Gender is what is put on

Gender is what is put on

by Sian Williams

“Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds.” Consider how the performances you have chosen attempt to denaturalise gender norms. Focus on the specific techniques used in staging the performances. Are there limits to these performances’ ability to subvert gender norms? Butler, Judith “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” Theatre Journal (1998) 531

 ‘Putting on’ our gender is an act that we all subconsciously, and consciously commit. Whether that be, the literal act of applying ones lipstick or the act of not shaving ones legs. Gender is a concept that we all adhere to, in one way or another. The performance of gender does not solely apply to theatrical stage shows, as Shakespeare once said “All the world’s a stage”. We perform in every area of our life, and our gender is possibly the area we are most thoroughly rehearsed in. In this essay I will be focusing on two theatrical performances that deconstruct the notion of ‘gender norms’; thoroughly analysing their techniques, dialogue and staging. The two performances I have chosen to explore are Peggy Shaw’s solo performance, “You’re just like my father” (1994) and Split Britches and the Bloolips Theatre Troupe’s, “Belle Reprieve” (1991). Both performances expose gender for being a learnt trait in contrast to a ‘linguistic given’. I will be analysing how masculinity and femininity are both performed, focusing in detail at Shaw’s ‘female masculinity’ and how it is represented in both You’re just like my father (where Shaw plays her butch self) and Belle Reprieve (where Shaw plays the hyper masculine, Stanley).  I will also analysis how Belle Reprieve goes against realism in order to denaturalize gender. When discussing Blanche and Stanley in Belle Reprieve, I will be using pronouns that fit the characters performed gender rather than their biological sex. For example, Stanley, although physically a woman will be referred to as he and Blanche, played by drag queen Bette Bourne, will be referred to as her. This is to avoid any confusion with character pronouns when discussing Stanley and Stella’s relationship; as Stella (Lois Weaver) is also biologically female.

 Shaw begins her performance of You’re just like my father sitting on a chair, topless and braless, with a little cloth slung around her shoulders just covering her nipples. She adopts a masculine pose, sitting with her legs apart and wears only boxers to cover her lack of penis; the cloth covering her breasts resembles a boxer sitting in a ring, waiting to fight – a typically masculine sport. The boxer pose mimics what Shaw is doing – she is ready for the show and ready to reveal the most intimate parts of herself. Shaw is ready to make herself vulnerable by letting her masculine guard down, just as a boxer makes him/herself vulnerable by fighting. As Shaw gets up she removes the material revealing to the audience her bare breasts therefore exposing her feminine parts. The exposure of Shaw’s breasts is only momentary as she begins to bind them down with the cloth that previously hung around her shoulders. The act of binding displays to the audience how Shaw’s biological gender can easily be reshaped. Shaw briefly reveals her female breasts to the audience, in order to show that she is physically sexed as female, and that her masculinity has no correlation with her biology. She wants to make it clear that her masculine gender can be easily adopted by anyone, despite their natural sex. You’re just like my father attempts to denaturalize gender norms by showing Shaw’s sexed female body in contrast to her butch masculinity; “Since sex produces an expected gender performance, to classify Shaw as a man is to deny her female body; to classify Shaw as a woman, on the other hand, is to deny her masculinity.”(Sloane, 2012)

