Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gender trouble


Chi Peng's Self-Portrait with One Breast Photoshopped In   

In his Self-Portrait, Chinese artist Peng depicts himself as undergoing some sort of inner metamorphosis. His bigger left breast (and more pronounced left ear and cheekbone) may hint at a right/left asymmetry. How to render Peng's "body" within the recognized parameters of traditional gender stereotypes?

In her 2004 book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler interprets gender as process, a kind of sequence of per-formative stages with no pre-existing performer in them or even behind them. The distinction been that there is performance (which presupposes the existence of a subject) and performativity (which does not). The idea is to render identity more plastic and malleable. Butler elaborates on the case of David/Brenda:
Although David comes to claim that he would prefer to be a man, it is not clear whether David himself believes in the primary causal force of the Y chromosome. Diamond finds support for his theory in David, but it is not clear that David agrees with Diamond. David clearly knows about the world of hormones, asked for them and takes them. David has learned about phallic construction from transsexual contexts, wants a phallus, has it made, and so allegorizes a certain transsexual transformation without precisely exemplifying it. He is, in his view, a man born a man, castrated by the medical establishment, feminized by the psychiatric world, and then enabled to return to who he is. But in order to return to who he is, he requires-and wants, and gets-a subjection to hormones and surgery. He allegorizes transsexuality in order to achieve a sense of naturalness. And this transformation is applauded by the endocrinologists on the case since they understand his appearance now to be in accord with an inner truth.*
A better point, yet,
[...] and the "nature" that the endocrinologists defend also needs a certain assistance through surgical and hormonal means, at which point a certain nonnatural intervention in anatomy and biology is precisely what is mandated by nature. So in each case, the primary premise is in some ways refuted by the means by which it is implemented. Malleability is, as it were, violently imposed. And naturalness is artificially induced.*
By the way, check out the site of intersex artist Del La Grace Volcano. Pretty interesing stuff.
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*Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 65, 66.