‘Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity’, writes Judith Butler. Instead, it should be seen as an ‘effect’, the ‘mundane’ product of regularly repeated ‘bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds’ that create the impression of ‘an abiding gendered self’, to cite once more a passage that was quoted earlier (Butler 1990: 140). As we saw in the Introduction, Butler calls this impression an ‘illusion’ because she wants to underline the tenuous way in which gender is routinely realized through those performances that allow it to be identified or recognized for what it is, performances that are open to disruption, unexpected variation and transformation. Put like this, gender is apt to sound hollow, insubstantial, lacking in psychic depth; but Butler’s point is that ultimately gender is only as solid as the social and cultural practices that constitute it over time.
Butler’s emphasis upon the performative character of gender echoes a number of contemporary trends: the deliberate theatricality of issue-based political movements like Queer Nation, fashionable and typically gender-ambiguous forms of body-art such as tattooing and piercing, the increasing public visibility of erotic minorities including transsexuals and transvestites. Her
formulations seem to capture the fluidity and expressiveness currently displayed by gendered bodies, our belief in their plasticity and adaptability, the difficulties we face in ‘reading’ identity from appearances. Under such a regime of difference the putative distinction between sex and gender is frequently haphazard or obscured, just as the new signification of ‘queer’ discussed in Chapter 4 points to a blurring of the lines between heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual practices.
Throughout this book gender has figured as a chameleon-like category, a name for a constantly changing phenomenon that can sometimes be more and also sometimes rather less than an identity: a system of hierarchical relationships, for example, or at the other extreme, the glimpse or trace of a style on a busy urban street. This is not to say that gender has not historically been a major component of people’s sense of who they are or what they would like to be. But it has not always been understood as the naturally occurring foundation of an identity. For, as Judith Halberstam has recently argued, gender has varied according to a number of different principles in both modern and pre-modern societies. In some circumstances what Halberstam calls ‘gender variance’ may be determined primarily by a woman’s marital status or its absence (the nineteenth-century ‘spinster’); in other instances, like transsexualism or hermaphroditism, it may be directly ‘measured on the body’ (Halberstam 1998: 59).
Halberstam’s challenging study Female Masculinity is exemplary for its insistence upon the multiplicity of forms that gender can take, refusing to lump them all carelessly together. But her arguments take us to the limits of present-day gender theory. Halberstam’s book is based upon the premise that women themselves have helped to create modern masculinity, not just via the contrast with femininity, but by developing their own unique kinds of masculine personae. Female masculinities have proliferated over the ages and include such different modes as the tomboy, the female husband, the stone butch and the drag king, to cite just a few. As their names suggest, these types are linked to particular roles or performances and are not necessarily defined by their sexual preferences. Halberstam notes that ‘some rural women may be considered masculine by urban standards’, yet ‘their masculinity may simply have to do with the fact that they engage in more manual labour than other women’ (58). Similarly, her brief discussion of American cowgirls makes the obvious point that their tough self-presentation is partly a product of an intensely physical outdoor lifestyle herding cattle and competing in rodeos. These manifestations of masculinity are not merely imitative, as George Mosse’s all-encompassing account of the Western manly ideal discussed in Chapter 2 would lead us to believe; instead, they represent an independent or alternative line of development: ‘masculinity without men’ (13).
Although, as this last phrase (and indeed the title of her book) indicate, Halberstam sometimes seems to want to unify these disparate identities, claiming at one point that ‘female masculinity is a specific gender with its own cultural history’, her main concern is to complicate and unravel our existing preconceptions (77). So, from her perspective, lesbianism is too loose a catch-all to do justice to the variety of positions that historically have been available and consequently it is a descriptor that is often blind to certain key differences in self-understanding. In her discussion of Radclyffe Hall, for example, Halberstam argues that what the author accomplishes in both her writing and her life is the articulation of ‘a complex female masculinity, one that neither copies male homosexuality nor male heterosexuality but that carves out its own gender expression’ (90). Against Terry Castle who in her book Kindred Spirits: Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall (1996) has attempted to chart the mutual influences, the hidden commonalities between lesbian and gay male styles in the 1920s, Halberstam contends that Hall embraced the medical definition of the ‘masculine invert’, a person who experienced herself as, and who looked like a man, but whose body was, according to strict anatomical criteria, female. Like her character Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness, Hall sought to find a mode of dress that would enable her to feel comfortable with herself, yet which stopped short of masquerading as a man, thereby distinguishing herself from the figure of the transvestite or ‘the passing woman’. On this reading, both Stephen and Hall (the boundary between character and author tends to be elided here) are portrayed as quintessentially modern gendered selves who see
their identity not as ‘organically emanating from the flesh but as a complex act of self-creation in which the dressed body’ rather than the naked or undressed body, ‘represents one’s desire’ (Halberstam 1998: 106).
There is a discernible tension in the argument at this stage, for as Halberstam clearly recognizes (and as Hall’s recently published letters show) she believed that to be an ‘invert’ was an entirely ‘natural’ phenomenon, despite the fact that it condemned one to a constant struggle against a blatantly discriminatory world. Indeed, in the 1920s the category of the invert was predicated precisely on its apparent fixity; and, of course, we will never know how many women would have chosen ‘gender reassignment’ by surgical means if such an option had then been available. Yet elsewhere in her discussion, Halberstam notes that Stephen Gordon’s ‘feelings about her body’ are ‘essentially contradictory’ and it is as if her choice of clothing (her ‘sartorial aesthetic’) functions as a cultural solvent of these corporeal anxieties (90, 101).
These questions are restaged and replayed — though always with a difference — in ongoing intersex and transgender campaigns to secure ‘the rights to technologies that facilitate gender reassignment’ raising, as Judith Butler notes in Undoing Gender, new sets of feminist theoretical and ethical concerns about the limits and possibilities of human perfectibility. The ‘important coalitional thinking’ that need to be done in the movements which comprise the ‘New Gender Politics. . . will doubtless have to do with presumptions about bodily dimorphism, the uses and abuses of technology, and the contested status of the human, and of life itself.’ Resolutions will not banish or more than temporarily resolve the conflicts that flow from the fact that gender ‘figures as a precondition for the production and maintenance of legible humanity.’ (Butler 2004: 11)
We return therefore not only to the vexed question of the relationship between nature and culture, or to the lived significance of discursive constructs and systems of classification, but to the problem of how far change is possible, and the extent to which gender can be imagined otherwise. For gender is never wholly protean nor totally fluid; at any given time and place it is configured within a range of technological, socio-economic and cultural constraints. And though these constraints may mark the discursive limits of our world, they are also the starting point from which our imaginations may defiantly begin again.