Gender, performance, performativity, and the stage

As I was scrolling through facebook this morning I saw a link to an NPR story “Laura Jane Grace, Transgender Punk, On Life In Transition“, which turned out to be a beautiful conducted and written interview on the transition of Laura Jane Grace, the frontperson/singer of Almost Me!, a punk group that I had not actually heard of (academia doesn’t leave one much time for getting deep into the contemporary punk scene apparently) until this morning, but that I am very much intrigued by now.

The reason I even clicked on the link, however, was not because I am a fan (see above re: knowing nothing about current punk) but because of the tagline featured above a picture of the band, a tagline which is not a direct quote from the piece but an interesting way to frame the piece, and gender/transitioning in general:

NPR performance fb

shameless screenshot from the NPR facebook page.

“I don’t have to think,” Laura Jane Grace says of performing as a woman. “I can just be and exist.”

What the “performing as a woman” refers to is the on-stage presence of Grace. The actual question and answer from the article are as follows:

MARTIN: And performing is better for you now?

GRACE: Of course. It’s what it was when I started out, as far as being a joyful experience and what I live for. I don’t have to think; I can just be and exist.

But written the way it is on the facebook page “performing as a woman” has connotations beyond the idea of performance as a punk star. To me, at least, it referenced the idea of performing gender as described by Judith Butler:

The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance. If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance. (Gender Trouble 175)

I am by no means insinuating that what Grace is doing is drag—her performance on stage is not one of gender-bending, her gender is female and the anatomy is irrelevant—but that what the NPR screenshot suggests that she has found her comfort zone. Being on stage as a man was probably far more of a taxing performance in terms of the performative nature of gender, whereas having self-identified (even calling the latest album Transgender Dysphoria Blues) and begun the transition process, Grace has become her full self and is able to focus the performance on the music, rather than the image that someone plagued by dysphoria would likely feel they had to project. This is what the second half of the Butler quote above alludes to: prior to transition, Grace would have felt the distinction of sex (male) and gender (feminine) internally, as well as the disconnect of the performed gender (masculine) for the sake of the audience. Now that all line up (not that I know the extent of the physical transformation, but again, anatomy is less of a concern here*) Grace can focus on the rest of her life, and partake in the “joyful experience[s]” that can be marred by the need to be consciously aware of who your audience is and what they might be thinking.

*To those who might argue that anatomy is important to this process, I’m sure for some it might be… but our ideas about the binary nature of sex and gender and the links between the two are outdated at best and extremely harmful at worst. They are what force families into making uninformed decisions on behalf of intersexed children, and they are what keep many from leading full lives in the way in which they need. Serendipitously (because I wasn’t following but someone retweeted) I saw this on twitter just as I was sitting down to write this:


Genitals = sex, Gender = heart, mind, body, soul, love, hate…. and anything else you might feel shapes you. If the only thing that shapes you is what you see between your legs you lead a pretty small, sad existence.

just when you think it might get better…

… you hear about this panel at the MLA and want to tear your hair out. But at least the fabulous TheProfessorIsIn and the equally wonderful pankisseskafka have already written take-downs of the sheer idiocy and lack of touch with reality that one would have to live in in order to actually believe that not shrinking, nay, perhaps even expanding(!) graduate programs is the right path at the moment.

I’m not going to add any more, I just thought I should post this as a sort of addendum to earlier post of MLA-happiness. The reasons the MLA was good for me were not the reasons it was good for those who are entrenched in a system that has already failed. They were good because I saw old friends and found new ones with whom I feel a sort of solidarity (even if I only know them by their twitter handles!). And no, none of them are the ones quoted in the first article. (Except theProfessorIsIn, of course, who is quoted as being anti-everything the panel stood for.)

How I learned to stop worrying and love the MLA

This past weekend was the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago, a site (albeit nomadic) that fills most early career faculty/graduate students with dread. Last year, my first “real” year on the market (aka my first year with MLA interviews), I felt that dread. I soaked in the anxiety of everyone around me (and yes, it is palpable in those hotel lobbies). I expected this year to be no different.

And yet, it was. I had three times the interviews that I had last year, which I believe is mostly due to two factors: a) the market, while still absolutely shite, is improving, or at least appears to be; and b) I’m in a much better position professionally than I was last year. I also bunked with a dear friend from my MA days on-site (instead of staying with equally dear, non-academic friends an hour away), met up with other colleague-friends nightly, and sat in on several conference panels, including session 418 on “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia”, the live-tweets of which (mine included) you can see under hashtag #s418. That session, in particular, made me feel both not alone, and even more like shouting about injustices from the roof-tops.

