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4 The Creation of the Natural: Gender Imitation and Performance
Performances of Pronouns: Using Feminist Post-structuralism to Explore…
the ways in which we categorize and name these differences are socially constructed
and therefore non-essential (Butler 1999). These differences are ﬁrst constituted as
differences, which then allows for categorizing and labeling.
Interrogating the arguably constructed nature of biological sex consequently
points to the tenuousness of gender and gender categories. Within Western discourses about sex and gender, it has been assumed that gender and gender categories have been founded upon binary sex categories that are based in essentialized,
biological differences. Butler points out that the instability of gender and gender
categories is a natural consequence of questioning the constitution of binary sex
categories. Once the innateness of binary sex categories is questioned, then gender
itself is understood as a highly unstable performance which “regularly conceals its
genesis” (Butler 1988, p. 903).
Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective
ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create
the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. (Butler 1988,
Gender performance naturalizes sex and gender, although the use of the word ‘performance’ can be misleading. As Gilbert (2007) explains, Butler does not understand gender performances as being constituted by “singular deliberate act[s]”
(p. 130). Rather, gender identity is created and maintained by imitation and iteration
(Hey 2006). Certain gender performances are socially sanctioned and rewarded,
while others are not. The daily policing of gender performances lead to the naturalization of gender acts.
When students begin to understand gender as a verb rather than a noun predicated on the cultural construction of “biological” sex, as a series of actions, performances, or “achievements” (Nayak and Kehily 2008, p. 5), they are able to begin to
imagine how we could create/open up spaces of multiplicity, which would allow for
a wider variety of gendered identities and performances to be accepted and supported. After discussing Butler and our own ritualized performances of gender
(Happel 2013), I ask my students to give examples of the harm and violence which
comes from the production and maintenance of rigid sex and gender binaries.
Inevitably we discuss the every-day violences of bullying, homophobia, transphobia, domestic violence, and rape culture, sharing stories, ideas, and brainstorming
for ways to create a more inclusive and open culture which is supportive of all
Reconceptualizing Agency and Resisting Essentialism
Many feminists, wedded to more traditional notions of agency and power, have
criticized poststructuralism for undermining women’s recent attempts at recuperating power, agency, and resistance (Collins 2000; DiStephano 1990). How can those
of us oppressed by sex and gender binaries ﬁght against oppression if we no longer
have a traditional understanding of agency? St. Pierre (2000) encourages feminists
to reconsider agency by recognizing that there is no “outside” of discourse and
power relations; consequently, there is no classic feminist liberation or emancipation. In response to this recognition, she suggests that, “The aim of an oppositional
politics is therefore not liberation but resistance” (p. 492). She urges feminists to
think about the ways in which particular discourses might be resisted and consequently reconstituted, opening up spaces of multiplicity. Acts of resistance against
commonsensical ideas of naturalness or normalness inevitably require active, critical engagement with dominating discourses. In order for feminists to resist normative discourses, they must recognize and work within the construction of these
various discourses. Poststructural theories “allow us to understand how knowledge,
truth, and subjects are produced in language and cultural practice as well as how
they might be reconﬁgured” (St. Pierre 2000, p. 486). Poststructuralist pedagogy
points to the socially, historically, and politically constructed nature of reality
through discourse analyses, and it unveils the contingent and contested nature of
particular regimes of Truth. It consequently points to the constructed nature of subject formation. Feminist poststructuralists suggest that, since subjectivities are constantly being constituted and reconstituted through discourse, often in competing
and contradictory ways, there is space between reiterations for different ways of
being in the world. For example, an act of resistance might include interrupting
socially-sanctioned, “naturalized” gender performances, such as when my student
stopped dressing in socially accepted, traditionally feminine ways. She interrupted
the ongoing gender imitations upon which dominant discourses of gender rely, and
as such, she illustrated how gender is constructed and maintained through our
actions and performances. As she noted, she made many people uncomfortable with
her performances. But, she thought that this was an important disruption that pointed
to the socially constructed and performative nature of gender. As Butler and others
have suggested, if the subject is in constant formation and is constituted through the
reiteration of certain subject positions, there is a possibility for the disruption of
those same subject positions.2 “The agency of this subject lies precisely in its ongoing constitution” (St. Pierre and Pillow 2000 p. 7). Many believe that this “subjectin-process” (p. 8) is in the best interests of women because it opens up spaces of
multiplicity and possibility that are not available within other theoretical frameworks. Davies (2000) is worth quoting at length:
The power feminists have found in poststructuralist theorizing is precisely in its opening up
of possibilities for undermining the inevitability of particular oppressive forms of subjection. They have done this by making the constitutive force of discourse visible and thus
revisable. By making visible the ways in which power shifts dramatically, depending on
how subjects are positioned by and within the multiple and competing discourses they
encounter, they can begin to imagine how to reposition themselves, realign themselves, and
Of course, it is important to recognize that not all interruptions/disruptions are safe, and some
carry with them the threat and/or actuality of violence. For example, transwomen of color suffer
from extremely high rates of sexual, physical, and psychological violence within the United States.
