We’ve spent a lot of this class talking about gazes – and, more specifically, what it means to perform racialized gender and exercise agency when we are always already responding to the gazes that have been defining, limiting, and interpellating us. When Deborah Willis studies photographs of African-Americans from the 1890’s to the present, she emphasizes the work that was done to insert particularly Black women into art from which they had previously been absent; to add them to the list of bodies at which a viewer could gaze (2009). In discussing selfies, our class focused on the ways in which our self-surveillance of gender performance reflects an internalization of the gazes that have been trained upon us and, more specifically, the structures of power relations that support and inform those gazes. Our self-surveillance is not arbitrary and our performance, even when we are alone and feel our most agential, is always already interpellated into broader systems of power and domination that reinforce white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and the presumed deviance of larger or differently-abled bodies. Which keeps leaving me with the question, how do I perform gender in a way that retains my agency rather than simply reinserts me as the object of another gaze?
This summer, I attended a performance called Queertopia, a cabaret of sorts designed as an alternative to corporate Pride. In one piece, the artist danced and strode across the stage, inviting the audience to objectify her body as she saw fit and in a way that validated her gender, while a recorded excerpt from another artist’s writing played in the background. The text, by Gordon Hall, was titled “Party Friends.” (I’ve linked it here – http://gordonhall.net/files/Hall.pdf – it’s only four pages and incredible; I strongly recommend reading it.) It describes the people we half-know at queer and trans-centered dance spaces, that we only interacted with through passing compliments, but with whom we created a collective vision for that semi-closed public space. Hall, describing monthly events known as Chances Dances, writes that these “parties [are] zones of collective vision that recognize non-normative sexualities and genders. To be surrounded by strangers and almost-strangers in these semi-closed spaces is to temporarily exist within a different perceptual scheme than those which govern life outside. This is an inside that is worth defending, because for many of us it is the only public space in which we can be seen” (2015, 153). Hall goes on to write about the violence of (especially transphobic) objectification by the general public, and how these spaces work to counter that. Hall concludes that these spaces, through the gender-affirming compliments “party friends” give us, provide an opportunity for “reparative mutual objectification,” which I see as a way of complicating the many gazes through which we are always viewed. This process is not about pretending that we are not being objectified through another’s gaze – rather, it is about creating a space where that gaze is affirming; where we want to be seen. This still doesn’t answer my question about how to perform my gender in more fully public spaces, but I think it begins to give me a way to understand gazes that can be affirming rather than harmful – gazes that can counteract my internalized self-surveillance by operating with a collective vision antithetical to that of broader society.
Hall, Gordon. “Party Friends,” http://gordonhall.net/files/Hall.pdf. Accessed April 26, 2017.
Willis, Deborah. Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1890’s to the Present. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)