance. Connell’s and James W. Messerschmidt’s (2005) piece titled “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept” states the following: “The concept of hegemonic masculinity was originally formulated in tandem with a concept of hegemonic femininity—soon renamed ’emphasized femininity’ to acknowledge the asymmetrical position of masculinities and femininities in a patriarchal gender order. […] Gender is always relational, and patterns of masculinity are socially defined in contradistinction from some model (whether real or imaginary) of femininity” (p. 848). Once again, we see that femininity presents the supposedly contradictory presence to masculinity, appearing as “the Other.” Feminine performance by a biological male in the act of appearing feminine and wearing any degree of makeup (or even appearing in makeup) results in the expected censure due to the breaching of previous drawn boundaries separating men from women and masculinity from femininity. Even while imaginary, the rules of the “gender binary” apply to people, policing whether a biological male can possess womanly characteristics or embody and present feminine gender through particular expressive bodily acts. Society desires for the biological male to put on a proper manhood act and embody and internalize the norms of masculinity. From another study titled “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts,” Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe (2009) write, “Boys’ homophobic taunting of other boys who are deemed feminine is also a means of signifying heterosexuality” (p. 282). As Schrock and Schwalbe note, femininity in males is discouraged using taunting and shaming from other males, thus we see why young males who display feminine characteristics are so often treated as if they commit literal violations. In the world of ideal manhood acts signified by physical masculinity and nonphysical masculinity, appearance affects one’s treatment due to the conception of gender by culture and the perception of gender by people within that culture.
Cherry Lips and Beyond: Examples in Gender Transgression
People sometimes say, “Your lips look so red today! Do you wear lipstick?,” and I always find it strange that other males performing masculinity and embodying manhood acts are not asked the same question, a query reserved for a person like me who queers gender performance. Before studying and critically examining gender, I wondered why people posed this question to me as a male with visibly feminine features. As a physically feminine male, people tend to target my appearance (similarly to how women are oftentimes ridiculed or praised for their makeup or lack thereof). To note one image of a heterosexual male queering gender, Marilyn Manson’s image during the band’s Mechanical Animals era in 1998 best demonstrates American society’s revulsion of gender ambiguity when someone they initially perceived as male performed femininity through appearance and presentation. The lead singer named Marilyn Manson used his gender ambiguity to challenge embedded norms and call into question their existence. Trans women furthermore demonstrate this idea of a masculine-obsessed society, the way biological males are viewed as violators of gender for something as small as putting on lipstick to match their gender identity. In my case, the case of Marilyn Manson, and the case of trans women, we see that dialogue exists regarding the bending of gender, but there is not enough of a substantial and sustained dialogue. While I am happy that people queer gender and show its fluidity, I do, however, desire for people to understand the symbolic nature of the aspects of physical appearance.
Gender, “Feminine Liability,” and Dialogue
Gender, as civilization conceives it and as people perceive it, stifles the queering of the gender binary. Using cherry lips as a symbol, people say that a man’s lips cannot be “too red” because a man cannot wear rouge. In many ways, I think this very idea represents the confinement of gender, the restrictive mindset that shames feminine men for being too much like women. Inherent in this hatred of womanhood, I think that people’s dislike of trans women arises from society’s idea that a biological male must not embody and perform womanhood or else that individual makes embodiment and performance a liability by being too feminine, by wearing the rouge and embracing the cherry lips. Looking towards solutions, we must eventually arrive at an understanding of masculinity and femininity as being performative, concepts driven by both manhood acts and womanhood acts. As I mention my case of appearing feminine, simply possessing cherry lips and being visually androgynous makes me a feminine backdrop against which males perform masculinity and amplify their own masculine performances while degrading a male who looks female to them. For a man to appear publicly feminine, he forfeits the comforts of an expressed act of masculinity. Even though critics of feminism defend Western culture because they claim that it is more progressive in terms of gender equality, these critics cannot deny that American culture views womanhood as a liability. When people call feminine males like me “bitches,” “fags,” sissies,” or “pussies,” they demonstrate my point: society tells us to hate femininity, thus we make feminine individuals into “the Other,” treating the exhibition of “womanliness” as if it is a crime. Herein lies the intersection of sexism and