In her book Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age (2002) in a chapter titled “Do Clothes Make the Woman?: Performing in and out of Industrial Time,” anthropologist Kath Weston critically deconstructs the notions that gender exists only through individual acts of performance. Instead, by observing a lesbian prom held in San Francisco, “Prom Nite,” California in 1985 Weston argues that by exclusively evaluating performance as the way in which gender is constructed, such things as personal identities are not accounted for. In other words, one cannot understand gender without understanding how an individual relates to others in social hierarchies such as race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, etc.
Importantly, Weston spends a good deal of this essay refuting gender performance as the only way people know and become their gender. Judith Butler, one of the foremost gender theorists in the 1990s claims in one of her most groundbreaking essays at the time, Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity that gender is done. One is told to act and perform certain mannerisms and behaviors that align with one gender and then that routine becomes so familiar that it is then seen as innate to one’s identity and therefore essential.
Weston spends a great deal of her essay refuting this. If one gender is performed and then becomes essentialized, then by that logic one can perform a different gender and have that identity become essentialized. But Weston says that that is not the case when discussing lesbian identity.
She interviews a lesbian named Vicki Turner who discusses her friend’s butch identity: “She’s worn skirts and things like that. But I couldn’t see her in these [gestures at spandex pants] and carrying it off to be really this ultra-Jessica Rabbit kind of thing. Sorry, girlfriend! It’s like me being the daddy butch. They’d look at me and go, ‘Sorry, hon. You just don’t have it.’” What Turner is describing is a certain innateness to her friend’s butch identity and her own femme identity. Weston says, “Drawing on notions of fit and coherence, some women claimed that wearing any outfit can feel like putting on drag if it’s not ‘right for you.’” Gender is a core identity then, that cannot simply be performed and re-performed.
But what makes Weston’s piece so compelling is her inclusion of an intersectional lens before the concept intersectionality became part of the zeitgeist. Weston claims that it is impossible to look at an individual’s gender as existing in a vacuum with no other social input or pressure on how that gender is expressed. Of the prom, she wrote: “Although the meaning of dress and dance, invitation and stance at the prom was never fixed, the range of possible interpretations emerged from historically conditioned relations of power….” Gender simply cannot be reduced to categories of choice (such as clothing options, hairstyles, mannerisms) but that it is powerfully and sometimes messily influenced by race, religions, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. Gender is deeply rooted in one’s identity and shaped by each person’s own lived experience. Therefore, gender expression will thus be performed accordingly.