by Mirra Kardonne
If I could remove femininity from my gender performance, I would.
And come to think of it, I could.
While we’re on the topic, I’d like not to perform.
Finally, gender isn’t real.
I recently came across this quote by J.G.Ballard, English science-fiction (apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic) novelist: “But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.”
We really are magnificent. Only something as tremendous and incalculable as the human brain could harness something as transient and enigmatic as the individual personality. That immaterial, ectoplasmic goo (as it were), that makes every person essentially different from the other.
What a privilege, to have a healthy body and mind, to be a feminist, and to thus be afforded the space and the inclination to chisel away at my ‘personality’. Disentangling myself from the parasitic ideas of gender imparted on me, breaking down those parts of my personality I didn’t agree to, while building up the parts I do. Whether it’s obvious to the world or not, I do this constantly.
And yet, here I am, having already done considerable work on stripping away old facades, painfully attempting to undo the familiar behaviours that create ‘woman’–not only because the burden of performativity is oppressive to females, but because it felt oppressive even as I unknowingly performed them– and I realize I’m nowhere near done. The victory of climbing up so many ladders only to fall down a snake’s throat and land halfway down the board. Sometimes, at this point I’d like to quit the game entirely. What do I really get, if I win?
Even with a raised consciousness, how much of my personality is truly mine? What did I come with, what then was I conditioned to think? Is my body mine, or it a vehicle for performance? If it isn’t, how do I live with it?
Every time I speak, I think about my voice. Am I speaking from by belly, or my throat? Notice the difference in pitch, and what that difference communicates. Does the sound ring in my skull, or vibrate in my nose? one is shriller, the other more resonant. Is one coming more easily, one more laboured? When I think this hard about anything, the next move is always an unnatural one.
What about the words I’m saying? How saturated are my S’s and T’s, how round are my O’s? If there’s even a hint of twang on my vowels, that will make my manner sound affected. How utterly feminine.
Or, trying to decrypt the message of my walk. I’m trying to stand straight and tall, a powerful stance– except this means I lead with my breasts. Is it better to shrug? My hips swagger when I walk…is it natural? Should I move fast or slow? I hardly know. Now THAT is what I call performance! Scrutinizing the minutiae of simply speaking a phrase, or walking to work. I resent this labour. But then again, I already did this work once before (or maybe many times, unknowingly).
Society entrusted to my parents the endeavour of raising a newborn female. I learned to inhabit the identity of ‘girl’, of ‘tween’, of ‘teenage girl’, of ‘college girl’, to whomever I was before I became positively sick from the poison of performance, of patriarchal condescension and my subsequent relationship to and expectations from that system. Sick of participating with my peers in the contrivances of a society that renders a female into a contestant in a perpetual dog-and-pony show — unwittingly entered, vying for a prize that may never be truly enjoyed by the contestants (namely, safety and personhood), but by our countless handlers– in this case, the unchallenged perpetrators of patriarchy.
Of course, it’s not ‘men’ that ‘women’ are expected to perform for, but for Society. The larger surveillance that everyone, males included, feel. And the goalposts are always moving: hit this target to be considered a real “Insert Gender Title”. Oops. It’s moved to the left. Try again. And whomever this is harder for– ‘men’ or ‘women’– it is the females who chiefly suffer. In this moment of popularized feminism, the subsequent backlash takes the form of patriarchy-sanctioned sexual violence made trendy by social media, the disturbing trend of females renouncing feminism as an unsexy, obsolete or (ironically) oppressive system; and each of these violent gestures could rightly be perceived as a warning to males to remember that they are Men and to Act Like It Or Else, and as a warning to females that with resistance comes devastating collateral damage that will not only endanger our bodies and minds, but will pit us against each other.
Poor us, we live in confusing times for those trying to construct a ungendered personality. Care about your weight! Don’t care about your weight! Care about your clothes! Don’t care about your clothes! Care about Global Warming! Don’t care about Veganism! Care about the Middle East! Don’t care about Feminism! Each will, overtly or subtly, determine where you land on that mythical ‘gender spectrum’, which is a spectrum between two extremes. In order to be deemed worthy of attention, or at least, not worthy of scorn, you must stay close enough to the fringe of your assigned side as to be identifiable; but far enough so that you can be empathetic to your Other, who should be equally as close/far to their side as you are to yours. The gap between you is the non-understanding that you each possess of your Other. And the gap must remain, because crossing it would diminish those crucial boundaries that separate ‘men’ from ‘women’. In which case, our only essential difference would be our not-all-that-different different bodies. And where’s the dominance there?
Again, (and again), I embark on the confusing, disheartening work of undoing yet another layer of my own conditioning. I don’t know where to start. I think that underneath (and in even writing so, I acknowledge my hunch that there is an ‘underneath’ to my ‘surface’) I am– we all are — fundamentally magnificent. Under the burden of constant performance, of dancing to the music of a vicious system that seeks to control what we eat, how much we weigh, how much we spend, how we communicate, even the substance of your voices, our values; Ballards quote is, to me, best expressed not as poetry, but as prayer:
“…reality itself was a stage that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.”