heterosexism as these two meet together in the case of biological males who transgress gender norms. Society punishes the gender norm violators for their crimes against the almighty and rigid gender binary. While I am being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with my statement about the absurdity of the “gender binary,” the symbolism and significance of red lips on a male demonstrates the deeply—and dangerously—ingrained ideals of “proper” masculine and feminine gender performance in our culture. We, however, possess the agency to change our culture from its current disdain towards the embodiment and performance. On culture, Adichie (2014) writes, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture” (p. 46). Humanizing women should be our goal in opening a discourse on why men currently are stigmatized for expressions of femininity. The trouble with cherry lips does not simply arise from the slip of one’s manhood act or the compromising of one’s socially and culturally ascribed virtual social identity of “man.” Rather, the issue arises from the lack of a dialogue on what it means to queer gender and advance beyond the ritualistic worship of the “gender binary.” Once we move past the rituals of the “gender binary,” we will view men as humans and women as humans. Embodiment and performance would not be an issue if we engaged in a conversation across society and culture about queerness and about the changeability of gender and sexuality. Without discussion, without words, without engagement, we cannot, however, accomplish “bridging” the imaginary chasm between masculinity and femininity and the ways this divide is used as a weapon to hurt the not only the men like me with the cherry lips, but also the trans women who simply desire unquestioned existence.
“Doing Gender”: Like a Boy? Like a Girl? Like Both?
When people engage in gendered discourse(s), they shape the acceptable and unacceptable performances and presentations of gender, gendering bodies as either “normal” or “deviant.” The subjectivity of both normality and deviance make the assigning of gendered meaning troublesome, creating gender trouble. Madonna’s (2000) song “What It Feels Like for a Girl” begins with a spoken word sample from the 1993 film The Cement Garden that, in one excerpt from Madonna’s chosen sample, says, “[…] But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading because you think that being a girl is degrading […].” The image of a feminine male presents a contradiction to people who mistakenly—and oftentimes purposefully—associate gender with biology. These same individuals rhetorically shape their arguments in the facts of the nonexistent “biological gender.” Yet, these people [perhaps] do not understand that gender is not connected to the nature of being human. Gender, as Kathy Rudy (2000) writes, is rather a “matter of performance,” “doing the things a woman or man does and thereby coding ourselves as such—not ontological certainty” (p. 201). With this definition of gender in mind, I consider the discourses surrounding gendered bodies, particularly feminine males (heterosexual or homosexual) subjected to monikers such as “sissy boy” and “fag.” Analyzing and critiquing the way male bodies are gendered proves particularly relevant today as the meaning of “man” is conflated with an absolutist conception of “masculinity.” This issue must be explored because its wrongness lies in the way femininity is used as a marker of shame, a stigma, when applied to males, thus coercing feminine males to masquerade their identities beneath hypermasculine, hypersexual artificial personas.
Gender as “Project” and “Construct”
One can neither be born a man nor be born a woman because gender allows for variance in performance and presentation, creating channels through which one configures and reconfigures expressed identity. The body, however, is not only sexed, but also gendered even before birth as parents find out the sex and then use sex as a means of applying a matching gender to the child that adheres to the biological constraints of a given sex. Yet, the usage of language allows the surrounding culture to apply the status of “boy” or “girl” (essentially “man” or “woman”) upon the originally (and realistically) genderless body of the soon to be developed fetus—since the individual, in part, must self-determine gender (even if restrictions are put upon some individuals across our culture). Judith Butler (1986), in her analysis of Simone de Beauvoir’s notable assertion “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” discusses Beauvoir’s statement as identifying gender as “project” and “construct,” being shaped not only by one’s self-determined gender performance, but also by one’s perceived gender presentation (p. 35, p. 37). With this identification of gender as both “project” and “construct,” I assert the existence of a masculine gaze (with the observer being the “feminizer”), set apart from the male gaze. Describing the male gaze, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey (1999), addressing the framing of “woman” within a Freudian framework, writes, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (p. 834). The feminine gay male body, defined by discourse, becomes not the “maker of meaning,” but rather “the bearer of meaning.” A man is as feminine as he desires to be, yet society and culture act as the feminizer, the invisible force that confers deviant emasculation upon presumably masculine male bodies.
