Judith Butler’s theory of how performance defines gender identity is key to understanding our own exploration of identity, performance and gender in Barbarous Nights. Butler’s essay from her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity raises many of the same universal questions as our text does about how identity is created, understood and performed by the individual, how identity is fragmented, fluid, and un-unfixed, and to what extent we have any power over both the social forces that repress and control our expressions of self and how our gender identity is established in the first place.
What is Gender?
Gender is a “stylized repetition of acts” that are performed by the body as it “actively embodies certain cultural and historical possibilities.” It is not predetermined by an “essence,” but continually materialized when we reproduce and reify the historical and social conventions that give the body meaning. In other words, gender is not an expression of biology or a concrete identity, but created by our individual everyday actions. These performances disappear because they are naturalized and seem grounded in our physical bodies.
Example: The Maiden’s constant work on her embroidery can be conceived not as an expression of her gender identity, but rather as an act that she performs in order to portray femininity that in turn defines her as female based on the cultural values attributed to the act.
How do we know what to perform?
Simone de Beauvoir said that, “the body is a historical situation.” Though each performative gender act is unique, it is based on historical “corporeal styles” that determine how gender is performed again. We are not just performing but “dramatizing and reproducing a historical situation.” We operate according to a “tacit collective agreement to perform,” meaning that while we each perform our gender individually, our behavior is limited by a set of cultural values and social rules that decide what each gender is embodied according to previous performances. “The personal is political” because we are conditioned by the social and culture structures around us, even when we act individually. These acts are rehearsed and have a ritualistic, public dimension because there are consequences when you do not comply with your given gender identity.
How is the performance of gender different than actual theatre?
When we perform our gender, the line between the performance and reality becomes indistinguishable, naturalizing the gender performance while also calling reality into question altogether. There is nothing to delineate the “act” that is performed from real life.
Example: When the Mother blinds her daughter, she alters her physical existence so that she will properly embody her female gender identity according to social custom (not looking at men). While the Maiden is performing her gender through various acts, she is irreversibly blind so that her performance is now her reality. What does it mean when the body is permanently changed to embody a particular gender identity? Does this border on essentialism by presupposing a biological or physical definition of gender? This example exposes not only the violence and pain that results from extremely repressive social conventions that dictate how one performs one’s identity but also the tragic possibility that one’s identity might be permanently constrained by one’s own inability to perform beyond the body’s limitations, once again blurring the line between performance and reality.
Performance theory destabilizes our notion of gender because it asserts that gender does not express any sort of interior “self.” Instead, the self becomes “irretrievably outside,” negating the presence of an true core identity or self. While the elimination of any interior self or predetermined identity can be problematic and disheartening, it is also an incredibly liberating concept that gives a great amount of agency to the individual in his or her everyday life. If gender only exists in so far as we perform it, than we have the potential to change our identity with each new act and expression. Next to the sorrow, fear, emptiness and uncertainty of an identity that is not based on an essential or interior self there is also hope, power and opportunity.
Is there an “essential self”? Is there a difference between our physical self and our “performative self”? Are we ever not performing our identity? How does this performed identity relate to our unconscious, our ego and our superego?
If our “acts” do not solely constitute our identities, what does? What about emotions, instincts, beliefs, desires, fears, dreams, etc. that pre-exist our expressions of them? What relationship do these play to our performances, the social conventions that define them, and our identities in general?
How does Butler’s theory relate to the way gender functions in the script? Does is make this a feminist or anti-feminist text? How does this theory relate to heterosexuality and homosexuality and their respective functions in the play?
How does this theory help us understand the meaning of props, costumes, images, symbols, colors, etc. throughout the play? In general, how does the play call attention to itself as a performance and what does this do?
How do we highlight the perfomative nature of identity and challenge the notion of “reality” when reality only exists in so far as the individual is performing a series of acts?
How might Lorca respond to Butler’s theory? In what ways does Butler's theory challenge Lorca's notions of a dual identity made up of an inner and outer self?
How does Butler’s theory relate to the “fragmented” identity of Buster Keaton in the film? Is there a “real” Keaton besides the public persona as portrayed in his films? Is this suggested by his inability to comprehend life beyond the screen?
What about death? What does it mean to this theory that Buster Keaton realizes death is not a performance while at the same time he draws attention to the end of the actual theatre performance? How does the play overall challenge the difference between performance and reality or challenge the notion of performance as reality?
How might technology alter the way in which Butler’s theory relates to our text?