Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading at NYU Abu Dhabi of Dry Land, a play by Ruby Ray Spiegel. The play is set in a highschool girls’ locker room, and is a coming of age story centered on the topic of abortion. Having grown up in a conservative culture, one can imagine my initial surprise when hearing the word ‘vagina’ being spoken aloud. Other topics of conversation include sex and their period. It occurred to me that I had rarely, if ever, heard these topics being spoken aloud openly in public with a mixed gendered audience (though granted, a closed space may be considered a private space). But wait, what’s wrong with saying “vagina” anyways? Honestly, absolutely nothing. My reaction however is a testament to how its meaning goes beyond a simple definition that is tied to the physical body.
Beyond being simply words, they are identifiers; labels attached to an individual. Yet they drag a whole script along with them. To be a girl, is to have grown up playing with Barbie dolls, wanting to live in a princess castle, being good at cooking, etc. When Simone de Beauvoir claims that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” she appropriates gender to be an identifier that is not static. From the moment of birth – and perhaps even before – there is a gender label attached to the body. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is a simple question that can be translated in many possible ways. On a biological and physical level, it asks if the newborn has a peinis or a vagina. On a familial level perhaps it means whether parents invest in football or ballet. Should the socks be blue or pink? With the association of a gender comes a whole series stereotypes and perceptions attached with it. These can exist within a large community or even between two people, representing that there is ultimately a cultural governing system enforced on the body. Narcissister exaggerates the body and sexuality to convey the absurdity of gender as a social construct.
One could only imagine my reaction to the work of Narcissister. I do not recall quite exactly what my first response or feelings were. I do recall, however, being incredibly confused as to what I was seeing. Her work is bizarre, expressive, outspoken…. and also enlightening. Having been tagged as ‘the topless feminist superhero New York needs,’ Narcissister is an anonymous performance artist whose work centers on race and sexuality. She frequently wears plastic and a mask that bears the likeness of a Barbie doll. What plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings all have in common is that they have a strong presence in Narcissister’s performance titled Every Woman. Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” plays throughout the piece while Narcissister, who appears like a live mannequin, moves to the music while she places her hands below her hips and near her crotch. She then begins to perform a reverse strip tease, “slowly redresses herself from clothing she pulls out of various bodily orifices” (Narcissister). Here, Naracissister is seen critiquing society on the ways the female body is sexualized. As she pulls the red stocking out from her and wears them, she empowers her own self by being the source of the clothing and also the ones who gets to put them on. She has her own agency in what she wears, how she wears it, and what she chooses to do with it. Instead of teasing her clothes off, she chooses to start naked and covered in plastic. This sense of a being a live mannequin whose face resembles some Barbie dolls, announces her identity to be conflicted between what femininity means to her versus what is means societally. Her body is torn both real and ‘fake’ yet ultimately the human body is material. This is reminiscent of Riviere’s notion that “femininity is a masquerade” (Hughes 90).
We grow up with thinking gender is simple to understand. It is not complicated. It is as simple as walking into a toys store and there are sections marked clearly labeling which toys are for the boys, and which ones are for the girls. Gender and its associations are dictated for us. If we defy or step out of this script that is constructed for us, it is out of the ordinary or even taboo, and we risk exclusion from society. The truth of the matter is that gender is complicated. What if I have a vagina but choose to identify as male? Or do I really have to fit into either male or female tick-boxes? Narcissister’s exaggerative style of performance art is indeed provocative. She has chosen a style and forms within her pieces to express the absurdity of the definitions tied to gender. Butler speaks of how to “de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities,” which is what Narcissister attempts to do as well (Butler). She recognizes her body to be her own, but also uses her body as a text to speak for the influences society has. She recognizes her body as material and uses it to represent the conflict of self-identification.
So then what exactly is gender? Is it the label or the associations made or both, none, something else? Gender is complicated, but in trying to understand it, I choose to side with Butler’s take on its definition. Butler believes that gender is simply “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being” (Salih 1).