The Gender “Dichotomy”: Masculine as Universal, Feminine as Other
Masculinity becomes taken as the standard with femininity being the Other, a contrast to the universal. In C.J. Pascoe’s (2007) work Dude, You’re a Fag: Sexuality and Masculinity in High School, she examines what she terms as the “fag discourse,” a discourse built on using the word fag as a signifier for an Other, a male who exists as something lesser than the males doing “proper” masculinity (p. 85). “Gay,” while being used to signify “stupid,” not be restricted to either males or females (and “gay” is even applicable to inanimate objects), differs significant from “fag” in that, the latter is used only to identify “unmasculine” (heterosexual or homosexual) males (Pascoe, 2007, p. 56). The usage of “fag” on othered feminine males functions not only to signify a male’s lack of masculinity, but also to further solidify one’s own masculinity by identifying perceivably “lesser,” “inferior” males. With femininity being viewed as Other due to discourses that stigmatize and shame feminine expressions of gender in males, it becomes important to consider, first, gender performance and, second, recognition and rejection of a deviant gender expression. Echoing and adding to Beauvoir’s assertion mentioned earlier in this paper, Butler (1990) discusses gender as an action, writing:
Consider the further consequence that if gender is something that one becomes—but can never be—then gender is itself a kind of becoming or activity, and that gender ought not to be conceived as a noun or a substantial thing or a static cultural marker, but rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort. (p.152)
Gender essentially functions more as a verb than as a noun, granted that gender is always within a state of performance and presentation. One is always putting on the show of gender to not only express it, but also be perceived in the way one desires. With the desirable masculine performance being recognized as positive and as the standard, the undesirable feminine performance is recognized as negative and as the deviation. The project of gender, in part, involves the recognition and rejection of gender identities that differ or in any way disturb one’s conception of a finite masculinity and a finite femininity. In this way, Pascoe’s work addresses the way males end up in a masculine conflict, a struggle to maintain what is perceived as the “proper” standard for masculine performance—with no deviation allowed. Males engage in a kind of combat against feminine males, being that the feminine males represent deviant—or perhaps even failed—forms of performed masculinity. Pascoe further discusses the war waged upon unmasculine males, writing:
The war against fags as the specter of unmasculine manhood appears in gay male personal ads in which men look for “straight-appearing, straight-acting men.” This concern with both straight and gay men’s masculinity not only reflects teenage boys’ obsession with hypermasculinity but also points to the conflict at the heart of the contemporary “crisis of masculinity” being played out in popular, scientific, and educational arenas. (p. 59)
As Pascoe indicates, gay men are even affected by the fag discourse, by what culture determines as undesirable femininity. Gay men look for “straight-appearing, straight-acting men,” and I further add that gay men look for straight-passing men too, men who do not raise any eyebrows with their gayness. Part of this issue is that these discourses on masculine performance—being often quite restrictive—are not challenged by displays of queer identity or male femininity. Rather the discourses tend to overcome and overpower males who then retreat to the fortress of straight-passing. Males—and the conception of idealized masculinity—present the universal which females and othered femininity transgress. In Beauvoir’s (1953) Second Sex, she comments on the dichotomization of man and woman, writing, “The truth is that man today represents the positive and the neutral—that is to say, the male and the human being—whereas woman is only the negative, the female” (p. 408). Woman, the feminine, exists as the contrasting Other placed up against the standard—and familiar—masculine. Femininity is thus made strange even before it is exhibited by males. Because of the way our culture (American culture particularly) views women, it uses the disdain for womanhood on gay men, telling them that it is wrong for a boy to look like a girl or for a man to seem like a woman. In the subtext, however, I assert that this same discourse knowingly repudiates femininity and womanhood—as long as they cannot be controlled and maintained within the male gaze and within the masculine gaze.
