If I can digress off the Victorians for this post I was teaching a course on Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Theories to second year undergraduates this week. It’s the point in the course where I attempt to explain Judith Butler to them and her notion of the peformativity of gender. I had just read the latest edition of Wordplay, the English Subject Centre’s Newsletter, and Anna Palko’s article on ‘Teaching with Youtube’, where she mentions using the Dove ‘Evolution’ advert to introduce ideas around essentialism and gender performance. The advert is quite mesmeric, and Palko rightly says that it is “extremely powerful, as it displays an issue of which many, if not all, of the class is aware and are affected by”. I showed it as my very first slide, with a reference to Joan Rivière’s 1929 essay on ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ and the notion of “performing the pantomime of femininity”.
It felt like it was only the start though and I am not sure it entirely ‘works’ for a discussion of Judith Butler. Certainly the image of the woman that you see on the billboard at the end of the advert has been constructed — and it’s the photoshop adaptations in the ad that are somehow the most impacting/shocking to me — but Butler wasn’t the first to say femininity is culturally constructed by a long way. Her point is much more about the way in which society produces gender from an a priori sex and Butler in Gender Trouble argues against that ‘logical’ causality. For the first time I also showed my class a clip from the 1991 film Paris is Burning, which Butler discuses in Bodies That Matter (1995). Despite the fact that Butler is often taken as advocating drag as a way of parodying the constructed nature of all gender (with no originary sex behind it), she is ambivalent about the extent to which the drag performances on offer in the film are liberatory. There’s certainly some interesting discussion to be had around the category of ‘Realness’ which the men attempt to approximate and perform in the Balls.