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Gender and Goliath: the Performance of Identity

February 24, 2010

I can quite easily think of opposites, but it isn’t men and women. – Dame Rebecca West

Photo via themakeupgallery

In 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow wrapped up her hair and took to the stage pretending to be a young man, portraying a young woman. In Shakespeare’s time (and though it would seem superfluous to mention that we’re no longer in Shakespeare’s time, it would appear that the Globe theatre only just got the memo), women were not allowed on the stage for a variety of possible reasons. The first one that historians are likely to point out is the age-old mentality of theatre being ‘a man’s job’. But that’s just one side of it.

Consider this: men wanted to sweep the stage clear of women not only because of some ego-related paradigm but because it allowed them to control how the public viewed women. Whether it was by dressing men in skirts and making them look like bumbling idiots or by using man-substitutes in romantic parts to keep actual female sexuality locked behind bedroom doors, playwrights successfully kept their stranglehold on the all-male cast, and in particular, a stranglehold on feminine identity as well.

Maybe it was the idea of a permanent Venus—a beauty that was unchanging, hidden away, and one that they didn’t have to share with the rest of the world. If Shakespeare and friends controlled identity, is it safe to say that they controlled gender? Sure, it’s a slippery slope but the idea of manufactured sex is nothing new and we can see it starting to fall apart just by looking at contemporary theatre.

Now, I’m not saying that actors go out of their way to throw stones at the glass house called gender, but maybe because of the medium that they perform in, they don’t actually have to. As I was walking up to the library the other day listening to Lady Gaga teach me about the woes of the paparazzi, I started thinking about how refreshing a performer she seems to be. When you think about it, she isn’t doing anything revolutionary music wise—her pop songs have certainly got the hooks and are ridiculously popular, but I think the curious appeal comes from the fact that nobody can quite pin her down.

In other words, she owns her identity.

Lady Gaga Photo via Extratv.Warner Brothers

Her performances are glitzy, her costumes seem to have come from another world, and nearly every aspect of her production seems to belong to a theatric setting. It’s almost enough to convince anyone that not that much has ch-ch-ch-changed since David Bowie and his universe took the world by storm. Like Michael Jackson before her, Gaga’s success seems to have taken its cue from theatre. But while performing on a giant floating piano in front of the Queen is enough to impress anyone, there must be something else going on here.

Alright, I didn’t actually think I’d be able to make it through my first column without saying something controversial so here it is: theatre performers get more respect than film actors. Now it’s tough to say if that’s a result of Hollywood’s reputation of corruption or just because theatre has been around longer. Whatever the case, I think it boils down to how well a person can portray (or become) an identity. In film, gender’s still quite the brick house and studios and production houses are tied down with tropes and conventions which makes escaping the stereotypes that popular culture tells us we should love, near impossible. On the other hand, theatre is a free market.

Photo via Walnut Street Theatre

Think Peter Pan. Nearly every theatre production of this show has a woman portraying the title character. Though originally this casting had to do with the wires being more able to support the weight of a woman than a man, one would assume that technology by now would have found a way around that barrier. Perhaps playwrights kept the tradition alive because they realized that females could construct gender just as well as males can.

And that’s the fundamental difference between theatre and film. On the stage, the performers are aware of their own ability to cross-dress and gender bend and that by doing so, they are more able to explore their own identity, unrestricted, and unguided. Conversely, film dishes gender out on a plate, so that while the actors are playing dress up too, there is permanence in the masquerade that lasts much longer than the end credits, and ultimately leaks into mainstream perceptions of the individual.

But what does it all mean? If theatre is less rule/convention heavy than film and doesn’t have the encumbrance of studio giants breathing down its necks, then perhaps it can represent (or at least, has potential to represent) a truer version of reality. These implications might have helped lead Laurence Senelick to declare, “all gender is masquerade!” (for the record, I put the exclamation point in there, but as Elaine Benes might say, it seemed worthy of it).

Whether on the stage or on the street, gender has always existed as a product of a variety of building blocks. If we can follow theatre’s cue and figure out ways to put the blocks together ourselves, perhaps we’ll find the answer to the question of Lady Gaga’s popularity—like most celebrities, the public wants her in the spotlight so they can put a label on her. Funny then, when her stay in stardom carries on because they realize that no such label exists.

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