Feminization of the Male Body and the Project of Being and Becoming Male
Just as women in the male gaze “hold the look, play to and signify male desire,” feminine males in the masculine gaze represent the undesirable femininity, a performance that downplays the presence of the phallus as a symbol of definite masculinity (Mulvey, 1999, p. 837). On a peculiarly feminine gay man, the penis in fact loses its status as a signifier—and symbol—for what society views as the “properly” performed masculine. To provide a definition for symbols, Julia Wood (2013) writes, “Symbols are abstract, arbitrary, and often ambiguous ways of representing phenomena. […] The fact that symbols are abstract, ambiguous, and arbitrary makes it impossible to think of meaning as inherent in symbols themselves” (p. 35). The feminine male body often symbolizes deviance, with its inscribed meaning being related to whether the performance and acting are straight enough. The penis, or rather the phallus, is oftentimes viewed as being indicative of masculinity, as John M. Sloop (2000) writes, there is a “cultural impulse to work the body into a traditionally sexed position and to align genitalia (sex) with ‘true gender’” (p. 170). Being that the penis symbolizes masculinity in our culture, the feminine male’s performance of femininity, given cultural discourse, does not match up. Feminization of the male body and unchecked expressions of male femininity are then viewed as being destructive and even unnatural to project of performing masculinity. Wood (2013) further writes, “The sex-object stereotype is also used to define and harass gay men and lesbians. Like heterosexual women, gays and lesbians are often perceived primary in terms of their sexuality and their conformity—or lack of conformity—to conventional gender roles” (p. 235). The feminine male becomes the target of monikers like “sissy boy” and “fag,” methods of combating the feminine by feminizing the male body and othering it through language. Rather than being viewed simply as just a body, the feminine gay male body, often becomes viewed as a caricature, a twisted cartoon of failed masculinity to be ridiculed within discourses (namely the fag discourse). The mere existence of “top” and “bottom” designations impressed upon gay male couples particularly emphasizes power distribution through the gendering of gay male bodies as indicatively masculine and indicatively feminine. This same labeling, although differing from the fag discourse, still adheres to conferring deviant femininity upon the feminine male body to subordinate it and craft it into a dominated Other.
Culturally Intelligible or Culturally Unintelligible
Within a Butlerian model, interaction shapes gender norms because, as Pascoe (2007) writes, an “abject identity” exists that is continually iterated and repudiated,—identified and rejected—to affirm and concretize identities recognized as “culturally intelligible” (p. 14). The way one does gender, then, defines the way one is identified and accepted or denied by the surrounding culture. One is considered either culturally intelligible or culturally unintelligible, recognizable or unrecognizable in the public viewing of one’s individual gender performance. Regardless of whether one’s gender performance takes on the label of the Other or whether the performance is accepted as the standard, the onlooker—the audience member—and the feminine gay male—the performer—play roles within the discourse of accepted or denied expressions of masculinity and femininity. Thus, “the fag” and “the sissy boy” become signposts of deviance, linguistic modes of establishing abjection in terms of gendered bodies. For the feminine gay male (or even for the feminine male in general), this state of abjection becomes apparent through the forced necessity to shroud femininity and put on the mask of his most masculine self. Putting on the hypermasculine, hypersexual mask, the man looks straight, so he remains safe.