 After Shaw has finished binding she begins to “growls like a wolf”, this implies that now Shaw is visibly ‘breast less’ that she is free. Shaw’s freedom from her breasts enables her inner animalistic masculinity too fully surface; she shows this thru growling like a wolf. Shaw frequently changes costume on stage throughout the show, portraying to the audience how she is wearing her gender. “Gender is what is put on” as Butler states, and this is exactly what Shaw is attempting to show to us; Shaw puts on her gender with each item of clothing she adds and removes. For example, when Shaw puts on her military uniform her performance slightly changes in order to fit the mode. Shaw starts acting like she is in the army, by placing her hands behind her back and staring blanking ahead, Shaw then begins to bark her lines as if she is barking orders to soldiers. Like boxing, the army is associated as being a masculine profession – Shaw consciously picks occupations that correlate with hyper masculinity in order to denaturalize it. Shaw wears the masculine military uniform and acts like a boxer in order to prove how masculinity can be easily worn by anyone, despite their given gender.  The lines Shaw shouts are all orders from her mother such as, “My mother told me you’ll go to hell if you keep this up.” The fact that the orders from her mother are stylised in an army format portrays how her mother was always ‘right’, and there was no disobeying her, especially when it came to Shaw’s homosexuality.  Shaw spends a great majority of the performance referencing back to the title; her mother often repeating “You look just like your father.” Shaw seems to take pride in this, “This is my face. It’s sharp and I look like my father. You look just like your father, my mother would say. I look like my father when I’m in a good mood.” For Shaw a good mood could be when she feels she can be herself and dress butch.

 The idea behind Belle Reprieve is that femininity and masculinity are constructed, and this is successfully portrayed via the characters outlining their purpose, such as Stella for example. Stella in the first two pages says “Look I’m supposed to wander around in a state of narcotized sensuality. That’s my part.” Stella talks about her character obviously to the other characters and the audience, breaking the fourth wall; she makes her characters over sexualisation blatant, by telling the audience that she is ‘in a state of narcotized sensuality’, rather than hinting her feminine sexuality through Realism. Although realism is used, in order to portray the characters over the top animal sexuality (like the Stanislavski method Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh adopted to channel the characters inner animal). The most commonly used style in Belle Reprieve is Brecthian/postmodern, and this works to the actor’s advantage in order to denaturalize gender and expose it for being a learnt trait. The dialogue in Belle reprieve is Brecthian as it tells the audience exactly what the message of the play is frequently, rather than hinting at the message like realism would do. For example, Blanche says in regards to Stanley; “This is calculated sexuality, developed over years of picking up signals not necessarily genetic is what I’m trying to say.” Blanche has obviously outlined what Belle reprieve is suggesting; that gender is ‘calculated’ rather than genetic. Blanche continues to try to obviously expose Stanley’s constructed masculinity to the audience and Stella; “Perhaps he’s just a halfway house, to lure you into a sexual trap, a trap well laid”. Yet instead of Blanche revealing to the audience what they already know (that Stanley is a butch lesbian) Blanche reveals that Stanley is ‘a fag’; putting a comedic twist on the speech. Furthermore, Blanche adds that “Only someone as skilled as I am at being a woman can pick up these subtle signs.”  Which is ironic as Blanche is a man, yet this also reinforces gender as being a ‘skill’ rather than an inherent trait. As Beauvoir stated “one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one.” (Beauvoir, 1949)  By Blanche revealing that she learnt skills in order to become a woman strengthens Belle Reprieves message, that masculinity and femininity are learnt skills rather than biologically inherited traits.

 In the sense of physicality in regards to Stanley and Stella’s relationship, an element of realism is used to ensure the audience can identify with known gender binaries. This is done to show how Stanley, a butch lesbian, has easily picked up masculine attributes even though Stanley is naturally sexed female. The same applies to Stella, who has the same biological parts as Stanley yet acts accordingly to her biological gender. Even though an element of realism is used to portray Stanley and Stella’s raw animal attraction, the obvious is often avoided – that Stanley is a butch lesbian. Stanley and Stella never address Stanley’s biological sex yet it is made obvious on stage via Stanley’s lack of bra. The fact that Belle Reprieve doesn’t openly express Stanley’s biological gender reinforces his skills at being a man. It is almost as if, Stanley’s genetic womanhood doesn’t need to be mentioned as it is irrelevant to his dominant masculine prowess. Stella tells Stanley “You don’t satisfy me, you’re not real.” In which Stanley replies “Are you saying I’m not a real man?” Stella responds “I’m saying you’re not real. You’re cute. Could be much cuter if you weren’t quite so obvious.” Stella is referring to Stanley’s unreal, obvious, constructed masculinity; she then tells Stanley to “Take it all off” and that she wants to see Stanley “naked like a baby”. This implies that she wants Stanley’s wall of masculinity to come down and she wants Stanley to show her the real person behind the macho façade. ‘Take it all off’ is a metaphor for both Stanley being played by a butch lesbian and Stanley putting up a masculine security blanket. Too add on this, Stanley states that he is always tense, as it keeps him in check and in balance. This suggests that Stanley has to always be tense in order to keep up his constructed masculinity and to never let it crumble. If Stanley wasn’t always tense, the façade could easily slip, revealing Stanley’s masculinity to be a figment of the imagination.

