Gender Symposium Speaking Notes
I will be discussing two of my papers today: one on the construction of gender and the other on the performativity of gender in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem “Hermaphroditus”.
Judith Lorber, in her essay, “The construction of Gender”, specifies the constructed nature of gender not only in the gender binary, but in every gender expression.
Each of us are given gender roles and norms to work with and as we act within them, we are “doing gender”.
Gender expression is so unique to each of us. When we do gender, it is not necessarily taking on gender roles and leaving them intact as a collected expression of other people’s expectations. Rather, we are given that collected expression which has been built over time and we contribute our piece to its story.
As an English major, I have a great love of stories. For me, the ongoing story of woman is fascinating. The changes that we have made to our identity, not only through time but also between groups within the same times is phenomenal. That theory after theory has been stacked on top of one another to provide a plurality of feminist voices shows the engagement that we have had in our story. We have gone from instances of helping to enforce the patriarchal systems of oppression amongst ourselves, like in examples of body shaming or legitimately advocating for women’s oppression, to the opposite of denouncing any domestic responsibility or femininity. Coming from this, characterized for me by the condemnation of the occupation of the housewife, women have since sought to incorporate a multiplicity of perspectives in what it means to be a woman.
Hyper masculinity and hyper femininity, what we may traditionally associate with man and woman, do not truly exist. They are a social construct which really only exist as representations of extremity of gender. They do not exist in their pure forms in any of us, nor do they exist in a static form where they may remain isolated.
Gender identity and expression is constantly engaged with the world around us, in flux all the time, being shaped by our interactions with different influences.
By doing our genders we claim them as our own and we add each and every one of our expressions to the ever growing story of the gender identity that we have claimed as well as provided a position that other genders may be defined by.
I wear coral pink blouses with bright red lipstick because I decided that it worked for me. When I want to feel my best I wear that red lipstick with my pearl earrings and my favourite bra, because those things are how I physically manifest my femininity. The lipstick with the pearls is a combination used by many women in many eras and has a very classic look- it is by no means unique to me. But I claim them as my own each and every day when I fuse them with my fiery personality and general feistiness.
Though I perceive myself as very feminine, my personality is considered quite masculine. But it is my more “masculine” strengths that I actually find to make my femininity most dynamic, not lesser.
As each of us reinterpret what our genders are we contribute to the story of our gender role as well as participate in other people’s negotiation. As in writing a paper, we pick and choose sources that prove to be beneficial to our purpose or else sources that stand to give contrast to our ideas. It is no different with gender when we integrate specific characteristics of existing gender expressions, selecting what we want to inscribe on our bodies to perform.
My more recent paper addresses Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “Hermaphroditus”, which explores the Greek mythological figure of Hermaphroditus. I argue that “Hermaphroditus” is a celebration of the beauty of liminality. In the poem, Hermaphroditus is described as having “double blossom of two fruitless flowers (24) whereby the physical male and female bodies are both present.
The body of Hermaphroditus is a concrete reconciliation between male and female, brought together not only to passively coexist but to create an active whole. This is not an abnormality of form for Swinburne, but the fusion that rejects the idea of male and female to be polar opposites.
In Michel Foucault’s essay “The History of Sexuality”, he describes that “hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union” (Foucault 893). Because hermaphrodites, or intersex individuals, do not suit the needs of the social institutions that benefit from the gender binary, like marriage or the hierarchical system of the division of labour.
The figure of Hermaphroditus is elevated as beautiful because of this physical liminality. Swinburne, when he looks upon a statue of Hermaphroditus, does not find them lacking. But claims and advocates that this beauty is not confined to a gender binary and is male and female. He recongnizes the beauty of AND, rather than being defined by OR.
I adapt Judith Butler’s theory of performativity to the poem of Hermaphroditus. Butler’s theory specifically targeted real, physical bodies. Though the character or the statue of Hermaphroditus may meet this requirement, I carried it further. I relate Butler’s theory of performativity as a lense by which to view the poem of “Hermaphroditus” in the form of its text.
Butler describes gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (900).
Hermaphroditus acts out how “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (Butler 903-904) because of the very conscious embrace of both sexes within the character throughout the poem. Because “Hermaphroditus” is such a sensual poem it celebrates both sexualities as well as all which fall between them. The poem as an external force participates in “constitut[ing] reality through language” (Butler 900) to further revise gender in a more liminal and deviant context.
