Gender In General: The Performance of a Lifetime

by - August 11, 2016

We're all human, aren't we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.
J.K. Rowling

Are we human or are we dancer?

In 2008 the band The Killers released a song called Human, containing the lyric "are we human, or are we dancer?". The song was received with much praise, but also critique. At first it wasn't really clear what was being said. Mostly because the sentence "are we human, or are we dancer?" is grammatically incorrect. However the lead singer clarified this confusion by saying 1) he has creative liberty to make any sentence that he likes, grammatically correct or incorrect and 2) that the sentence is based on a quotation by Hunter S. Thompson, namely: "We're raising a generation of dancers." This was a critique by Thompson on the way America raised their population -as people who follow a pattern (a choreography) instead of thinking for themselves. Interestingly a same notion, but differently, is being said by a commentator on Youtube:

"The song asks the question: Are we free, or are we subjects of society? Human means we can do what we want when we want. Dancer is referring to a puppet dancing on a string. Having someone move you where they want you to go, thinking for you, and living our life like a routine that is all planned out. If you listen to the other lyrics you can see that dancer is actually referring to a puppet. "Cut the cord" let us free is essentially what he is saying."

However another commentator stated that he thought of the exact opposite. He thinks that it shows the turning (or growing) of being human to become something greater, a human being. "The dancer representing a culimination of things learned and the outcome of being -which is what 'dance' is. The purpose of dance is expression of being. It's Art of Self."

However another way of interpreting this song, which goes in my view hand in hand with the interpretations mentioned above, is the division of simply belonging to the genus Homo vs the layers that comes with 'living your life', making a performance -like a dancer. This is based on the many intersections you -as a person- cross within your existence and therewith the 'decisions' you make yourself (or are put upon you). The most prominent 'decision' naturally being gender.

'Is it a boy or is it a girl?' must be one of the first decisions that's being made in your life. Gender is being used as an anchoring point to create meaning, to identify yourself and others with (also: to categorize human beings). If you're a girl, you're not a boy and vice versa. It shapes the perception and expectation of yourself and that of others. However thinking in boy/girl or man/woman terms, is based on binary thinking and therewith first of all excluding other 'options'. Which in some cases can cause confusion when for instance you identify yourself as a girl while being determined a boy, or even not identifying with either sex. Gender is therefore being seen as "the distinctions in role, appearance, and behaviour that are cultural in origin, but stemming from an individual's sex (masculinity and femininity)."

Important to know is that gender is based on a binary system and therewith a social construction. Unfortunately a social construction that's very dominant and based on heteronormativity. Heteronormativity being "a viewpoint that expresses heterosexuality as a given instead of being one of many possibilities." This in return is naturally based on reproduction (man + woman = baby). However this disregards all kinds of other 'beings' and excludes more than it includes. But because we learn the world and ourselves based on this binary and heteronormative way, it becomes the 'unmarked norm'. Making for instance homosexuality a deviant from heterosexuality because it differs from this 'norm' we're most familiar with. This 'norm' is thereby very strictly enforced and can -literally- be dangerous to depart from (but therewith it also 'shapes' a person differently when confronted from either side). It's also something that gets to be reinforced over and over again in daily life. Just think of the division made between womenswear and menswear, where in both cases different 'rules' are being applied to confirm the meaning or difference between the two.

So womenswear is for women and menswear is for men. Both derive from a different point of view and therewith naturally a different 'history' (or maybe even 'heritage') attached to it. This means that making a statement either way -as will be later discussed- still reinforces the characteristics associated with one or another (masculinity/femininity, mind/body, ratio/emotion, subject/object, transcendence/immanence). So when Marlene Dietrich entered the red carpet in 1932 in a tuxedo, it was not only the shock of seeing a woman publicly wearing trousers, but more importantly the meaning or statement that it -consciously or unconsciously- made opposite the position of men/women and what it means to be either one. And in this case also: if Marlene Dietrich was violating the law forbidding women to 'masquerade as men'. Congress even had to make the statement that "women wearing trousers were not trying to deceive anybody as to their sex, and certainly Miss Dietrich deceived no one, nor was she attempting to." However it wasn't just only the law that had a thing or two to 'explain', the whole tuxedo-affair naturally got world wide attention, dividing the public into pro and con. Hereby most interestingly the main counterargument being: "I am not ashamed of being a woman. I intend to keep on looking like one." As said, certain garments are/were being regulated and seen as being distinctively 'belonging' (and therewith identifying or expressing) a particular sex or gender. And even now the three-piece suit is always (in)directly being associated with masculinity, regardless if it's a woman that's wearing it. The famous 'Le Smoking' tuxedo, introduced by Yves Saint Laurent 30 years later, is being described as 'mannish' and therefore 'empowering women' who wear them (because it reflects the 'heritage' of the men with influence and power that usually wore them). This is also something that's being reflected -under the motto of androgynous- in the posture or attitude of the models wearing the smoking. Their body language (standing wide legged, broad shoulders etc.) are mostly trades associated with the posture and attitude of men. Therewith it's important to keep in mind that even 30 years after Marlene Dietrich's red carpet entrance, the trouser/tuxedo on women still caused an uproar in the 1960s (and even 1970s) where it was being seen as 'indecent', especially as evening wear.