 Stella appears solo on stage in the spotlight, she is stood in front of a curtain with a flower painted on it – the flower is open, ‘blooming’ and inside the flower is what would appear to look like a clitoris and labia. The image of Stella standing in front of a suggestive photo of a flower (resembling a vagina) oozes female sexuality. The excessively erotic image of Stella theoretically standing in front of a vagina, wearing a little black dress, works against realism in order to expose society’s standards of female sexuality. In realism, the character of Stella wouldn’t be so obvious, her sexuality would be displayed and subtly hinted at, but no way would she ever be dancing erotically in front of a flowery vagina. The whole point of Stella in Belle reprieve is for her to act as a purely sexual object in order to conform to the ‘male gaze’; her character even says herself that she is “supposed to wander around in a state of narcotized sensuality. That’s my part.” Stella is a reflection of what patriarchy has done to women; merely written them off as only good for sex. This is further reinforced by Stanley’s comment after he walks through the audience clapping his hands; “Any moment this dame spends out of bed is wasted, totally wasted.” His comment is chauvinist and highly sexualised. By watching through the darkness of the audience, Stanley acts out the role of the voyeur, viewing Stella through the audiences gaze. This supports Stella’s heightened female sexuality being adhered to cater for the ‘male gaze’; metaphorically speaking, Stanley is the symbol for domineering masculinity, which subjects femininity to scopophilic pleasures tailored for heterosexual males. As Stanley drops to Stella’s knees, embracing her, Stella remarks “I could smell you coming”. They focus on the topic of smell for a while whilst maintaining this pose, the fact that Stella could smell Stanley coming refers to her animal instinct and reinforces that the desire Stanley and Stella have for each other is animal. Belle reprieve uses a genetic female to represent Stanley’s raw animal masculinity in order to prove that masculinity is just as ‘fake’ and learned as femininity. And that animal attraction does not have to solely apply to heterosexual couples.

The animal attraction Stanley and Stella have, is clearly and successfully demonstrated with their obvious gender binaries and stage physicality; this is displayed effectively in their sensual dance. Stella and Stanley move their bodies against each other in typical heteronormative roles, Stanley obviously masculine and Stella feminine. Stanley pulls Stella’s hair, bringing her face close whilst his arm is around Stella’s waist; this signifies Stanley’s sexual dominance over Stella. Stella removes Stanley’s top, ensuring that the audience cannot see Stanley’s breasts by pressing Stanley close to her. Stanley rubs his hands all over Stella’s breasts and hips; the feminine parts of her. Whereas Stella steers clear of any parts of Stanley that could be deemed ‘feminine’ and stays around his back, arms and shoulders – keeping Stanley’s masculinity intact for the audience. The way that Stanley and Stella caress each other is conforming to heteronormativity on purpose, suggesting that homosexual relationships also rely heavily on gender binaries and embody elements of heteronormativity. Perhaps sometimes the gender binaries in homosexual relationships are much more emphasised in order to make up for lack of biological genitalia;

