Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

He, She, They, and the Silver Screen

In Monday’s lecture entitled Gender Politics, Alliance, and the Right to Appear, Judith Butler raised the question of who is recognizable and “what is read as non-gendered or genderless”?  She also discussed the politics of representation and the right to appear as being “shared” and “socially constructed”.  In declaring the very presence of gender, we also signify what is legible and therefore legitimate.  When we read gender we subsequently draw the perimeters around how gender is allowed to exist and identify itself.  What are the boundaries of the body when read as gendered?

During Monday’s lecture, I was reminded of an article that I read in the New York Times this summer entitled “When They Play Women, It’s Not Just An Act” by Erik Piepenberg (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/movies/new-roles-for-transgender-performers.html) that discusses transgender actors playing the roles of transgender characters in films.  The article looks at the casting for the film Gun Hill Road in which Harmony Santana, a transgender actor, plays the role of a transgender teenager.  I read the article shortly after watching Transamerica with Felicity Huffman who plays a pre-operative transgender woman who discovers that she has fathered a son. This film was mentioned in the article as an example of the tradition of portraying transgender experiences by having male or female actors play transgender roles.  In this article, the actor Lavern Cox said that she has trouble being cast in transgender roles because she’s been told that she is “too feminine”.  Her experience points to the assumption that transgender identity must be “read” in order for it to be legitimized through the act of being seen in the public sphere.  If the formally identified fixed markers of gender become illegible, blurring the lines that define socially constructed legibility, the power of reading gender fades.

Butler also discussed “modes of embodiment” in her lecture.  When I consider this term with regards to gender representations and performativity in film, I am forced to think about what enters into the sphere of the recognizable, and then how do exclusionary considerations of what will be read as legitimate by others become the very markers of authenticity.  Therefore, the implication is that in knowing that Felicity Huffman is a woman playing a transgender woman we consider it to be a legitimate representation and is celebrated by the public whereas, if Laverne Cox does not “read” as a transgender woman but instead as the woman that she is, she is unable to be cast in a similar role.

Note: The use of the word “actor” is used as gender neutral.

One Comment

  1. That’s a tough one, regardless of the specific human character to be portrayed. Can someone quite like the character in appearance, background and/or lived experience bring that character to life in a superior way to an actor without the same appearance (by birth), background and/or lived experience? Sometimes the non-like actor brings something more (talent, even–and sometimes box office draw or possibility of wider audience–which can be beneficial). On the other hand, in a socially just world, actors whose race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and disability marginalize them (that is, keep them from juicy acting roles) would be given more opportunities, especially to play characters of their own marginalized identities.