Culture and the Rhetorical Construction of Male and Female Bodies
Coding allows for our performances and presentations to function in particular ways, functioning as the subtext of gender in the external display of the internal self. One’s persona can allow for the external presentation of gender, allowing for the self-composition of the “project” with culture playing the role in “construction” set apart from the “project.” Culture creates an environment where men are caged within certain masculine confines and women are caged within certain feminine confines, predisposing one’s life to an oftentimes forcefully assigned and regulated gender. I argue that, through visibility and the understanding of gendered discourse (such as the fag discourse conceptualized by Pascoe), we can reshape rhetorical means of constructing the male body. By actively engaging in dialogue and promoting queer visibility (to me, this kind of visibility means, in some ways, displaying queered gender performances and also removing the door from the closet that traps gay men and lesbians), we can subvert the gendered discourse that solidifies (and simplifies) the male body into a restrictive site of masculinity. When people wonder what is going on with the male rejects, the sissy boys, the fags, perhaps part of the observers’ problem, is losing—or never previously gaining—the ability to imagine beyond the confines of gendered bodies, gendered rhetoric, and gendered lives.
“Like all human behavior, homosexuality leads to make-believe, disequilibrium, frustration, lies, or, on the contrary, it becomes the source of rewarding experiences, in accordance with its manner of expression in actual living—whether in bad faith, laziness, and falsity, or in lucidity, generosity, and freedom.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, excerpt from The Second Sex (1949)
Ask a Gay Dude…
White individuals could very well ask: What is it like to be black? Similarly, “straight” men could very well ask: What is it like to be gay? Even though both questions are awkward, they demonstrate people’s sense of sameness and difference, people’s sense of the Other. “Ask a Gay Dude,” a sketch from Chappelle’s Show, critiques perceptions of the Other, particularly commenting on the ways sexuality is made into Other for desire and consumption via heteronormative fantasizing. In the sketch, straight men are interviewed who “ask a gay dude” questions about what it is like to be gay, including questions about sex and desire. Like his treatment of “race,” Chappelle treats “gender” in a way that exposes its absurdity, displaying the ridiculousness of masculinity and femininity and the way people apply maleness and femaleness, especially using the gay male body as a site of female heteronormative sex role designation. Sex, particularly “fucking,” becomes the way in which the interviewed men designate otherness in gay men, a vehicle through which they depict a form of “othered sexuality.” Regarding “fucking,” in “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks writes, “To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white ‘innocence’ and enter the world of ‘experience’” (23). While hooks addresses white desire towards black individuals, I apply this same framework to “heterosexual” desire towards “homosexual” individuals, a means of breaking “innocence” to gain “experience.” As evident in the interviews, the males use a kind of “secondhand fucking” to avoid actually engaging in intercourse with gay men, but, instead, the males use fantasy as a vehicle to engage in the consumption of the gay male as Other. Chappelle’s sketch utilizes “eating the Other” as the two black heterosexual male interviewees and the white male heterosexual interviewee (Dee Snider from Twisted Sister) engage in the desire to know what gay men are like, to explore the Other using sex or rather their secondhand fuck fantasies.
Here’s a link to the sketch titled “Ask a Gay Dude” from Chappelle’s Show:
From the start, Chappelle begins with addressing the secondhand fuck fantasy in the way the black straight man ponders what a gay man feels like during oral sex, questioning the gay man’s potential dick-sucking expertise. The first interviewee says, “Alright. I would like to know: When a gay guy is performing oral sex, is it better than the female?” with Mario Cantone answering, “Better? How the fuck do I know? Next question. [Pause] It’s better!” (Chappelle). Similar to the fascination with black sexuality in terms of stereotyped penis size, this black male engages in the stereotyping of gay men as fantasized dick-sucking experts. Chappelle interestingly uses satire to transcend heterosexism, but he also uses it with an introspective purpose; the way the black male stereotypes gay males mirrors ways white individuals stereotype black males (although in different ways such as imposed hypermasculinity and over-sexualization). Black men and gay men can be stereotyped, but they can also stereotype each other and use desire to practice in the secondhand fucking of each other. Involving the gay man confirming the fantasy by saying “It’s better!” when asked about gay male oral sex proficiency in regards to female oral sex proficiency, Chappelle further satirizes perceptions of the Other, of the way “othered sexualities” such as homosexuality and black sexuality appear as different, as the two seem bundled together in their exoticism.