“she clings in obstinate self-assertion to her threatened masculinity; the hope of getting a penis sometime is cherished to an incredibly late age and becomes the aim of her life, whilst the phantasy of really being a man in spite of everything often dominates long periods of her life. This ‘masculinity complex’ may also result in a manifestly homosexual object-choice.” (Freud, 1931)

 Both Belle reprieve and You’re just like my father play with the idea of passports and borders in relation to gender. Shaw describes going through airport borders with a drag queen, she states that the drag queen “dressed butch to pass as a man” and she “dressed femme to pass as a girl”.  Shaw also explains how they swapped their suitcases in order to deceive the airport staff that they were playing the gender that nature intended for them. For example, Shaw’s suitcase had ‘poems to boys’ and typically feminine things whereas the drag queens suitcase had boxers and ‘letters to girls’. Shaw uses “pass as” in relation to borders in both the sense of gender borders and airport borders. By using the phrase “pass as” suggests that their gender is borderline, making it difficult for them to pass as their genetic gender. This also reinforces Butlers statement that “gender is put on” as Shaw and the drag queen had to physically ‘put on’ their biologically assigned gender in order to get through airport security. Likewise in Belle Reprieve, the subject of passports and borders in relation to gender is performed. The way in which Belle reprieve portrays its ‘border control’ is again in true Brechtian style as the character of Stanley puts on a hat and becomes a customs officer. Belle reprieve pays homage to William’s original scene, in which Stanley searches Blanche’s trunk frantically for sales papers; in Belle reprieves version Stanley is searching for Blanche’s passport. When asked for her passport Blanche responds with; “Passport? I wasn’t aware that we were crossing any borders. What borders?” Again the word borders has a double meaning. In this sense it proposes that Stanley needs to check Blanche’s passport, in order to check if her femininity is authentic or whether it is ‘put on’. When Stanley finds Blanches passport he states that Blanche doesn’t look like the photograph, in which Blanche replies, “I believe nature is there to be improved upon.” Blanche is again directly addressing the issue of gender, stating that her biological male gender can be ‘improved upon’ and by that she implies she can easily perform feminine gender, in contrast to her male gendered body.

 Similarly to Belle Reprieve, You’re just like my father also refers to a suitcase being searched, however in You’re just like my father, Shaw describes the contents of her suitcase being searched whereas Blanche’s suitcase is searched on stage for the audience to witness; “I didn’t have my gun, and I didn’t have my dildo.” Shaw talks about her gun and her dildo in unison, confusing the audience as to whether they are the same thing, she blurs the borders – so to say. The gun is an innuendo for a phallic object, like a penis – it represents power; “packing, I call it, in both cases. I carry my gun, unlike my dildo, I carry it just in case. The gun that is. I keep the dildo in my drawers with my neatly folded boxer shorts. I don’t use it. I’m not dangerous.” Shaw plays on the word “packing”, referring to packing a suitcase with a gun and packing her boxer shorts with a dildo; both give her a phallic sense of masculine empowerment. After stating that she keeps her dildo in her draw, Shaw then tells the audience that she doesn’t use it and that she’s ‘not dangerous’. Again Shaw is blurring the lines in regards to whether she is talking about the gun or the dildo. The semiotics for guns is danger and the gun happens to appear phallic in appearance; this suggests that penises could be seen as threatening too, especially in regards to female sexuality; “every adolescent female fears penetration and masculine domination” (Beauvoir, 427). As Beauviour proposes, male genitalia is often perceived as threating as it penetrates, just like a guns bullet would penetrate the skin. Therefore Shaw uses both the dildo and the gun as a means to protect her, she feels safe with either of these objects as they project masculinity and danger, therefore empowering her. The dildo and the gun are tools to express her butch identity. Shaw continues on the subject of phallic metaphors, with the references she makes about ‘dolphins’. Shaw goes on to tell us that she is “missing out on a dildo”, stating that she can “hardly look at the real ones” but that she can “look at the dolphin ones” because they don’t have veins. The reference to the vein-less dildos as dolphins suggest that they are smooth and soft which is associated with femininity. The word dolphin could also be linked with male homosexuality, as dolphins are often associated as feminine animals or alternatively, ‘gay sharks’. Shaw refers to Moby Dick as being a dolphin, completely emasculating his animalistic power as a giant whale. She also refers to her ‘fathers dick’ looking like a dolphin – perhaps trying to ridicule his masculinity and phallic pride, suggesting that you don’t have to have a real dick with ‘veins’ to be a real man. Shaw’s dolphin speech implies that you can have/be a dolphin and be a real man – whether that be, a dolphin penis or a dolphin dildo. ‘Real’ masculinity is fiction, its behaviour anyone can learn, with a penis, dildo or otherwise.

