Self and Society: This discussion explores how individuality is theorized as a consequence of public presentation, specifically considering its relation to gender.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the concept of 'identity' with a specific focus on 'gender'. It begins by providing a brief historical overview of gender within the context of identity. The essay then delves into the idea that 'gender' can be perceived as a performance, discussing two similar yet distinct arguments. It examines Goffman's notion of 'self' and how it relates to the performance of 'gender identity', as well as Butler's concept of 'gender performativity' in shaping one's 'gendered identity'. Throughout the essay, Brandon Teena's life, a transgender teenager who was tragically murdered in America, is utilized as an example to illustrate the notion of performing gender. The film titled 'Boys Don't Cry' (Pierce, K 20...
00) portrays the true story of a young man who relocates to Falls City, Nebraska in pursuit of a fresh start.
The film Boys Don't Cry depicts a story where a young person gains the love and friendship of new acquaintances, including a young girl who develops romantic feelings for them. Unfortunately, their life is tragically cut short in a violent manner after their true identity is revealed. This tragedy highlights how contemporary Western society often perceives gender as strictly male or female based on biological factors. Such importance is placed on defining one's 'gender' that individuals born with ambiguous genitalia may undergo gender reassignment surgery shortly after birth to assign them a specific gender.
The concept of "gender" becomes complex when considering transgender, transsexual, homosexual, or cross-dressing individuals. For these social groups, the idea of "gender as
public presentation" is extremely relevant. According to Goffman, a renowned theorist, life can be compared to theater where human behavior is greatly influenced by how they present themselves to others. Goffman argues that the "self" is shaped through public presentation and is ascribed by the audience. This ascription becomes deeply rooted in the individual's mind. Goffman explains that a well-executed and performed scene leads the audience to perceive a character with a distinct identity; however, this identity – this self – is a result of the scene itself and not its cause (Goffman, E. 1959 pp.244-247).
According to Goffman, the authorship of 'gender' as public presentation is not specified. However, he sees the entirety of the 'self' as a public presentation. I believe that his ideas can easily be applied to analyzing 'gender' as a result of public presentation since most individuals identify themselves as male or female. Goffman proposes that people take on various roles depending on their circumstances, such as being a partner, sibling, student, or in terms of gender - male or female. Goffman emphasizes that what matters is not having one true self but rather presenting oneself publicly.
Goffman suggests that individuals "manage" their public presentation by employing various strategies, which I will discuss in more detail within the context of "gender presentation" and with specific reference to Brandon Teena's example. These strategies, also referred to as "managerial" tools, include props, roles, and audience engagement. Props, or what Goffman calls "Personal front," encompass various elements such as clothing, age, race, body language, and speech patterns (Goffman, E. 1959 p.34).
Brandon Teena, the main character in my illustration, uses various props to help him present
himself as a male. For example, there is a scene where he dresses up and transforms into his male role by wearing male clothing, using tape to flatten his chest, and adding embroidery to his groin to change his appearance. These physical props contribute to his gender presentation. In addition, Brandon also employs stereotypically "male" body positions, speech patterns, and gestures, such as swaggering and using rough language.
These different aspects come together in what Goffman refers to as the "front region" or the "back region/backstage." The front region is where the performance takes place and where the audience observes the role being played. It is an effort to maintain and embody certain standards. On the other hand, the back region is where all the preparation takes place, including any construction and behind-the-scenes work that is not suitable for public viewing. In this backstage area, the impression fostered by the performance is intentionally contradicted. (Goffman, E.)
In 1959 (pp.109-140), Brandon considered the "front part" as any situation where his 'gender' was being scrutinized and he was in the presence of others. Whenever there were people watching him, his 'gender performance' had to be taken into account. His "wing," on the other hand, referred to his own private space such as a bathroom or bedroom where his true 'biological body' is not visible and where he can freely express his 'male' identity. The main purpose of the audience is to validate his performance.
The performing artist is requesting to be taken seriously and asking the audience to believe in what they are showcasing. By persuading the audience, they are presenting the genuine world and their performance
is considered their authentic self. As a result, the individual is seeking to be evaluated based on their gender, which is regarded as a significant outcome in itself (Goffman, E. 1959 pp.28-32).
In the movie 'Boys Don't Cry', Brandon seeks validation for his 'gender performance' from his new friends, acting out typically male activities like 'bumper surfing' in Falls City. This is how he proves his masculinity and looks for approval from his audience, confirming his male identity. In conclusion, according to Goffman's ideas about the 'self' as a result of performance, I have shown that 'gender' needs to be enacted and acknowledged by the audience. Regardless of whether someone is biologically male/female or transgender/transsexual, it is clear that props, roles, and audiences all play a part in presenting 'gender' and establishing a sense of 'gender identity'.