The form that the poem takes itself is made hermaphroditic, with string male and female presence throughout the poem. The stanzas are not broken by one being about the masculinity of Hermaphroditus and another about their femininity. Each are infused together in each stanza, such as in the lines:
With love like gold bound round about the head,
Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.
The male and female that are brought together, like in the character of Hermaphroditus, do not need to stand in opposition to one another because they fit within the same physical body as well as textual body.
In this same way we are all made to be hermaphroditic in our gender expressions, as we are all a collaboration of masculine and feminine influences that we interpret to coincide within ourselves.
We construct our genders very actively both as a society and as individuals. This process should be made more conscious so that we may construct gender identities that truly reflect us on both of those levels. Our gender identities are things to be claimed and it is for us to pick the very best aspects for those expressions. We must not be afraid to make ourselves beautiful through liminality.
25 February 2014
Performativity in Text
In response to class discussion, I aim to answer what the significance of the beauty of liminality that Swinburne describes in his poem, “Hermaphroditus”. I will contrast the interpretations that the class had in asserting that the sensuality of the poem was overwhelmingly feminine by drawing from Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. I will argue that the sensuality in the poem of “Hermaphroditus” must not be confined to be only feminine but that this sensuality is actively claimed to be both male and female in the performative text.
Written on the Greek figure of Hermaphroditus, Swinburne’s poem describes the duality and supposed binary of Hermaphroditus in the “double blossom of two fruitless flowers” (Swinburne 24) and the liminality of existence between male and female, never belonging wholly to one or the other (Swinburne 35-36). Rather than the sterility that some of the opening description offers, particularly in being “fruitless”, the poem emphasizes the inherent flux between these binaries by Hermaphroditus having an active claim to both labels, to “choose between two loves and cleave unto the best” (Swinburne 6). In the body of Hermaphroditus, male and female are brought together to be both distinguished and reconciled to one another.
In class, one of the main points which surprised me from a classmate, Joie Coles, was that the sensuality of the poem struck her as entirely feminine and lacking in masculinity (January 23rd). Specifically she interpreted physical features like eyes and lips as entirely feminine, particularly in lines such as “sex to sweet sex to lips and limbs is wed” (Swinburne 17) or the “large light turned tender in thine eyes” (Swinburne 54). There seemed to be an expectation from Joie as well as the class that that for masculinity to be represented it could not be entangled with themes of sensuality now most associated with women, and that masculinity is a concept which needed a more rigid description. This attempt to submit masculinity to a rigid definition in opposition to the feminine also present in this poem exposes the construction which insists that gender be perceived as static, and that male and female be fixedly opposite to one another.
Because of this social need to create and uphold static gender identities, anything outside of these definitions becomes deviant. As explained by Michel Foucault, “[u]p to the end of the eighteenth century… hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union” (Foucault 892-893). Because hermaphrodites, or intersex individuals, do not suit the needs of the social institutions that benefit from the gender binary, like marriage or the hierarchical system of the division of labour (Lorber 126), they are condemned. To further discredit people of nonconforming identities they were said to have a medical or mental illness (Foucault 892). This illness was considered not only inherent within the deviating person but something that was “everywhere present in [them]” (Foucault 896) to ultimately dehumanize them down to a label. From being viewed primarily as a sexual deviant, these deviant “conducts [or identities] were actually solidified in [people’s bodies]” (Foucault 898) through practices over time, thereby constructing gender in both accepted and unaccepted forms. Complimenting Foucault’s work on identities being manifested in the human body, Judith Butler writes on her theory of performative gender which is also inscribed on the body.
Judith Butler describes gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 900) which are entirely performative according to current cultural expectations. As in Foucault’s argument, those who fail to perform correctly, as in the context of Hermaphroditus, are devalued (Lorber 127) and socially punished (Butler, 903). Gender is not a passive phenomenon, (Butler 906), but “constantly created and recreated out of human interaction” (Lorber 126). Swinburne works to make Hermaphroditus’s identity as both male and female a very constructive and active presence, for the reader to find nothing lacking in being of both sexes. As a character, Hermaphroditus acts out gender in the very conscious embrace of both the female and male sexes throughout the poem; “with love like gold bound round about the head, [s]ex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed” (Swinburne 16-17), and they become a physical performative of the male and female genders’ reconcilement. Within the body of Hermaphroditus both male and female aspects are inscribed on the body to full coexist. Though Butler emphasizes the instability of gender and its performativity specifically to the physical body (Butler 900), her theory of performativity can be applied beyond the body of the character of Hermaphroditus to the textual body of the poem.