My interviews went well, I think. Under the harsh light of day I am of course starting to second guess almost everything I said, but at the time I thought they went well. Never perfect, I’m sure of at least one flub I made, but I was much more relaxed than last year and acted far more like myself, something of which I am quite proud. Sure, they’re nerve-wracking—this is my potential future we’re talking about—but, like this blog, if you don’t want ME as a colleague based on something I’ve said or written, it probably wouldn’t work out in the long-term anyway. Some of my previous blog-posts, which, if you just interviewed me, you may be on your way to check out now, probably sound angry (and at times they are) but that drive to improve this thing we call The Profession won’t go away even if I do get one of the rather fancy jobs for which I just interviewed. We deserve better, and our students do too. If you still don’t believe that, perhaps you’d like to check out this piece by Richard Moser on the Chronicle?

Panem et circenses: Honey Boo-Boo

I’m home visiting family, which for me means that I spend some of my time helping out with my nana, who, all things considered, is in very good shape for someone who is over 90. But she still has health issues from time to time and has appointments with various doctors regularly. Generally it falls to my mom, who is the only child/grandchild in the same city (and province for that matter) who isn’t employed/in school full time, to drive her around, take her to appointments, gether groceries, etc, etc. This can be, as one might imagine, somewhat exhausting after a time. I lived closer and was able to be home a lot more last year (see: un/underemployed), now it seems that we will only be able to get in every 6 months or so. Point being, when I’m here, I try to alleviate some of the work for my mom so she can do her own thing sometimes too (her own thing, for the record, is being a pretty kick-ass artist).

Ok, so yesterday I took nana to the drs, and then to the drugstore, and then home for tea. Tea with nana = philosophical/political discussions and tea. And probably biscuits or chocolates or something. So sometimes (a lot of times) tea with nana = awesome. Nana is also slowly losing her sight, which is sad because she was a voracious reader up until 2 or 3 years ago, reading 2-3 books a week and several newspapers every day. The love of literature thing runs in the family around here. So whereas often our conversations would have centered around something she had read recently, now they often come from something that she heard/watched on radio or tv. Yesterday she brought up Honey Boo-Boo. Full disclosure: I have never watched a full episode of Honey Boo-Boo, but I have seen clips and I did mention it in a lecture last year. Apparently, however, there was a Honey Boo-Boo marathon on tv on New Year’s Day and nana happened to catch an episode or two.

The conversation went something like this (I’m editing the times I had to repeat since nana is also a little hard of hearing):

Nana: Why would the US want to broadcast something like that?
Me: I don’t know… entertainment purposes?
Nana: But do people find it entertaining? It just seemed a little… silly.
Me: Well, it is a narrative. They’re poor, uneducated… maybe it’s what they want people to see.
Nana: But do they really want the rest of the world to think that they’re all like that?
Me: … (thinking) Maybe they do. The political argument in the US is that if you are uneducated you’re poor because you didn’t work hard. So that’s the narrative they want to project. A TV show that followed around super-educated but poor people wouldn’t be as funny because it would be a harsh look at reality. Take the salary I was offered [and eventually walked away from] last year: $2300 per class to teach 2 classes with no guarantee of work in the Spring. $4600 (minus taxes and other deductions) for 4 months of work. With a PhD. Would anyone want to watch that “reality”?

There was further discussion about whether some of the audience could relate or whether most viewers were just watching for the laughs, but the point that echoes in my mind is that Honey Boo-Boo (and it’s ilk) is, in a way, suppressing the revolution. No one cares how they live because they “deserve” it (note: I’m not actually saying that they do or don’t, again I haven’t watched the show, I’m just riffing on the idea that circulates in US politics that everyone gets what they work for) and it is entertaining. Watching someone that has been in school for over a decade, working hard at something they are passionate about, only to be paid to educate your children for far below minimum wage would be far too difficult.

Until we get it out there, until we force people to see the reality that adjuncts live in (and not just other academics, I think most of us/them are painfully aware now… although there are a few hangers on that still need convincing) the myth of the ivory tower will continue to blot out any truth we try to speak.

So, anyone up for their own reality show?