Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be a Woman?

Is there ‘a’ gender which persons are said to have, or is it an essential attribute that a person is said to be, as implied in the question: ‘What gender are you?’ (Judith Butler, p.10)

Can ‘construction’ … be reduced to a form of choice… that one ‘becomes’ a woman, but always under a cultural compulsion to become one?
(Butler, p.11)

In 1946 Simone de Beaviour asserted: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (de Beauviour, p.21). This leads to further questioning: What is a woman? How does one know if one has become a woman? After being born, does one’s biological and chromosomal arrangement (Butler) hold sway on whether becoming a woman is a viable option?

Is there an option?

In philosophical tradition that begins with Plato and continues through Descartes, Husserl and Sartre, the ontological distinction between soul (consciousness, mind) and body invariably supports relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy… The cultural associations of mind with masculinity and body with femininity are well documented within the field of philosophy and feminism. (Butler, p.17)

In the cradle of Western civilisation, gender politics took root. In Greek myth of Troy, if we know the story at all, we think of battles and Achilles and big strong male warriors. If we try to recall any women, it is Helen – considered to be the epitome of the ‘fair maiden’ – any other women are rendered invisible in his-story.

Consider Helen’s sister, Cassandra, “an illustration of women’s so-called treachery”(Gitzen, p126). An alternative view by historian Christa Wolf rewrites Cassandra not as the ranting half-mad woman of literary tradition but rather an individual who changes and grows and finds new alternatives for living, as the world around her disintegrates.

When she prophesies the downfall of Troy, Cassandra’s insights are dismissed as irrational, emotional and fragile: she is derided by the patriarchy as a ‘hysterical woman’; thrown in gaol, her prophecy ignored - to the peril of the kingdom and the abduction of her sister, Helen.

In the last three centuries of western culture, a hefty amount of critical theory has been written on the subject of ‘woman’. The notable psychoanalytical theories on sexuality and gender difference developed by Sigmund Freud, as well as post-Freudian theorists (most notably Jacques Lacan) created an “arena for discussion in response to the internal needs of feminist debate”(Rose, p.92).

Affinity with psychoanalysis for feminists in accordance to Jacqueline Rose “lies in the acknowledgment of resistance to identity at the very heart of psychic life”(Rose, p.91). For Rose, psychoanalysis becomes one of the few places in our culture where it is recognised as more than a fact that “most women do not painlessly slip into their roles as woman, if indeed they do at all” (ibid).

Male drag, female impersonators and drag kings suggest that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as ‘the real’. Judith Butler asks: Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatise the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?

This ambiguity underpins Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, who shifts between genders:

She remembered how, as a young man, she had
insisted that woman must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.

“Now I shall have to pay in my own person
for those desires,” she reflected, “for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline”(Woolf, p.89).

Woolf’s Orlando explores the constructs of gender, creating an androgynous world in which “the best qualities associated with woman and with man exist, integrating strength with humility, independence with empathy, rationality with intuition, and thought with emotion” (Pearson p.153).

For post-structural feminist artists in the mid-late 1970’s, the prevailing subject of sexuality and gender was increasingly perceived as constructions largely produced through signs of representation. Their work, largely informed by Lacan, examined the construction of difference in visual representation and deployed the use of performance and installation art as political expressions.

Barbara Kruger used text: cut, pasted and juxtaposed over documentary-style photographs with block colours. Her poster-pictures resonated with the history of propaganda. Linguistic ‘shifters’, consisting of the personal pronouns: ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘we’ and ‘you’, are used by Kruger to ask what it is we are being told by advertising and whether or not we are paying attention:

Instead of being invested with the coercive authority of advertising, they [pronouns] begin to reveal ways in which the place of the viewer in language is indefinable, refusing alignment with gender. Rather than ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ positions, there emerges interplay between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ relations (Phelan, p.123).

For artist, filmmaker and writer Laura Mulvey, the language of semiotics holds significant interest. In her 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey explored the messaging of cinematic imagery and narrative. By coining the concept of the heterosexual male gaze, she speculated whether western society was largely constructed of codes and signifiers bound by a patriarchal symbolic order:

Woman [then] stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.

If feminist critical theory and psychoanalytical discourse have deconstructed constructed notions of femininity written from the constructed masculinist point of view, shouldn’t constructs of masculinity ought to come under scrutiny? Without one, there is no other; without either, there is neither; thus gender and sexuality would cease to exist. If this were the case, so-called gender defiance would dissipate and we would simply have oneness: personhood.

Simplified by the language of dualities, sex and gender have historically been coded, coupled, contained and compartmentalised into binary structures of female-male, girl-boy, woman-man and masculine-feminine. These coded couplings present a black and white theoretical framework for debate where “compulsory heterosexuality” (Foucault, p85) only served to push societal expectations of conformity onto designated gender norms and sexual identity.