“The insistence here that the penis alone signifies maleness, corresponds to a tendency within academic discussion of gender to continue to equate masculinity solely with men. Recent studies on masculinity persist in making masculinity an extension or discursive effect of maleness. But what about female masculinity or lesbian masculinity?” (Halberstam, 1994, 214)

  Near the climax of Belle Reprieve Stanley wonders around the stage blindfolded, performing a monologue about his butch masculinity; “Don’t panic… I was born this way. I didn’t learn it at theatre school. I was born butch. I’m so queer I don’t even have to talk about it. It speaks for itself, it’s not funny. Being butch isn’t funny… don’t panic… I fall to pieces into the night. I’m just thousands of parts of other people all mashed into one body. I am not an original person. I take all these pieces, snatch them off the floor before they get swept under the bed, and I manufacture myself.” Having Stanley blindfolded on stage whilst he says these lines acts as a metaphor for his blindness to himself; Stanley is blind to how his masculinity is inauthentic. He states that he falls to pieces into the night – this implies how masculinity is not always positive (as society deems it) but how masculinity can also be very destructive. Men are often told to ‘man up’ and not to cry, as crying is feminine. By stating he falls to pieces in the night suggests he lets his masculine guard down, and reveals his supressed emotions. After his masculine guard has ‘fallen to pieces’ Stanley ‘snatches’ the pieces back off the floor and manufactures himself; implying he rebuilds his wall of masculinity up again in order to face the world; “there are very few places in American culture where male masculinity reveals itself to be staged or performative; when it does, however, the masculine masquerade appears quite fragile.” (Halberstam, 1998, 234) As Halberstam states, masculinity is rarely seen to be performative, as masculinity is often believed to be ‘authentic’ “whereas femininity reeks of the artificial” (Halberstam, 234) Belle reprieve successfully exposes the ‘masculine masquerade’ with its post-modern expository style and the fact that masculinity is effectively portrayed by a butch woman. Performing masculinity on a female body reveals each component of masculinity to be inauthentic, as Stanley effectively shows that you don’t have to have a penis in order to display masculine characteristics. As a result, this then stamps masculinity as just as artificial as femininity.