The intersections of sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism make for more and/or less dangerous consequences for those who dare to resist traditional gender norms and expectations.
Performances of Pronouns: Using Feminist Post-structuralism to Explore…
use the power of discourse they have to disrupt those of its effects they wish to resist.
If subjects and discourse are mutually constitutive, this means subjects can inﬂuence discourse and discursive formations through their various actions, interruptions, or disruptions of expected performances. By exposing students to the socially
constructed nature of sex and gender via feminist poststructuralism, potential spaces
of multiplicity emerge as we begin to understand how gender is produced, and
therefore how it could be (re)produced differently.
I understand our discussions of poststructuralism as productive and provocative
when students begin to, without my prompt, deconstruct dominant discourses and
metanarratives which have functioned to frame their experiences and sense of identity. Students often begin to reconstitute themselves, in ways they never thought
possible. They are less tied to identity categories and more willing to push against
the boundaries of socially-sanctioned gender expectations. They begin to see and
inhabit spaces of multiplicity, letting go, in small ways, of normative and regulatory
understandings of traditional categories such as sex and gender. For example, students often tell me that poststructuralism has given them the language and understanding necessary to challenge and reconstitute their own performances of gender
within their personal and professional lives. Their reports of the deconstructive
work in their own lives illustrates that they are thinking, and living, with and through
theory. As St. Pierre states, when studying theory, “we begin to realize…that we
have been theorized, and that we and the world are products of theory as much as
practice, and that putting different theories to work can change the world” (2011,
p. 614). Students begin to make connections, deconstructing the dominant discourses which often unknowingly shape how we think, act, and feel. By initiating
critiques of essentialism and opening up conversations about performativity, students are given the space to begin thinking and living differently.
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Undoing Gender: Making the Invisible Visible
West and Zimmerman’s (1987) notion of ‘doing gender’ is well-known to most
instructors of gender studies courses. However, instructors may be less familiar with
the earlier work of microsociologists Erving Goffman and Harold Garﬁnkel, who
paved the way for subsequent ideas of gender as a social process. The work of these
early scholars, as well as West and Zimmerman’s more recent notion of doing
gender, provides the theoretical foundation for the Undoing Gender Assignment.
This assignment can be used in a variety of gender studies courses to illustrate
concepts that are sometimes challenging for students to grasp.
In his inﬂuential work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) Erving
Goffman compares social interaction to a dramatic performance on a stage. Social
interaction, much like a play, occurs within a given setting. This setting provides
cues as to how actors should behave. Similarly, like actors on a stage, social participants continually work to create a particular impression. Goffman argues that it is
through this constant process of interacting with others that individuals create a
sense of self, much in the way an actor creates a character through interaction with
the audience. Failure to perform accordingly can lead to social sanctioning, questioning of an individual’s authenticity, and stigma.
For Goffman, gender is merely another aspect of self that is created through
constant interaction with others. Individuals perform their gender with the intention
of managing the impressions of others. Similarly, cues from the social environment
help actors determine what is expected of males and females in any given situation.
Thus, gender is not a characteristic that an individual has or does not have, but is a
performance that occurs through social interaction.
L. Custer (*)
Cascadia College, Bothell, WA, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex
in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_4
Like Goffman, Harold Garﬁnkle’s work focuses on everyday social interaction.
