Opinion

Gender without an audience

When Judith Butler wrote her theory of gender performativity in 1990, I doubt she ever imagined a global pandemic, national lockdown, and a year of social distancing. Although did anyone really imagine our 2020?

When she wrote that gender was the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movement, and styles constitute our gendered self, she envisioned a never-ending performance with society as our constant audience. One where how we walked, talked, dressed, and even how we had sex was part of a script that made up our gender. 2020 put a stop to a lot of things: clubbing, family gatherings, holidays. The majority of us were left stuck in our homes. But did it also put a stop to gender performances too?

Butler makes her point clearly, as do many other theorists: gender cannot change over night, not even over a year. It is a deeply ingrained phenomenon from generations before us. Yet very few people have ever gone ‘without an audience’ for so long. 2020 was queen of wacky lockdown trends and a look back over some of them suggests that many of us were questioning, if not abandoning, our gender performances, whether we knew it or not…

Trends of 2020 – from manic banana-breads to Tiger Kings – ranged from questionable to crazed. There were a handful, however, that gave pause for thought. The first of these was the abundance of shaved heads surfacing on my weekly Zooms. Indeed several of my friends took the buzzcut plunge, even if it may have been to varying degrees of success and satisfaction (skull shape is an unpredictable game to play). Previously, shaving your head, particularly for women, has been associated with people on TV having mental breakdowns. What has become known as the ‘Britney incident’, when the star suffered a post-divorce meltdown and shaved her head in 2007, is just one such case of media shock (after all, a woman would obviously only disregard such norms if plunged into a state of psychosis). Female hair has been historically gendered and sexualised, whether by religion or high-street advertising. Even for men there are historical connections with virility and there has always been something taboo about intentionally embracing hair loss. Maybe there is still some of the class stigma traditionally attached to ‘skinhead’ culture, or maybe some boys just want to hold on to what they’ve got for as long as they’ve got it! Either way, hair is a big part of our daily performance as a gender signifier and getting rid of it is bold…in more than one sense of the word.

When women across society were asked why they chose to shave their heads this year, many responded that they’d always wanted to and never been ‘brave enough’, that they had previously worried about what people would think, that they thought it looked unprofessional in the workplace, or that the upkeep was simply more practical. During lockdown what was ‘professional’ didn’t matter as homes became offices. We didn’t need to worry about when the next social occasion might be, or even going into school the next day. It seemed liberating. Yet when so many of us talk about our fear of social repercussions, it makes you question how much control we actually had over our bodies in the first place, if we could only change it when no one was watching.

I spoke to one recently bald student who told me she wanted to “manifest externally a fresh start in a time that feels so monotonous”, a need for change we can all empathise with. She also highlighted the ties she felt between her hair and her sexuality, noticing how it helped her “express my queerness more openly” finding that it allowed her to “experiment with different kinds of beauty by being less dependent on my hair”. In many ways, the buzzcut here is its own performance of queer identity. It is interesting though how this year has given some the courage, and perhaps privacy, to truly experiment with, subvert and adopt different performances, as well as giving them up.

This is only one of many ‘gender experimentations’ covertly circulating this year. More recently on TikTok some of you may have seen the string of beauty trends exploring ‘how to be feminine like boys are feminine’ or ‘how to be pretty the way men are pretty’. This usually involves female creators experimenting with makeup and fashion to try and perfect that Chalamet chiq or Harry Styles well, style, on women. They construct the cutting bone-structure, slick back their hair, embrace the long, luscious eyelashes and don fitted androgynous clothing. The result is not only a series of incredibly creative gender expressions, but also a vocalised desire to push and blend boundaries – to expand concepts of masculinity and femininity in our appearances.

Not all of us may have been experimenting with bold new looks though. For some of us getting through 2020 was enough and fashion was the bottom of our list of priorities. Even in this though, there was something vaguely radical. 

For women especially, lockdown and the lack of an ‘audience’ led to a rather liberating lack of personal upkeep. One student told me “I haven’t shaved my legs since September!” and spoke about how she “wore no makeup at all during the first lockdown”. For me, it’s been the abandonment of bras. Having always been told women’s clothes were their prisons, I never really bought it. Pre-lockdown I could rock 6-inch heels like my feet had no nerve-endings and jeans were ‘every-day’ wear. Six months in and ‘athleisure’ taught me just how uncomfortable my clothes actually are.

Of course, for many women, the act of putting makeup on or ‘dressing-up’ was something they continued throughout 2020. One of my friends told me she put her usual makeup on every morning during lockdown. For some people makeup is expressive in itself, and for others it simply helps them feel ‘ready for the day’. The fact was that many of these women were now conscious of why they chose to wear it or not. The action was no longer motivated by the possibility of colleagues asking ‘Are you feeling ok? You look tired today.’. They were making that decision for themselves, not for whoever may be watching.

Don’t be deceived though, because 2020 wasn’t just for the shes and theys. Masculinity hasn’t been left behind either. ‘Lad culture’ can be the ultimate arena of performativity, with how you act, posture and speak key to your participation and acceptance. Well, ‘the lads’ were decidedly locked away at home this year. 

On TikTok the hashtag Femmeboyfriday was trending by Autumn, and this isn’t just a social media phenomenon. According to the commentators of high fashion, the ‘f-trend’ is underway. Mens’ styles on the (socially-distanced) catwalks this year have been increasingly feminine, with softer materials and more androgynous designs. Many of my male friends have also developed habits that they wouldn’t have otherwise dedicated as much time to pursuing. One is recording musical montages, another perfecting his patisserie, some publishing their creative writing for the first time and others making more artwork. ‘Toxic masculinity’’s performances, it seems, have little place in the face of boredom and social isolation.

This is all under a certain assumption however: namely, that our homes are safe spaces, or don’t have judgmental audiences of their own. Being with a family that is unaccepting of your gender identity and expressions has been traumatic for many during the pandemic, who have been trapped in homes where they aren’t free to act themselves. Constant comments on your appearance, reversion to the environment of your teenage years, and pressure to conform to more conservative family values in your day to day life have exactly the opposite effects. They provide not just an audience, but hecklers in the front row and security guards round the back. There are tangible negative consequences for failing to uphold particular performances of gender in these environments, and compliance is often survival. Those in such situations know more than most the acts we put on, and they don’t need telling how their gender reception depends upon their performances.

2020 and the coronavirus pandemic have taken everyone outside the norms of daily life and beyond the usual gaze of the ‘public eye’, for better or for worse. When we inevitably return will we run back to our lipsticks, razors and barbers? Or will we let our bald heads shine in the daylight and burn the bras? Either way, it will matter less how we act, and more that we are aware that we act; that we can ask ourselves why we perform, and who we are performing for.