 The rape scene in Belle Reprieve uses Brechtian techniques in order to denaturalize the rape and expose it. Before the cast begin to act out the rape scene, Blanche states that she wants to be in a real play, with “real scenery” and a “beginning, a middle and an end.” In which Stella responds “Now we’ve talked about this, and we decided that realism works against us.” Stella’s dialogue runs parallel to Jill Dolans theory in Lesbian Subjectivity in Realism, where Dolan states “The lesbian subject most readable in realism is either dead or aping heterosexual behaviour.” (Dolan, 1989, 163). Although Dolan is talking about the lesbian subject in realism, this theory could also be applied to A Streetcar named Desire. There is not an obviously readable homosexual character in the play, however the character of Blanche tends to go against patriarchy; she is not married and has inherited a property. Blanche also tends to threaten Stanley’s masculine aurora by often going against him. As A Streetcar Named Desire is performed with realism, there is no other alternative for Blanche than for her brutal rape. Then, as if the rape wasn’t punishment enough, she is carted off to a mental institution. Her rejection of patriarchy and masculine domination results in her ultimate tragic fate. This is a great example of realism and its punishment for those who reject patriarchy. Belle Reprieve acts against realism in order to give Blanche a different ending, to prove that she can ‘live happily ever after’ despite her blatant rejection of patriarchy.  Stanley and Blanche proceed to act out the rape scene trying to obey the rules of realism; they follow the original Williams script, with a few added lines for amusement. The decision to perform in realism is made on stage for the audience to witness – which is Brecthian in itself as it breaks the forth wall. During the scene, Blanche halts the realism illusion, questioning whether they have to play this scene, in which Stanley says “You wanted realism”. Blanche and Stanley attempt to stick to ‘natural acting’ yet constantly break realism and slip back into the postmodern. The failed realism acts as a metaphor for Stanley and Blanche failing to perform their biological genders ‘correctly’.

 In conclusion it is clear to see how both Belle Reprieve and You’re just like my father, denaturalize gender norms. Thru both performances post-modern, sporadic style, they are able to fully confront the notion of gender head on; exposing it as being a set of skills that one learns to perform. Both plays take on a Brechtian style; frequently breaking the fourth wall with performers dressing in different outfits, in order to express ‘new’ characters, alter egos or a mood change. Shaw is also used in both performances in order to express how masculinity can easily be performed on a female sexed body; she exposes masculinity for being ‘inauthentic’ proving that, you don’t have to be a biological male in order to possess the skills to perform masculinity. The characters of Stella and Blanche are also used in order to express that femininity too, is a performance. Performing femininity on Blanche’s male body proves that femininity can be applied to anyone, even if you have a penis. And Stella’s sexual exploitation continuously onstage, portrays how femininity is commonly objectified through the male gaze; which is an effect of patriarchy. Both plays force us to focus on specific traits that are applied to each gender binary. Masculinity correlates with dominance, strength, muscles and sport. Whereas femininity connotes, smooth skin, soft features, weakness, and beauty. So, for example, why is body hair considered masculine when women also naturally grow body hair, but are pressured into removing it? Through Belle Reprieve and You’re just like your fathers thought-provoking portrayals of gender, the audience is influenced to turn these gendered traits upside down and question, why femininity only applies to women and masculinity only applies men? The answer simply being, that they do not have too.


De Beauviour, Simone “The second sex” translated and edited by H.M. Parshley. Copyright gallimard, 1949. Vintage 1997, London.

Brecht,  Bertolt, (1898—1956) German dramatist, producer, and poet.

Butler, Judith, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” Theatre Journal (1998)

Dolan, Jill, ‘Lesbian Subjectivity in Realism: Dragging at the Margins of Structure and Ideology’ in Presence and Desire (1989)

Halberstam, Judith, Female Masculinity, Duke University Press, Durham and London 1998.

Halberstam, Judith, The Lesbian Postmodern: “F2M: The Making of Female Masculinity” Edited by Laura Doan. Columbia University Press, New York, 1994.

Mulvey, Laura (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975: 6-18.

Sigmund, Freud, Sexuality and the psychology of love: “Female Sexuality, 1931” Published by Simon and Schuster Inc. 1963, New York.

Sloan, Lisa, UCLA, “A Woman Make a Better Man”: Butch Masculinity in Peggy Shaw’s ‘You’re just like my father’, 2012.

Shakespeare, William, “All the worlds a stage”

Shaw, Peggy, “You’re just like my father” 1994 accessed on 05/01/2016

Split Britches and The Bloolips theatre troupe “Belle Reprieve” 1994, The Drill Hall Arts Centre, London. accessed on 05/01/2016

Williams, Tennessee “A Streetcar Named Desire” 1947.


© Copyright Sian Alexandra Williams 2017. All rights reserved.

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