“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.