Who’s the Bitch Now?
Even while the sketch stays within the realm of secondhand fucking, fantasizing about the Other, the audience sees somewhat of a change in topic: the reflection of being “made the bitch” back at a hypermasculine, stereotypical black male representation. The second interviewee says, “Ay, yo! I just got one question for you fruity pants out there. It’s Bazaar Royale from Bloodline Records. I want to know: What is the rainbow about!? What is the rainbow about!? I’m not feeling the rainbow! I’m not feeling the rainbow! Get back at me about dat!” with Mario Cantone answering, “Fruity pants? Let me tell you something. I’ll put a band-aid over your left cheek and make you my Nelly. [Cantone makes suggestive humping gestures] [Pause] Fruity pants!” (Chappelle). Notably, Cantone references to Nelly with a band-aid on his left cheek as seen in his “Hot in Herre” (2002) music video in particular. This reference is significant because it, in some ways, transcends heterosexism by Cantone’s obvious mockery of Bazaar Royale, saying that Royale could essentially be “made his bitch.” Moreover, I think the Nelly reference could be considered in itself as a way that Cantone, even as gay man, a minority group member, partakes in the desired consumption of a black male body, so this portion of the sketch melds both homosexuality and black sexuality in an interesting way. As mentioned previously, both homosexuality and black sexuality meet together as “othered sexualities,” as acts beyond the limits of imaginable norms within white heteronormativity. Chappelle flips the perceived notion of the hypermasculine black guy and introduces a gay guy who strips that sense of hypermasculinity by telling Royale that he could be a fuckable Nelly (with humping gestures indicated). Cantone, in this satirical dialogue, “changed the joke and slipped the yoke” as he shredded the typified image of the subordinate gay bottom, made Royale his bitch in his own fantasy, and transcended the stereotype of the feminized sex object which often yokes gay men, particularly feminine gay men.
“Lustworthy”: From Innocence to Experience
In the last portion of the sketch, Chappelle further explores the stereotyping of gay men through straight male fantasies of the Other. The third interviewee Dee Snider says, “Since you’re guys. Like guys always [are] like after every chick, so since you’re still a guy, but you like guys, would you be after every guy? So, do you want me? Now? [Bends over, indicating his ass] Do you want this? You can’t have this, but if you want—I want to know if you want this” with Mario Cantone replying, “Oh! You tease! You big tease! Hold on one second [Imitates heaving and throwing up]” (Chappelle). The most striking image in this satirical exchange is Snider asking if the gay man wants him while he states that the gay man cannot have him—but he still wants to know if the gay man wants him. This part of the sketch clearly underscores the idea of using “fucking” and fantasy to explore the Other, to gain “experience” from “innocence.” Chappelle furthermore flips gendered behaviors as Snider talks about men typically chasing all women, but then questions if gay men chase all men. This exchange seems to critique hypersexuality and over-sexualization generally associated with masculinity and manhood. With Cantone’s response of sarcastically calling Snider a “tease” and then imitating heaving and throwing up, the sketch ridicules the absurdity of heterosexist assumptions about gay men being promiscuous sex beasts. When Snider asserts that gay men lust after all men, followed by Cantone responding by heaving at the idea of being with Snider, Chappelle’s satire dismantles the absurdity of homophobia, of men’s fear that all gay men find every man innately “lustworthy.”