He also sees gender as an interactive process. Garﬁnkel (1967) clariﬁes his thinking
on this topic in Studies of Ethnomethodology (1967), in which he presents a case
study of Agnes, an intersexed person who is raised as a male and later adopts the sex
of female. Garﬁnkel suggests that an analysis of Agnes’ transition from male to
female makes visible the frequently invisible effort that individuals invest in presenting a gendered self in their daily lives. Garﬁnkel explains that while for most
people the performance of gender becomes so routine that it is regarded as a natural
expression of the self, Agnes must initially work to learn the socially accepted ways
of performing as a female in order to successfully pass as one.
In addition to his insights on gender as a performance, Garﬁnkel offers a clever
method for studying the social construction of reality. He suggests that by engaging
in violations of social expectations and assessing how others respond, social scientists can gain insight into the rules governing the social world. Today, based on
Garﬁnkel’s ideas, students in introductory sociology courses are frequently given an
assignment asking them to engage in a norm breaching experiment. This classic
assignment has been adapted for the Undoing Gender assignment described below.
Perhaps better known among gender scholars outside the ﬁeld of Sociology are
West and Zimmerman,1 who build on the work of Goffman and Garﬁnkle in their
landmark essay Doing Gender (1987). Like other microsociologists before them,
West and Zimmerman maintain that gender is an accomplishment which is embedded in everyday interactions. They go further to suggest that gender organizes nearly
every social interaction. They also suggest that individuals are held accountable for
their gender performances; failure to perform according to social expectations can
result in being judged negatively.
West and Zimmerman’s concept of “doing gender” is frequently introduced in
undergraduate gender studies courses. The notion that gender is something that we
do, rather than have, is typically rather challenging for undergraduate students to
grasp. Like most people, students often take gender performances for granted. They
view gender as something that “just comes naturally” without considering their own
role in creating a gendered self. They also are typically unaware of the differing
social expectations governing the behavior of men and women. Students in many of
my courses frequently express the opinion that men and women are treated “pretty
much the same” nowadays, at least in the United States.
The Undoing Gender Assignment requires students to breach a gender norm and
to consider both the intra and interpersonal consequences. Through these activities,
invisible gender norms are made visible and students can gain a deeper understanding of their own participation in maintaining gender structures as well as insight into
the ways in which adherence to gender norms reinforce a patriarchal system.
Readers also may be familiar with similar ideas of gender and performativity through the works
of Judith Butler. However, these ideas are derived from a different theoretical strand and are therefore not discussed here.
Undoing Gender: Making the Invisible Visible
Prior to completing the Undoing Gender Assignment, students engage in a number
of preparatory activities. First, I assign students to read the Doing Gender article by
West and Zimmerman (1987). After students have read this, I give a short lecture on
the ‘doing gender’ perspective followed by an in-class discussion. During this
discussion I typically provide students with multiple examples of how I personally
do gender. For instance, I point out that I usually wear skirts and dresses, sit in a
“ladylike” fashion, and state my opinions in a qualiﬁed or softened way when
compared to my male colleagues. Next, students work in small groups to brainstorm
different ways in which they also do gender. The examples that students generate
typically consist of rather superﬁcial performances such as clothing choices,
hairstyles, and body language. At this point I encourage students to think more
deeply about how they perform gender, such as the ways they interact with others
(e.g. being assertive versus being deferential) and the roles they perform inside and
outside the household (e.g. cleaning versus household repairs). During this discussion I also take care to point out the ways in which others encourage or pressure us
to do gender according to social expectations.
After a rich exploration of the ways in which we all perform gender regularly, I
begin to introduce the concept of “undoing gender”. I ask students to consider what
happens when one fails to perform according to gender role expectations. How are
we perceived by others? How do others treat us? How do we feel about ourselves?
To better illustrate the idea of “undoing gender” I provide some interesting public
examples. One example that students seem to ﬁnd particularly thought-provoking is
a collection of images created by Rion Sabean called “men ups”. These images
show males in provocative, vulnerable, or sexy poses that were characteristic of
“Pin Up” calendars of the 1950s and are typically reserved for females.
If time permits, the instructor may ask the students to engage in an in-class
activity that illustrates some of the intra and interpersonal consequences of undoing
gender. An exercise that is particularly effective requires students to move about the
room alternatively performing both masculine and feminine genders through the
use of body language. The instructor can also have students work in groups to
design simulated photo shoots that do and/or undo gender.
