Gender as performance, and vice versa

(Trying to create a linked topic from “The time it takes to be a woman”)

I am interested in discussions about how much of gender is based upon feelings of personal identity, societal expectations - both of one’s own gender as well as others, or other areas. Being genderqueer myself, I do not really subscribe to the concepts that masculine or feminine are very meaningful in themselves. So for me personally drag / crossdressing / transvesticism aren’t really “a thing”. But I love how the drag notion that gender IS performance intersects with other areas of gender studies, feminism, and human liberation generally.

I will go out on a limb and say that what I think gender actually is, appears to be rather unconventional (surprise!). To me it is more like polarities that change more or less regardless of one’s own intentions. The easiest analog is probably the concepts of yin and yang. Which gender you are depends upon which of these is more prevalent at any given time. And even if those two states might represent most people, one could also have both, neither, or something else entirely! Since this model contrasts with the popular western notions of gender as sexual biology or personal identity, I mostly keep quiet about it. Mainly because I try to be supportive of others gender identities and not confuse matters for them. From my POV, everybody’s gender is in flux all of the time.

So what does my outlook have to do with performance? Nothing! Since I see gender as flux, performance or presentation become completely arbitrary. That can yield a lot of freedom, as well as misunderstandings. It makes a lot of sense for me to see gender socially as people performing, except that I don’t expect those to be limited to a masculine/feminine binary. But I try to be sensitive to the fact that these are not completely arbitrary categories for many.

What do you think? How do you make sense of all this in your daily life?


where do societal expectations of gender norms, especially those relating to public appearance, fit into your thinking?


I don’t. :slight_smile:

Bob puts on a frock, calls herself Alice. She’s Alice.
Bob puts on a frock, calls himself Bob. He’s Bob.
Bob puts on army boots, a bridal gown and a sombrero, calls vuxrself The Mighty Zwarx. Vuxr’s The Mighty Zwarx.

The point is, I don’t need to do the thinking or make sense of it. It’s been done by the person who best knows who they are. And If I get my pronouns or words wrong, I’ll apologise and use something better. Like the one they tell me to use for them.

I guess I don’t really draw much of a line between a role that someone’s playing, an experiment they’re doing in how they present themselves or a transition into what they’ve known they always are. To me, it doesn’t make much of a difference in how I treat them. How they self-define at that time is the most important thing to me. And if Bob finds deciding on things to be tricky and changes their definition every 30 seconds, I’ll try to keep up.

I dunno if I’m just oversimplifying things. Or even if this is a helpful approach. I’m open to being told I’m wrong and I’ll fix it some I’m less wrong. But in the day to day use, for me it’s one of the least complicated and confusing things about dealing with people.

If someones gender is important enough for me to know about it, they’ll tell me.


They don’t, really! For several reasons. Firstly, that since many societal expectations are unthinkingly internalized, they tend to be poorly articulated and understood even by (especially?) those who insist upon them. And secondly, there is the matter of whatever those expectations may have to do with me (or anyone else), personally. How does my participation in those norms or roles help or hinder anybody else, and so create an obligation on my behalf?

I am often criticised here for “philosophizing at people” as a solution to social expectations, but I see that as me participating in the normative process. When somebody confronts me with societal expectations, where is their evidence, their demographics? Typically, they haven’t any. So it is their model of social norm versus mine, and we define those as equals. Unless they give up because it’s too much effort, or they aren’t getting their way!

Two of the biggest problems I am encountered with in regards to expectations of gender presentation are those of sexism and ethnocentrism - which are often in practice closely related. For an example of the first, how/why would an institution such as a school or company insist upon equality of the sexes, and yet see no conflict in having sexist dress codes? Or otherwise insisting upon sex/gender information in situations where it is in no way relevant to the role or service in question? And for the second, why should I in the US be subject to European norms about clothing? And how do we index these with regards to specific time in place? Consider that crazy topic from a couple months ago about that couple and their Victorian attire. Who decides that my clothes should be European, and what sort of European?

In short, there are a lot of politics and implicit assumptions in supposed “norms” which I unpack and make explicit, whether anybody wants me to or not. Ironically, I can appreciate people formalizing what they want/need people to do, but they often tend to be quite bad at it.

1 Like

Whenever I think l about the popobawa homeworld, I picture the Founder’s homeworld from DS9.

(meant with love)


I have seen some DS9, but not much. So I don’t know anything about the Founder’s homeworld, apart from knowing that IIRC Odo is a Founder. If it helps my geek cred, I did have lunch with Jeffrey Combs once in my teens, but that was prior to DS9.

As alien as I am often told my perspective is, it was based mostly upon Earth and human culture. But with a lot of questioning of fundamental assumptions.


They are a fluid species that coexist, individuals but also as one. I think your ruminations on prior consent type cultures first put this in my mind. I suppose it is becoming an old trope around here that you are alien.