Hermaphroditus acts out how “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (Butler 903-904), both as a character and as a text. The textual structure of “Hermaphroditus” is performative of gender by its flux in using male and female pronouns within the stanzas, as opposed to having their masculine and feminine qualities divided between stanzas; this makes them physically consolidated in the text in the same way the character of Hermaphroditus reconciles the male and female genders in their body (Swinburne 18). Each meeting of male and female qualities in “Hermaphroditus” exist in the network of the poem, acting temporally as the reader makes their way through the poem to leave the reader with the experience of Hermaphroditus’ wholeness. Masculine and feminine sensualities are shared in the identity that unfolds to the reader when both are described leading up to the “love or sleep or shadow or light that lies between [their] eyelids and [their] eyes” (Swinburne 29-30). As a text, the poem is not divided into male or female aspects of Hermaphroditus, but fuses both within its stanzas to marry them to each other in the textual body (Swinburne 7-8, 12, 16-17, 23-28, 35-36, 38, 52-56). The text itself becomes hermaphroditic in pursuing the masculinity and femininity of Hermaphroditus as it actively works with both genders to make the poem whole and complete in the same way that Swinburne describes the body of the character. Because “Hermaphroditus” is such a sensual poem it celebrates both male and female sexualities and thereby the liminal beauty of being both, in character and in text. The poem as an external force participates in “constitut[ing] reality through language” (Butler 900) to further revise gender in a more liminal and deviant context.
Deviant identities are condemned because “the authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions” (Butler 903) and do not accept any views which challenge these fictions. By making periphery genders Other, the dominant genders create a constructed binary between men and women, or between conforming and nonconforming. Because human bodies are not born identical there has always been physical variation from hair colour to genital formation, making this binary not only unstable but false. The distinction between male and female does not exist in the opposition that society has upheld, an argument most often seen in the criticism of the oppression of women in favour of men, but male and female, as well as all genders, exist in a network which is constantly being defined in relation to each other. Men and women are not complete opposites in reality, and the character of Hermaphroditus reaches further than any of us who identify as men or women to unite qualities of both not only in personality but in a concrete physical form. As Sedgwick discusses in relation to Derrida’s method of deconstructionism, it is not enough to destabilize and reverse a hierarchy or binary, because this uses the same corrupt system of one dominating the other (Segwick 913). The elusive reality is in “understanding their irresolvable instability” (Sedgwick 913) and the need to progress beyond the privileging of either term to ultimately embrace both or all as equal.
Hermaphroditus, by embracing both male and female, is elevated by Swinburne to be above either of these conventional sexes because of the liminality and unity. Hermaphroditus is beautiful because “they” are “and”- not “or” (Forlini 23 January). The coming together of the sexes in one physical form breaks the physically separate spheres of men and women in Victorian society (women being sequestered in domestic spaces, men in the public) (Forlini 21 January). Whereas beauty is conventionally acknowledged based on conformity to one of the set gender roles, Swinburne elevates Hermaphroditus because of the fluidity and collaboration of gender expressions to . The construction of gender is enforced with agency, molded to the reality of the body- not the body to the expectation. In the beauty of hybridization, the contributing binaries are set free from their constricting definitions by joining them in harmony together. That the eyes and lips of a man can be considered both wholly sensual and still confidently masculine empower the terms of masculine and feminine to be defined and redefined as they are performed throughout time: the reality responding to the active construction of gender. Because masculine and feminine are constantly distinguished by their opposition, so too, are they distinguished from, and by, identities which fuse them together, ultimately resulting in a strong sense of plurality of expression. The significance of the beauty of Hermaphroditus’ liminality is in its social power to challenge dominant gender identities to advocate for diversity, and in how it celebrates the fusion of male and female, “love stand[ing] upon thy left and thy right” (Swinburne 33) to create a perfect whole which finds nothing missing or lacking in its deviance through union of these sexual forms.
Butler, Judith. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 900-911. Print.
Cole, Joie. “English 449”. Scurfield Hall 157, University of Calgary, Calgary. 23 January. 2014. Address.
Forlini, Stefania. “French Influences: English 449”. Scurfield Hall 157, University of Calgary, Calgary. 21 January. 2014. Lecture.
—. “French Influences: English 449”. Scurfield Hall 157 University of Calgary, Calgary. 23 January. 2014. Lecture.
Lorber, Judith. The Social Construction of Gender. Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Reading. Ed. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. 126-129. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 892-899. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford, 2004. 912-921. Print.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Hermaphroditus. Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863. PoemHunter.com. Web. 24 February 2014.