Everything That We Are Is Performative

Food for Thought @ Khao Nom

I’ve been surveying the current state of gender politics because I feel I’m falling behind, particularly in the area of Transsexualism. On Facebook, I asked my friends to share their knowledge on the topic. Nicole, whom I’ve known since college, said her daughter, Ivanka, who majored in gender studies in college, could answer my questions. I suggested having lunch at Khao Nom, not because Nicole is half Thai but because I’ve been meaning to go there for over a year.

Although we kept in touch on Facebook, I hadn’t seen Nicole since the ’90s. Oddly, today, I felt like no time had passed. When I was in college, she was dating my best friend, Jordan @jonahfwd. Even then, she was a bit motherly, taking care of not just Jordan but me also. She would often drive us around in her Mercedes. Since I was just a poor art school student, it was a treat to be riding in the lap of luxury.

Today, she did all the ordering and paid for it too. When she saw that I was blowing my nose with a napkin, she gave me a pack of tissues. She drove me to the subway station afterward.

What we call “chemistry” in interpersonal relationships has to do with the roles we naturally play. These roles need not be consistent; you might play a fatherly role for someone, and someone else might play a fatherly role for you. Great Jazz musicians can lead or follow; the chemistry between the particular combination of players determines what works best. A conflict arises when two people cannot find comfortable roles they can play for each other.

Just like gender, these social roles existed before we were born. When Judith Butler says gender is performative, it sounds as though gender is unique, but all the roles we play in our lives—be it father, mother, waiter, boss, Asian, white, young, old—are performative. Our culture has established specific images of them. We can learn to play them if they feel right to us, or challenge them. Without the mechanism that allows us to culturally establish these images (e.g. “chair”), we wouldn’t be able to communicate anything. But, the forms of these social roles must keep evolving, like a river changes its shape based on the amount of water it carries.