Do you see yourself as embodying polar genders, fluid as they may be? I may be splitting hairs, but I tend to think of most people as identities that exhibit gendered traits. The proportion and intensity of the gendering of those traits being in flux. Nothing either good or bad, male or female, but thinking makes it so.

1 Like

Let’s explore the vice-versa side a bit, about gender as (literal) performance

I’ve performed in a couple of traditional British pantomimes (plus, I really enjoy Ross Petty’s The Cinderella Gang).

In traditional British pantomime, there are usually a bunch of consistent elements: the hero, an over-the-top maniacal villain, the love interest, the pair of clowns who start off as the villains’ lackeys but are really good-at-heart in the end, and The Dame. Any of these, except The Dame, can be played by either a man or a woman. Through the hero’s actions, the villain’s pride, the clowns’ incompetence (and, in the end, their assistance of the hero), and with some help from the audience, the good guys always win, and the farce is concluded with some appropriate punishment for the villain, and the marriage of the hero and the love interest.

(Seriously. All of that, in almost every one. It’s terribly predictable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hilarious.)

The part I’m of two minds about is The Dame. The Dame is a middle-aged woman who is always played by a middle-aged man, and who makes endless remarks on her youth and beauty, and spends the performance shamelessly trying to seduce pretty much every character she’s not related to (maybe not the clowns), who all respond with revulsion. The joke is that she keeps remarking on being a young, beautiful woman, and the people in the audience (and the other characters) see a middle-aged man dressed as a woman. So that’s funny. Only, the more I think about it, the more it’s not funny.

The previously mentioned pantomime, The Cinderella Gang, is not a traditional one (and they even say so in the ads), so they don’t have a dame. However, both of Cinderella’s “beautiful step-sisters” are played by men, leading to a bunch of the same jokes, and the same issues.

And I just wonder whether I’m taking these things too seriously. It’s a farce, filled with bad puns, pratfalls, characters chasing each other around the stage, pies to the face, and the level of humour is generally aimed at children (with a few jokes aimed carefully over their heads). It’s not meant to be taken seriously.

But I can’t help thinking about it.

1 Like

There’s a nasty little Germaine Greer essay, “Pantomime Dames,” … never finished it myself, it’s worse than Raymond’s work “The Transsexual Empire.”

I go with a brain sex theory. It’s usually best to have multiple working hypotheses, but I haven’t found any viable alternatives to a brain sex theory. Particularly considering the David Reimer case, similar cases, and studies of xy children assigned female during reconstructive surgery for cloacal extrophy, and children exposed to des.

I figure any process causing the differentiation of relevant areas of the brain can cause a certain degree of mosaicism and intermediate development. Some people insist [brain sex] implies binarism, but as far as I can see it is incompatible with binarism.

1 Like

Don’t worry, I am used to the alien comparisons. Yes, I find that assumed prior consent is usually a scam and think it’s crazy not to question/defy it.

No, I don’t think of them as polarities, but for better or worse that is often a default for understanding gender. A continuum between poles is more accurate, but still too linear. I see them as simply different arbitrary categories. In some of my probably annoying analogies, I have compared genders to the existence of lemon people and lime people, or blondes, brunettes and redheads. Are you able to act in a lime person’s role? Would you wear a blonde person’s clothes? They are simply categories, but there is no reason to assume that people will find them meaningful in specific contexts.

1 Like

Being in the US, I have learned a bit about pantomime, but have no direct experience of it.

I think that it’s simply humor in that it clashes with lots of low-level conditioning people are subjected to very early on. I don’t remember where I read it, but years back somebody said that in entertaining young children, there is nothing guaranteed to get laughs as ready as a man in a dress. If preschool kids think it’s a joke, then they have already been pretty thoroughly conditioned to these “norms”. I think that the pantomime Dame is simply an unsubtle extension of this sort of humor. It’s predicated upon the idea that it’s somehow important for men and women to maintain certain distinct appearances for whatever reasons. “That’s the joke.”

Functionally, I think that people rely upon superficialities such as hair and clothing styles to re-enforce heteronormality, so people can avoid embarrassment by having it coded for them who it is “safe” to be attracted to. For instance, a huge proportion of people associate unexpected gender presentations as indicative of a preference for same-sex relations with their assumed sex. That people’s appearance is not primarily for one’s self, but a signal to others. In extreme cases this can be seen as a cause of violence towards people where “gayness” was projected upon them specifically as a consequence of initial attraction and resulting reprisals. Such as guys in a pickup wolf-whistling a guy with long hair and then beating him up for tricking them into thinking he was a girlee. To say that that’s the only way society can be organized I think is false and quite lazy. Unless you are actually trying to make babies, it probably doesn’t matter what is down anybody’s pants. And mature people with language could easily ask what gender you are, and who you might be interested in. It’s not as if it is in any way difficult, apart from people being conditioned to avoid doing it.

This topic was automatically closed after 145 days. New replies are no longer allowed.