During the ensuing discussion of undoing gender I ask students to consider why
gender non-conformity often produces such negative, even hostile responses from
others. By this point in the course, students have already been introduced to the
notion of a binary gender system as well as the concept of patriarchy. This is a good
time to explore the relationship between the two. I remind students that in a binary
system, positive qualities are typically assigned to the dominant group and negative
qualities to subordinate groups. I point out that maintaining a binary gender system
requires keeping clear and distinct gender roles, and ensuring that expressions of
gender are consistent with assigned sex categories. Rigid adherence to a binary
gender system is necessary for maintaining patriarchy, which assigns masculinity
higher value and distributes power and privilege to males. Gender non-conformity
challenges the binary system and hence the patriarchal status quo. I also point out
that under a patriarchal system violations of masculine gender role expectations are
likely to be treated more seriously and are more heavily sanctioned than violations
of feminine gender role expectations. This is a good time to remind students about
potential dangers to their own personal safety when disrupting gender roles. Males
who publicly disrupt rules regarding intimacy with other males are at particular risk.
Following this large group discussion, I ask students to return to small groups
and brainstorm a list of possible ways they might undo gender for this assignment.
We then come back together in a large group to debrief and I provide them with
examples of undoing gender that previous students have carried out for this
assignment. I typically include the following examples for undoing femininity:
Opening doors for men
Not shaving their legs or armpits
Refusing to defer to men in conversations
Taking up space in public settings
Offering to help men with a physical task, such as carrying something heavy
Participating in masculine leisure activities such as shooting pool
Taking a boyfriend on a traditional date
Buying a drink for a man at a bar
Displaying “unladylike” manners such as belching or spitting in public
I typically include the following examples of undoing masculinity:
Using feminine language such as “cute”, “sweet”, or “adorable”
Showing displays of sadness or emotional vulnerability
Initiating a conversation with other men in proscribed spaces such as urinals
Deferring to women
Adopting care-taking roles
Undoing Gender: Making the Invisible Visible
Showing a lack of knowledge about masculine topics such as sports or alcohol
Indicating an interest in feminine topics such as fashion or home decor
Asking for help with a physical task, particularly from a woman
Showing an interest in one’s appearance/clothing (e.g. asking a friend if these
jeans make you look fat)
At the end of this discussion, I ask students to observe their own gendered patterns
of interaction over the upcoming week and to look for opportunities to “undo gender”.
I also encourage students to consider performing their gender norm violation in
multiple contexts to see if they get different reactions. For example, females who
choose to open doors for men might try opening the door for younger males as well
as older males to see if their reactions differ. After performing their norm breaching
experiment students write a brief report (See appendix for complete assignment).
Some students are tempted to engage in exaggerated performances of gender norm
violations, such as cross-dressing, for this assignment. For instance, female students,
who often experience challenges coming up with ideas for norm violations due to
the relative ﬂexibility of feminine gender roles in comparison to masculine gender
roles, are sometimes tempted to dress in baggy clothes and baseball caps, to visit a
predominantly masculine setting and proceed to portray themselves as men. Less
frequently, but on occasion, male students are tempted to dress in feminine clothing
and present themselves as a woman in public. I generally discourage these types of
norm violations for multiple reasons. First, oversimpliﬁed caricatures of the “other
gender” simply reinforce gender stereotypes by suggesting that masculinity and
femininity can be reduced to a few overt behaviors which are exhibited by all
members of a sex category. In addition, there is a long history of engaging in the
public performance of exaggerated or stereotyped gender performances for the purpose of amusement or entertainment. Students who engage in these types of gender
norm violations generally do not take them very seriously (nor does their audience)
and thus may not experience the desired psychological and social effects of more
subtle gender norm violations.
A second challenge with this assignment is how trans* or gender queer students
might approach it. Students who do not identify as cisgender often indicate that
violating a gender norm will be a challenge for them because they already engage
in gender norm violations on a daily basis. For instance, one trans* woman said:
Coming up with a gender norm to violate for this assignment was extremely difﬁcult for me
because I violate many gender norms on a daily basis. I cross my legs when I sit, I occupy
the least amount of space that I can, I relate to others in a very feminine way. I also view
myself as more female than male, so there is a difference in the way that I perceive my
gender and the way that I present gender on a regular basis (trans* woman who decided to
carry a purse and walk in a more feminine way).