Being Black, Being Gay, Being “Other”
Through the lens of the secondhand fuck fantasy, gay men are subject to absurd stereotyping just as black men are often painted with over-sexualized assumptions of the Other. With the invention of black people, white people came into existence as the recognized dominant group while black people became regarded as a backdrop to accentuate the power of white cultural dominance. Similarly, without “homosexuality,” “heterosexuality” does not exist. By this statement, I mean that differentiated sexuality (sexuality made Other) gives rise to a sexuality deemed more acceptable, more dominant. The mere existence of difference permits the existence of sameness, so the categories “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” function as indicators of sexual differences, of defining and separating an Other (“the homosexual”) from the dominant heterosexual culture. Within this framework, Chappelle plays with the way black sexuality and homosexuality are in themselves considered “othered sexualities,” that these ways of intimacy and sexual expression are essentially bundled together and separated from white sexuality and heterosexuality (which, in a similar way, white sexuality and heterosexuality are essentially bundled together as well being that power allows for them to exist in dominance over both black sexuality and homosexuality). Furthermore, as viewed in the sketch, Chappelle shows the problematic nature of hypersexuality, of the way over-sexualized attributes are assigned without much reason other than the person “being black” or “being gay.” In this way, Chappelle’s sketch overall functions as both transcendent and introspective in ridiculing racism (indirectly) and heterosexism (directly) while also pushing for self-reflection over stereotypes applied to people because of absurdly fantasized perceptions of what it is to be “black” or “gay.”
Queerness is not necessarily an immediate signifier of same-sex attraction. To be queer does not mean that you must be a man who likes men or a woman who likes women, yet, in the most political sense, being queer involves being LGBTQ+. Examining the idea of what it means to queer gender norms, I examine two particular music videos for two songs from the band Garbage’s Beautiful Garbage (2001) album. These two music videos are for “Androgyny” (2001) and “Cherry Lips” (2001), both released as singles from the band’s album.
Before examining queerness in the context of these two musical artifacts, we could perhaps ask three questions:
1.) What does it mean to perform gender in a particular way?
2.) How does the spectated performance affect the perception of gender?
3.) Why do spectated performances of gender engender or transgress certain deeply held perceptions about masculinity and femininity?
When we consider the ways in which people queer gender performances, we must think of masculinity and femininity not as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as inclusive categories, areas that overlap and oftentimes mix together. To help visualize this idea, one could consider the way in which the color purple is made from both blue and red. Without either blue or red, the color purple is not the color purple, yet blue and red can sometimes be unequally distributed throughout what we understand as a strictly purple mixture. In fact, what we interpret as purple might be a large portion red and a small portion blue or vice versa. Given this example involving how both blue and red constitute the color purple, we then can apply this to gender because both masculinity and femininity combine to constitute the particular gender identities of people. Gender, however, is far more difficult to bring into conversation than the color purple; it is problematic because of its perceived restrictiveness. People moreover push themselves—and other people—into silence over gender because they would rather not face a reality in which their initial simplistic perceptions are contested by the complex reality of human difference. On gender, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014) writes:
Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice […] Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable. Both men and women are resistant to talk about gender, or are quick to dismiss the problems of gender. Because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable. (p. 21; p. 40)
The trouble with gender (the “gender trouble” in reference to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) is that people think masculinity and femininity are exclusive categories that cannot be transgressed. People create boundaries around what they perceive as masculine and feminine, defining anyone who transgresses these boundaries as a stranger or as an “Other.” In Garbage’s music video for the song “Androgyny,” the band contests what much of American society might perceive as “the masculine” and “the feminine” by queering expressions of gender, sexuality, and desire. Here is the music video for “Androgyny” on YouTube:
Regarding “changing the status quo,” Garbage’s “Androgyny” presents images that contradict what we perceive in our civilization as a familiarity of gender. Shirley Manson (the lead singer) performs gender in a queer—and androgynous—way which exists between the masculine and the feminine. Manson’s performance in “Androgyny” represents the color purple, consisting of both blue and red. In the music video, gender becomes a visible mixture of masculine and feminine.
When Manson presents this androgynous gender performance, she takes gender and puts it under a process of making strange, a means through which the familiar is reinterpreted into a newly perceived unfamiliar. Z.D. Gurevitch (1988) writes that the “process of making strange,” occurring only when one looks at a “normal”—and “abnormal”—aspect of life previously taken for granted, may not only bring out “new understandings and recognition,” but also potentially “threat and anxiety,” a sense that the gatekeepers of normalcy are being attacked by the perceived stranger (p. 1186). In the case of Garbage’s “Androgyny,” an obvious discomfort arises as Manson pushes back on images of heteronormativity, on the ways in which gender is constructed rigidly in civilization.