Identity’ is assured through stabilising concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality; the very notion of ‘the person’ is called into question by the cultural emergence of those ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined( Butler, p23).

Fluidity of gender and sexual identity informs the conceptual framework for Del LaGrace Volcano, whose photographic narratives explore the “morphing of female sexual identity through performances created for the camera” (Marsh p 210). By referencing historical representations of the woman as subject to the male gaze, his photographs “punctuate optical histories of the female subject” (ibid).

Describing himself as a ‘gender terrorist’, Volcano claims to “subvert, destabilise and challenge the binary gender system.” This “masquerade for the camera” (Marsh, p211) displays masculinity within the biology of woman thus gender–blending the female not so much into the male, but rather to an ‘other’, introducing a third trans-gendered person.

This ‘other’ has informed my work. I began by looking at myself in context to historical representations of ‘woman’: idealised, objectified and some may say “posited as something that the male experiences, a possession, object or phenomenon delivered up to him” (Nunn, p.142)

The dichotomy of the woman as wife – mother, domestic goddess - adulteress, object – prostitute, opened up an investigation of gender constructs in western culture that could be seen as designs to define ‘identity’ into binary structures of feminine and masculine.

Initially using myself as the subject in my photographs as a way of both representing ‘woman’ and of ‘self’, I began to explore how I look at myself, how I think others look at me, and how I could be viewed.

As a girl, I was a tomboy. Interestingly, it seems that what’s tolerated in girls becomes taboo in adolescence. The crossing over into pubescence is riddled with the politics (and ambiguities) of gender.

In my research, I have found virtually no representation of the tomboy in the history of visual arts. There are plenty of images of girls, notably the imagery of Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret-Cameron.

In childhood and in puberty, girls and young women are usually portrayed as highly feminised and/or sexualised. But just try to find visual representations that focus on the tomboy?

Drawing on Marsh whose comparison of Cameron and Carroll, one male and one female, both photographers who use girls as subject during the Victorian era of pictorialism.
Opening up the issue of “theatricality and the masquerade of femininity directed by the photographer”, Marsh in turn draws upon Lindsey Smith who quotes Helmut Gernshiem as proof of a patriarchal writing of femininity:

Mrs Cameron was urged on by great ambition, and her work is the expression of an ardent temperament. Lewis Carroll had no ambition; his art springs from delight in the beautiful; he is feminine and light-hearted in his approach to photography, whereas she is masculine and intellectual. (Marsh, p.137)

The word “Tomboy” originated in England in the 1500s. A derivative of ‘Hoyden’, it meant “a rude, boisterous or forward boy” (Oxford English Dictionary p.211). In the 1570s the term shifted from characterising rambunctious, spunky, young men to like-minded individuals of the opposite gender.

Morphing again in the 1590s and unlike the innocent playful connotations the term possessed when it referred to an actual boy, a tomboy now began to signify a “bold and immodest woman” (211). The term ‘tomboy’ continued to shift its essential meaning. In the 1600s, ‘tom’ was common slang for both prostitute and servile black person; ‘tomcat’ was a sexual predator; a ‘tomfool’ a clown. The word transformed again to its current definition: “a girl who behaves like spirited (or boisterous) boy; a wild romping girl; a hoyden” (OED p.212).

The topic of the tomboy is an area I am keen to navigate. There is a rich and largely ignored history here that seeks representation. If the notion of gender defiance is lurking in the shadows, I want to shine a torch, shout ‘boo’ and see what emerges.

Who was I now – man or woman? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices… (Feinberg, p.222)


  1. Lesley, those two ' tomboys' are really beautiful.

  2. lesley, this post is awesome. i can't tell you how much i'm 'in' this discourse at the moment - wrestling with how to present a heterosexuality that isn't the 'shapelle' look. in fact, each time i rea about your tomboys, i wish that you were doin' this stuff when i was a little girl. it was all lego, books and drawing materials in my 'stuff'.

    and, having seen those gorgeous tomboys, i think i might have another contact for ya. i'll send her mum a link to your site and hopefully she'll get in touch.

  3. 'wrestling'- now there's a sport!!
    Well, more tomboys is awwwlll i am about at the moment...Looking looking..thnaks L for feedback and the poss contact.

  4. This is an amazing piece of text Lesley. My knowledge of gender and feminism is restricted to a couple of chapers of Beavour's The Second Sex, a very interesting art history lecture, and lot's of Buffy.

    This raised every question I have ever considered. How you condensed such an enormous topic into one comprehensible and readable essay is beyond my comprehension. I hope that someday I can do the same.

    This must be printed and read in your final review.

    You are a powerful artist and it has been a pleasure watching the process and development over the last three years. I look forward to more of your writing and ideas and art for years to come.

    Give yourself a huge pat on the back. This is the real deal.