Although trans* and gender queer students may violate gender norms on a daily
basis, there are still likely to be some gender norms that they consciously or
unconsciously do not violate (e.g. bathroom selection or clothing choices). It is also
possible that there are some contexts in which they still adhere to traditional gender
role expectations (e.g. at work or school). The instructor can brainstorm with these
students to see if there are additional ways (or places) in which they might feel safe
undoing gender. In some ways, this assignment may afford them an opportunity to
further extend a presentation of self that they are already transitioning towards. If
the student does not feel comfortable challenging a new gender norm, or extending
their chosen gender identity into a new context, they may simply choose to write
about one of the gender norms that they already violate regularly. As the above
quote illustrates, trans* and gender queer students are often already challenging
gender norms on a daily basis. There is no reason they have to come up with a
“new” gender norm violation to complete the assignment. It is essential that the
instructor let all students, but particularly trans* and gender queer students, determine which gender norms s/he feels comfortable violating. Let the students decide
which norms violations will beneﬁt their learning experience the most and will
allow them to feel safest.
Some of the challenges described above might be averted by requiring students
to get approval for their gender norm violations before carrying them out. This
ensures that they are consistent with the instructor expectations and are appropriate
for the assignment. Instructors may also wish to meet with students, particularly
trans* or gender queer students, outside of class to discuss what type of norm violation
will provide them with the most beneﬁcial (and safest) learning experience.
Students generally ﬁnd the Undoing Gender Assignment to be a powerful exercise
which enhances their learning in many ways. Reactions frequently include expressions of anxiety, liberation, and a deeper understanding of the ways in which gender
norms govern our daily interactions.
Students who express feeling anxious and uncomfortable undoing gender often
indicate that they felt as if their gender was being questioned by others.
• When ﬁrst given this assignment I really didn’t think anything of violating a
gender norm. However, while at work, contemplating how I was going to incorporate this gender norm violation into my work environment I increasingly
became more anxious and nervous. Even though I knew this was a school experiment, I still felt embarrassed to ask a male coworker for help with a package that
I knew I could easily lift by myself. After the experiment, I felt a feeling of relief
and intrigue at the results that I witnessed (man who asked another man for help
with an easy physical task).
Undoing Gender: Making the Invisible Visible
• During the dinner, I personally felt very self-conscious about how much I was
eating, and was constantly wondering what others thought of me (woman who
ate large amounts of food without restraint in front of others).
In contrast, some students, particularly women, report a feeling of freedom,
empowerment or liberation upon performing their gender norm violations:
• All in all I thought this was a very eye opening experience. I really got the chance
to understand the male dominated area [of] a bar. And [I] got the rush of seeing
what it is like to switch the roles…(woman who bought men drinks in a bar)
• [A]fter following through with my norm violation, I found that I felt a sense of
freedom, rather than a feeling of guilt (woman who chose not to play a nurturing
Several students have expressed how the norm violation assignment deepened
their understanding of the pervasiveness of gender norms. This includes a deeper
appreciation of the extent to which gender norms regulate their own lives, as well as
the lives of others.
• In this experiment, I realized how important doing gender is on a daily basis, for
the respect and acceptance of those around you. I now see each way that I do
gender every day, ranging from being submissive to my boyfriend to wearing
makeup and painting my nails (woman who lifted free weights at the gym).
• In conclusion, I learned more through this assignment than I would have with
just a book and a lecture. Society constructs gender and we just follow it and
conform to it. Since it is with us from day one we wouldn’t know what to do
without it. Gender is important [whether] we want it to be or not (woman who
offered assistance to men who were performing difﬁcult physical tasks).
• As a white male from the South, in a patriarchal society, it is easier [for me] to
continue [to uphold gender norms] than to go against the ﬂow. This assignment
leaves me with the thought of everyone who does not ﬁt in society’s norm. The
amount of their days and the amount of energy that it takes to not just ﬁght
against the norm, but to just stand up for what they want must be exhausting
(man who asked his wife’s advice on masculine topics in a public setting)
Some students are able to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between
gender norms and power:
• I can conclude that through my experiment and reﬂection, that even the most
simple acts that no one pays attention to, have a reinforcement to patriarchy, and
can sufﬁciently state that the society we live in upholds its patriarchal structure
through not only media, but through social and gender norms that have become
a sense of tradition (man who wore his hair in a more feminine style).
In short, the Undoing Gender Assignment is a simple, but fun and powerful
exercise that illustrates challenging and important theoretical concepts for students
in a gender studies course.