Butler’s iconic essay Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion explores themes of gender, performance, sexuality, and power, amongst others. Using the problematic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) by Jennie Livingston, Butler explores how gender is performed and created through the lived experiences of queer Latinx and POC through the drag ball culture of NYC.
What is often seen as subversive of gender and sexuality, say dressing androgynous or in drag, is actually not. Gendered norms are still created as they are simultaneously imitated and parodied, revealing heterosexuality’s assertion of naturalness. Similar to Foucault’s theories on power, Butler writes that we both dispel power and take part in power regimes, as much as we are the objects of that power. Existing in a web of intersecting privileges and disadvantages, we police ourselves and police others.
Nothing exists until we give a name to it. Take virginity, for example. If it had not been given a name, a status, that first sexual encounter would have no importance. Butler gives the example of heterosexuality and how it is a continuous failure to live up to its own ideals. How can drag be misogynist when these norms are unattainable in the first place? Heterosexuality is still seen as natural and original, with everything existing in relation to it. This performing of gender creates gender.
The hegemonies of power, in the end, yield the most power when inscribing identities onto our bodies as seen with Venus Xtravaganza’s death. As much as she crossed the boundaries of sex, gender, race, and class, the hegemonies and regimes of power which ascribe privileges to whiteness and normative femininity sadly have the final say.
Frank Benson. Juliana, 2014. 3-D scanned plastic sculpture
Juliana Huxtable is an artist who defies gender and sexuality norms in her art, in her collaborations with other artists, and in her music, poetry, and performances. Exploring technology and digital realms offers the freedom to play with her hybrid identity.
Kent Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in Dance to Miss Chief (2010) is a video that has the artist dancing next to German movies of “Pretendians”. Miss Chief is a fantastic vehicle for the introduction of indigenous 2-Spirit identity while commentating on the appropriation of cultures and images of indigenous people in the media.
The artist Wu Tsang documents queer spaces and communities with importance given to people of color. In the film Wildness (2012), the historical LA gay bar The Silver Platter is documented.
Advertisement: Homage to Benglis. Part of the durational performance Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, 2011
Heather Cassils is an artist who uses their body and strength as a bodybuilder to confront gender norms and the fluidity and continual construction of being and becoming trans.