tl;dr Passive performance is a theory of performance which accepts that gender in Western society is interpreted through a binary lens and so refuses to engage with the practice of manipulation that would reinforce the gender binary.
If you can’t tell, the past few months have been a transition for this blog. As I have been moving out of an educational setting into an attempted professional one, I have been finishing up my reflections on my course, tying up some loose ends I’ve wanted to discuss for a while, and am now repositioning myself as someone outside of an institution. Ouf.
As part of that, I am adding a more theoretical component to this blog. My art is deeply linked with an artistic and academic theory-building. It is an important part of who I am and how I make. So, I intend to start monthly discussions of theory I am developing and try to demonstrate how it informs my work. These may be a little bit longer and more academically inclined than my more personal writing, but I hope I can still make it accessible to anyone who is interested.
I’m going to start with the theories I developed for my independent project, “Construction Zone”, and we’re going to start with passive performance because it’s a great way to just nip the inevitable Judith Butler tangent in the bud before it happens.
“Performativity” was developed by Judith Butler, very well-known in gender theory (and quite often strongly hated by trans people, I can’t say I love her at all). She uses the term of “self-stylization” to describe how individuals build their gender, as opposed to having gender as an innate, essential trait (1990/2004, p. 94). More interestingly, she discusses how interpretation is part of this construction. Someone’s gender is as much about how it is perceived and interpreted through social constraints as how it is presented. From there, it is possible for someone to manipulate another’s perception of their gender. We can make choices to navigate and control the limitations of gender interpretation.
However, an unavoidable limitation in Western society to gender interpretation is the Gender Binary (ew). Butler suggests that a nonbinary gender is impossible, because gender is interpreted by society and society only sees two genders (Butler, 1987/2004). I’m, of course, a nonbinary person sitting here and going “how the hell do I exist then?” and that’s kind of where the whole theory falls apart.
Performativity is an extremely flawed concept (I highly recommend reading Julia Serano’s “Performance Piece” and “Julia Serano on Judith Butler” which both discuss Butler and the ways she’s been misinterpreted in a sympathetically critical light), but it is useful because it recognizes the role of interpretation in gender presentation and allows for us to consider the possibility of manipulation.
So, if nonbinary people aren’t recognized in Western society, how can a nonbinary person manipulate others perceptions of them in order to perform a nonbinary gender?
The usual way this happens is by “mixing” gender presentations – drag, not-quite-drag, someone in a suit and high heels, cute boys in dresses, etcetcetc. The person takes bits and pieces from each side of the gender binary until they’re significantly “between” enough to not belong in either category.
While I recognize this does work to an extent, I question its long-term impact. Simply put, this manipulation is completely dependent on the Gender Binary, so it is still, in many ways, a binary expression, just in between the two points on a sliding scale instead of in the polar opposites. It reinforces the Gender Binary just as much as it challenges it.
My first reaction when faced with this dilemma was to say “fine then, I won’t perform anything at all”. But, the bad news is that, no matter how much you try not to perform, people and society will keep interpreting anyways. So, an absolute non-performance is impossible. However we can consider a response in terms of passivity instead of negativity.
Passive performance is refusing to actively manipulate interpretation. We cannot keep people from interpreting, but we can refuse to take part in the process. This is not something I do every day, manipulating people’s perceptions of me is as much about survival as it is about comfort, but it is effective in staged and presented performance. As soon as you make something a “performance”, questions of performativity and performance and interpretation become exaggerated because the manipulation and the interpretation processes become conscious as opposed to learned, subconscious behavior dictated by society. Removing a significant part of it, the manipulation that pressures the audience to interpret in specific ways, opens up possibilities for the audience to interpret, re-interpret, and consider their interpretations in a different way.
I developed this theory directly for “Construction Zone” which was, because of the passivity, an installation. Since I couldn’t manipulate the audience’s interpretations of me (and, instead, invited the audience to make their interpretation without my input as part of the installation through the use of the odious genderbread person’s scales), I couldn’t “perform” in any way: I couldn’t speak, dance, move, even my “costume” was designed to turn me into the genderbread person instead of an attempt to manipulate people the way I do in my everyday clothing choices. The night before, I had still not decided what to do with my hat, a particular characteristic that most people attribute to me (and I have purposefully encouraged, a form of manipulation). I eventually decided not to wear it, but to use it to hold the clothespins which the audience used to interpret me, presenting it in the space, but leaving it up to the audience’s interpretation, just as I was presenting myself. As for me, I simply sat, passively finger knitting (building the social constructions, that’s another theory topic), not engaging the audience members as they (mis)gendered me.
I also included written texts. These encompassed anything from my frustration at cis people to reflections on my own gender to discussions about the theories driving the work. You could argue that the texts were an attempt at manipulating my audience. However, they were placed passively in the room, similar to the hat. I did not have any power over whether or not the audience chose to read the texts while they had the ultimate decision-making power in terms of what they got out of the installation or what they learned or decided about me. I’m a control freak, so this level of passivity was terrifying and made me realize exactly how active I am in manipulating my audience’s perceptions in most of the work I create.
I’m not sure if this is a particular theory I’m going to return to immediately, as my interests are currently more movement-based, but I do think it flags up a lot of the issues that come with being a nonbinary performer. We cannot avoid binary interpretations of our performances, but we also don’t have to actively engage with the gender binary in order to perform. There is room for challenging the audience without having to reinforce damaging stereotypes of gender. That’s a particularly optimistic thought worth exploring further and could open up so many fascinating inquiries into performance.
Butler, J. (2004). Bodily inscriptions, performative subversions (1990). In Salih, S. (Ed), The Judith Butler reader (pp. 90-118). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Butler, J. (2004). Variations on sex and gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault (1987). In Salih, S. (Ed), The Judith Butler reader (pp. 21-38). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.