Exploring the fluidity of gender, Garbage performs their other single “Cherry Lips” in a video that creates an ambiguity around the gender of the character portrayed by Manson. Here is the music video for “Cherry Lips” on YouTube:
Further queering gender, Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” involves a “delicate boy” who “look[s] just like a girl.” As she performs in the video, Manson’s character is essentially invisible, yet we see him/her on the TV screens with short platinum blonde hair. By the end of the video, the invisible character Manson plays, even while dressed in leather gloves and high-heeled boots, walks into the bathroom and pees while standing. The character in “Cherry Lips” represents not necessarily the androgyny of gender, but rather the ambiguity of gender. The boundaries of what an audience perceives as finitely male and finitely female are transgressed as the character expresses his/her gender fluidly rather than rigidly.
Garbage’s queering of sexuality and gender in both “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” reveal how what civilization perceives as “normal” is not to be taken for granted. What society often understands as “normal” is not the standard by which to measure all other people since there can always be people who exist outside of a normal. Discussing how queerness creates an uncomfortable environment, Kathy Rudy (2000) writes:
Queer politics are explicitly and intentionally designed to make ‘straight people’ feel extremely uncomfortable in order to make them think about how contingent the foundations of the repressive ‘normal’ world really are. (p. 204)
Rudy’s discussion of the “contingent” foundations of normalcy goes back to my third question from earlier in this piece: Why do spectated performances of gender engender or transgress certain deeply held perceptions about masculinity and femininity?
We know that people particularly in our society and culture (Western culture) tend to see two colors when thinking of gender: blue and red (NOTE: Gender exists in rigid forms across other cultures besides American culture). People tend to visualize masculinity and femininity as a strict dichotomy, yet Garbage’s “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” destabilize the strictness of gendered confinement. Through these presentations and performances of gender and sexuality, the contingency of both gender and sexuality become more evident. Masculinity and femininity, after all, are inventions because humans must first be socialized into manhood and socialized into womanhood. A baby is not born with knowledge of masculine acts just as a baby is not born without knowledge of feminine acts. Society, however, takes masculinity and femininity for granted and any deviations to this imposed normalcy generate “threat and anxiety,” a sense of newly conceived strangeness that contradicts preconceived sameness. Babies are not born with the knowledge to differentiate blue, red, and purple until they are taught the difference between the colors, understanding that blue, red, and purple are supposedly definite in their differentness and sameness, yet the babies forget that purple is not as definite upon closer inspection.
“Queer theorists assert that what we often see as a fairly uniform past is in fact filled with glitches, differences, and irregularities smoothed over by our own interpretive impulse to make things ‘normal.’ […] Being queer is not a matter of being gay, then, but rather of being committed to challenging that which is perceived as normal.”
-Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism” (2000)
In Rudy’s quote, we see the way queer theory and being gay or lesbian (queering normal sexuality) intersect with ideas of strangeness, with what it means to “make strange” from the familiar. As humans, we possess a tendency, an “interpretive impulse,” to simplify the otherwise complex. In this regard, we overlook the areas in which life is strange such as particularly in the cases of gender and sexuality.
When bodies are gendered in particular ways, they are typically configured based on the given cultural discourse about gender. In this way, a biologically born male is typically assumed to conform to masculine standards and develop a heterosexual interest in women while a biologically born female is typically assumed to conform to feminine standards and develop a heterosexual interest in men. These idealized images defining “what is man” and “what is woman” really do not tell a complete narrative at all. Rather, these exclusive images create a uniformity that is unnatural in itself. If anything, as Rudy writes, we must understand that what we perceive as a “normal” reality is in fact layered with inconsistencies, uneven places, wrinkles that we thought were entirely smooth.
What we see as “normal” is perhaps really just masked in what we perceive as “normalcy,” masquerading until we dig beneath the surface to the strangest depths of the familiar.