The pearl-clutchers have been using this word somewhat frequently in recent months.  Or maybe I’ve just been paying more attention in the past six months or so…  but the hysteria over the “performance of femininity” has been particularly noticeable.  At least to me.

The makeup tax.  Transgendered women.  Passing.  How terrible it is that other people judge women on how feminine they are.

It is terrible.  We should all mind or own business and not worry about stuff that doesn’t have shit to do with how we pay our bills or sleep at night.

But like having 100 outrages should mean you have no outrage at all: the fact that every human being is judged on their performance of humanity… it isn’t any more or less terrible than people getting judged on their performance of cultural norms.  It is stupid to compare miseries, but it is also stupid to suggest women are the only ones with this performance tax, whether it is psychic or fiscal.  Being a minority is a delicate dance requiring near constant awareness of where one is in relationship to the dominant culture.  If you’re too much of one thing, you’re dismissed.  If you’re too much of the other, you’ve sold out.

We are all on stage in the world performing normal.  Performing gender.  Performing culture.  Performing sexuality.  And we are all judged on it.  So is it worse to be a woman performing femininity than a man performing masculinity?  Or a black man trying to navigate a culture that has historically both exaggerated the ferocity of his manhood and punished him for the exaggeration?  I don’t think women have it worse.  Comparing miseries is pointless, but so are the histrionics about the fact that we live in a society and societies have always operated along tribal lines.  Anyone who deviates too far from the mean gets expelled.  That’s how we’ve operated for millennia.

I’m not claiming this is good, only that it is.

You are a performer.  No matter what your gender, orientation, skin color, cultural history, you are a performer.  You have a closet full of costumes that say to the world “this is who I am,” just as an actor is given a costume to signal to the world who their character is.  We are social creatures.  We are a storytelling species.  The first story we tell to those we meet is in how we present ourselves to the world.  We are doing what we’ve done for millennia.  Should mascara hold a woman back professionally?  No.  But it is foolish to think that performance expectations are going to go away.  They aren’t.  They are just going to evolve.  As they have been doing for millennia.

Just… if the issue doesn’t get between you and paying your bills when it comes to judging other people, can we just all agree to leave well enough alone?



4 thoughts on “Performance

  1. Over the long haul, performance reveals character. “By their works ye shall know them.” The face we present to others is partly genetic (as in race or sex), but also shows in choice of career, associations, family, and the clothes we wear. They all make statements about how we want to appear to others. For all our claims of freedom, Americans are incredibly cliquish and harshly judgmental of those who seem different.

    On the other hand, there are so many groups that if you get expelled from one, you are welcomed in another. The groups judge other groups, and the basic lack of communication is perpetuated and maybe intensified, as hard battle lines are drawn.

    It seems that we are all too easily manipulated by other people’s expectations. We fear disappointing others, or making them mad. Alternatively, we react against expectations in a self-sabotaging way.

    I’ve wondered a long time about what constitutes “femininity,” or “masculinity,” for that matter. Would any two people agree on a single definition? Or do they use the standard media-promoted versions that are geared to selling make-up and football?

    You cover a lot of territory here, so it’s hard to respond succinctly. From a personal perspective, I don’t fit well into any group and never have, but I generally leave before I am expelled, because the group mindsets are so stifling. It leaves me with the rather cynical but totally egalitarian attitude that I discriminate against everyone equally.


  2. I wonder how many people truly realize that they’re performing every day. This is a great post, A.R. By coincidence, I’ve been reading Jung and Robertson Davies in recent weeks and both are about recognizing the models that we choose — consciously or unconsciously — to follow in our daily lives. Your post rocks. Sorry for the long silence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Katherine – I think we underestimate the primal drives associated with survival by tribal association. Social expulsion activates pain in the same way as physical assault. Those of us who are less sensitive to this pain would have had a harder time surviving in hunter/gatherer societies where division of labor made for the survival of the group.

    Where my social processing breaks down is in the part where people get all pearl-clutchy about it. This is the society we live in. It has upsides and downsides to it. It evolves, but slowly, and where we are right now as a society means that, to go out in public, we are all expected to put in a little effort. Mascara happens to signify effort for women. Just as a tie signifies effort for 9-5 men. What the effort is almost doesn’t matter. Men could be the ones complaining about the mascara tax and women could be expected to show up to a big meeting with a noose around their neck. I don’t see the difference. And I don’t see the problem. Society operates by rules both spoken and unspoken. If you don’t like the rules, ignore them and pay the price.

    But I can afford this attitude. I come from a place of immense privilege, comparatively speaking. I was born in America, I’m a native English-speaker. I’m white. I’m present reasonably well. I have a MA and very little by way of student debt, and I easily fit into the standard female gender definition. So where I am hampered by my gender (glass ceiling, sexual harassment) I can easily roll my eyes, decide what I’m going to let under my skin, and bugger off elsewhere with the belief that the only thing that can hold me back is if I buy into what the schmucks are saying about the limitations of being a woman. So far, the places I’ve really wanted to go have been a function of determination, not a question of who would give me permission.

    Which all ads up to the reality that I’m in a glass house and shouldn’t be throwing stones at the pearl-clutchers. Even though I still think they should stop clutching their pearls and waiting for society to decide mascara doesn’t matter and just get on with whatever they want to do, mascara be damned. But then my tolerance for social rejection might be a little higher than average. So what do I really know?


  4. Nick –

    No worries. We’re all just barely keeping up with real life, let alone social media. Hang in there… I can’t wait to read your book! But no pressure…



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