Gender is not just a layer or construction that's being performed, but it's mainly a very strong identification 'tool'. And you can only know that you're a girl or a boy or a girl in a boy's body by using the 'standard' of the binary system. We don't just choose a gender identification, but we find that a certain gender suits us better than another. It makes us understand who we are, how we perceive ourselves, others, the world around us and where we fit into all of this. It's a way of expressing yourself and therewith the institutionalised and regulated norm that 'comes with' certain genders. Again, the way we dress ourselves shows -or does not show- which gender we 'portray'. And even the way we seem to categorise certain items of clothing as being either male, female or unisex (neutral) is very telling.

So even gender fluidity or unisex is based on this binary assumption. By 'only' crossing the lines, we still recognize it as being something 'different' from the norm. It mostly raises the question: what is neutral anyway? Or even: does neutrality actually exist? It's not 'shocking' anymore, as an article called "Blurred Lines: Why Gender-neutral Fashion is the New Normal" states, to see in (high) fashion a man in a skirt or a woman walking for the menswear collection. And while it celebrates 'losing the labels', it's very telling when it says "it's getting harder to tell women's department from the men's." It isn't really about subverting the whole gender norms, but it's rather about pushing the boundaries a little. The notion of a skirt being 'female' first needs to be reinforced -when a man is wearing a skirt- to understand its 'difference' or why it can be seen as 'pushing the boundaries' (and trying to grab the golden goblet of being neutral -because if a woman is wearing trousers and a man is wearing a skirt, we surely must have found a neutral ground).

This brings us to gender performativity, which is based on the idea that the performance of gender (re)produces gender hierarchies as if they were based on essential differences. These differences being a reference point for our experience of the relation between 'you' and 'everything else'. By actively showing that gender is a performance, by putting certain 'iconic mannerisms' under a magnifying glass, you can show that gender is indeed just a construction. Being 'in drag' is the perfect example for this. Drag Kings and Queens demonstrate how easily certain 'gender roles' can be performed by either sex. You don't have to be solidly a man or a woman to be able to mimic and therewith overthrow either identification through binary. It shows how artificial the whole thing actually is.

So are we human, or are we dancer? It can be said that most of us indeed follow a certain pattern in life that comes with the 'package deal' of being either assigned to be a man or woman. However this assignment is so much intertwined with the way we identify ourselves in position to the rest of the world, and therewith the way we express ourselves and are actually able to do that -especially when you're being seen or see yourself as not being part of the 'unmarked norm'. So are we free or are we subjects of society? We can't do what we want when we want, but by being aware of the strings that are attached and the puppeteer who holds them, in some way we're able to take different steps than choreographed through performance. Through showing the construction, the stage and the puppets that are standing in the coulisse, we're able to make a (political) statement about gender, gender roles and gender representation. The Art of Self most probably being the most important thing to hold onto, which isn't just something that's based on masculinity/femininity or mind/body, but rather on intersectional thinking. You're not performig an arbitrary life, but living an intersectional one.


What I'm wearing: Blouse - Made by me / Suit - Made by me / Beret - H&M (old) / Bag - Vintage / Shoes - H&M (old) /
Sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9 / And: Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, an introduction by J. Storey, On Female Body Experience: "Throwing Like A Girl" And Other Essays by I.M. Young, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by J. Butler

You May Also Like