Both Goffman and Butler perceive 'gender' as a public performance. However, Butler takes it a step further by proposing that 'gender' is not real; there is only one body, the human body, and 'gender' is an artificial concept. Butler introduces the notion of "performativity" into the 'performance of gender', which implies that words are not merely statements but also actions. Additionally, Butler argues that without language, 'gender' would have no meaning. To comprehend this assertion means to acknowledge that Butler challenges both the idea of sex as biologically male/female and the societal construction of sex/'gender'. According to Butler, biological 'sex' does not determine the construction of 'gender'; being biologically 'female' does not automatically equate to having a feminine 'gender'.
According to Butler (1999, p.10), the stability of biological sex does not determine that only males can be constructed as "men" or
only females as "women." Gender is instead formed through language, with gendered language being responsible for identifying individuals as 'men' or 'women'.
The text highlights the role of language in determining a baby's gender identity from birth. Butler argues that a baby's biological sex does not necessarily determine its gender identity. The initial vocalization, such as "congratulations, you have a beautiful baby boy," is considered performative by Butler. This means it not only states a fact but also shapes the baby's gender identity. This vocalization has an impact on various aspects of the baby's life, including their nursery color and clothing choices. It may even influence whether the baby receives a "male" or "female" name. The movie "Boys Don't Cry" exemplifies this idea through scenes featuring Brandon Teena ice skating.
Brandon meets a young girl and they quickly start skating together. They then go outside and become intimate before the young girl realizes that Brandon is actually biologically female. Brandon is then chased by a group of males to a trailer park where he is with his brother. While hiding, the group of males are shouting abuse. Brandon's brother confronts him and says, "You're a lesbian, why can't you just admit you're a lesbian?" (Pearce, K.).
200). When Brandon's brother says, "You're a butch," he is not simply stating the perceived fact that Brandon is a lesbian. According to Butler, that statement performs actions; what Brandon's brother is actually saying is, "You are a lesbian, act like a lesbian. Date girls as a girl, dress as a girl, and talk as a girl." Similarly, there are numerous scenes where Brandon's new friends make comments like, "You're one hell
of a guy" or "You're one crazy guy," and once again those statements perform an action or actions. For Butler, the noun 'guy' becomes the verb 'guy'.
The argument can be made in these illustrations that 'gendered linguistic communication ' plays a role in shaping individuality. Without language, gender would lack meaning. According to Butler, "performativity must be understood not as a singular or considered 'act,' but, instead, as the repetitive and citational pattern by which discourse produces the effects that it names" (Butler, J. 1993 p.2). I have demonstrated that the notion of a biologically determined 'gender' is questionable when examined outside the context of the binary sex model; sex does not equal 'gender'. Building on Goffman's statement, the 'self' or 'gender identity' is a result of presentation where the audience attributes a sense of self based on the performance.
In my illustration, I showed that Brandon's 'gender individuality' could be seen as a result of how he presented himself publicly as a male. If his public appearance had not been acknowledged, he likely would have redefined his sense of self and gender identity. Similar to Goffman's theory, Butler also argues that 'gender' is attributed to an individual, not solely based on presentation, but also through everyday language about gender. To apply Butler's ideas to my illustration, Brandon's family initially gave him his 'gender' as a 'woman', but then his friends recognized and accepted his chosen 'gender' as a 'man'. Butler explains that this fluidity in gender allows for the creation of new gender categories, expanding the possibilities of what gender entails. As Butler states, "unresolved adjectives work retroactively to redefine the substantial individualities they are
said to modify and, therefore, to spread out the substantial classs of gender to include possibilities that they antecedently excluded" (Butler, J.).
Butler (1999, p.33) states that 'gender' transforms itself with the emergence of new 'labels' or categories in popular discourse, such as homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, transvestic, hermaphroditic, and so on. Goffman and Butler both agree that 'gender' is merely an illusion; the only undeniable truth is our shared humanity.
- Pierce, K. (Director). (2000). Boys Don't Cry [Motion Picture]. United States: Hart-Sharp Entertainment. [Review of the motion picture 'Boys Don't Cry]. Retrieved 2nd May 2008 from http://www.mymovies.net/synopsis/default.asp?filmid=132&s=3&n=3
- Elliott, A. (2007). Concepts Of The Self.
Second Edition. Cambridge: Civil order.
(1993). Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of "Sex". London: Routledge.
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