Judith Butler’s gender performativity – in comics?

Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” from 1988 (Theatre Journal 40.4, pp. 519-531) is, of course, a classic. But when it gets reduced to the buzzword of ‘gender performativity’, there’s a danger of missing all the implications of this concept, so it’s still worth reading the original article. Building primarily on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Butler’s basis in this essay is the sex/gender distinction: a gender isn’t something one is born with – it is constituted during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, Butler says, the gender binary (the idea that there are exactly two genders, male and female) is likewise artificial. As is the prevalent “system of compulsory heterosexuality” in which “‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender” is seen as “natural”. (The term ‘heteronormativity’ isn’t used by Butler yet.)

Butler’s groundbreaking idea is that, as the title already says, gender is consituted through acts of performance. What is a performative act? Butler doesn’t explicitly define that, but hints at a wide range of possibilities: “acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually associated with gender”. Her only example is a “transvestite” who is not further described. This transvestite challenges the binary male/female distinction by combining traditionally female clothes with physical features usually seen as male, or vice versa.

This seems to be a crucial point that often gets overlooked: performative acts aren’t only ways of speaking, dressing and moving, but “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space”. While these corporeal restrictions can be overcome to some extent through clothes, make-up and surgery, it’s important to always consider physical attributes as potential acts of gender constitution. Comics might be interesting objects to analyse from this perspective because they’re good at rendering visual performance acts but not so great at depicting movement or sound (e.g. the tone of one’s voice – though this can be used for humorous effect, as I’ve noted here).

Frank Miller’s comics have frequently been accused of misogyny and sexism, but his Rōnin (DC, 1983-84, colours by Lynn Varley) has been lauded for a strong female main character, Casey McKenna. Casey isn’t exactly a feminist role model either, but that’s not the point here – let’s look at how her gender is performed.

As head of security of a futuristic corporation, Casey wears a gender-neutral uniform that isn’t much different from those of her male subordinates. (At least for most of the first half of the comic – things get weird after that, including her clothes.) It isn’t so tight as to reveal much of her physical features as female either. Only when she stands next to them, the shape of her body appears female, with a waist-to-hip ratio usually associated with women, and the subtle curve of her chest. The pose she strikes, hip slightly thrust, might also be read as female. Her face is a combination of traditionally male (bushy eyebrows) and female (long eyelashes) features; others such as the angular jaw and full lips are more of a stylistic peculiarity of Miller’s applied to male and female characters alike. Thus Casey’s gender is indeed somewhat complex. It needs to be, if 1980s superhero comic readers were to accept her as both tough (a traditionally male trait) and sexy (traditionally female).

The gender of two other characters in Rōnin is interesting because they are not human (three if we count the rōnin himself, but… it’s complicated; if you’ve read the comic you’ll have noticed I’m trying to avoid spoilers this time): the demon Agat, and the Artificial Intelligence Virgo. Agat’s ‘natural’ form is roughly human, but without genitals. His (Agat is referred to with male pronouns) overly muscular, broad-shouldered body can be read as male though, and consequently he later assumes the form and identity of male human character.

Virgo, on the other hand – referred to with female pronouns and even jokingly called a “lady” (and, later, a “bitch”) – is “the sentient computer who commands every function of [the corporate complex,] Aquarius”. She interacts with people both through voice alone and through an audiovisual screen signal on which a blurred, ‘scanlined’ head of a maybe elderly, perhaps female person is visible, possibly wearing earrings. This character is reminiscent of the AI “Mother” in the film Alien (released only four years before Rōnin), but it’s unclear whether Virgo was programmed by humans to look that way – as a powerful and wilful AI, she might have chosen her screen persona herself.

All that being said, we haven’t even talked about the characters’ words and actions as performative acts yet. A scene highly relevant to this matter, for example, is at the end of the comic when Casey accuses the rōnin of unmanly behaviour. But I’ll leave this analysis to others.

Butler’s concept of gender performativity doesn’t explain everything about gender and sexuality, but reading comics with her theory in mind helps us to ask important questions in this context: which characters can be identified as male, female, or something else? (And which can’t?) On which criteria (i.e. performative acts) are these identifications based? Do these acts conform to a traditional gender attribution in a character or are they conflicting? Is the gender attribution of a character stable or does it change in the course of a story? Is all this likely to be the creators’ intention, or a product of their subconscious, or a reading “against the grain”? If the gender configuration in a comic is presumably intentional, what is its function in the story? And is Frank Miller really a sexist?

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


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