JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A young butch art student who speaks to her former lovers in Polaroids.

One of these is a high-femme whose love she could not accept.

Cassandra chides her former lover ...

... for buying into the culture of gender performance.

 

Exploring the boundary between documentary and fiction

The mixture of documentary and fictionalized elements in Queer Feast demonstrates how we as viewers employ visual representations to both reconfigure our pasts and create new identities. Citron employs a wide array of techniques that blur the boundary between documentary and fiction, including interviews, re-enactments and improvisations based on personal experiences, family photographs and home movies. For example, Citron uses the thousands of photographs taken by Norma to flesh out the story of her and Virgina’s hidden history together in Leftovers. The work provides a semi-fictionalized account of their lives by re-constructing their relationship out of the documents they left behind.

Documentary also meets fiction in the Sara/Isabel portions of Mixed Greens. Citron based these fictional characters on an actual couple whom she interviewed for the film, which adds an element of reality to this fictionalized portrayal. The narrative and formal structure of the film also blend documentary with fiction. The film is shot through the point of view of the camera that Sara and Isabel have set up in order to provide a record of their lives for their soon-to-be-adopted daughter. They speak directly to the camera as in a talking head interview, creating a fiction that is also meant to be taken as a documentary.

Citron writes of home movies in a similar manner in Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, as narrative fragments that become semi-fictionalized as we use them to construct coherent identities and histories of our selves and our pasts. Citron argues that home-made visual representations constitute both documentations of our pasts as well as foundations for future fictions:

“In constructing a narrative, fragments are knit into a whole; what has been shattered is cohered; a sense of self is restored. Narrative construction and integration of the self…go hand in hand” (Home Movies 44).

The visual documentations of our lives engender what Citron terms “necessary fictions” that serve as key elements in the formation of our identities and the construction of the narratives of our lives. This “necessary fiction” is exactly what is provided by the documentary elements in the narratives of Queer Feast.

Performativity and gender

This ambiguous treatment of reality and fiction connects to an issue that is distinct, but nevertheless related to the role of visual representations in forming our identities. With the exception of the segments exploring Citron’s family heritage in Mixed Greens, the interactive narratives in Queer Feast are concerned for the most part with the construction of the queer identities of their lesbian subjects. The performance of gender plays a central role in the formation and transformation of these queer identities.

Citron describes her generation as existing between the strict butch/femme dynamics of lesbian relationships in the pre-Stonewall generation of the 1960s and the neo-conservatism of the 2000s. Her generation, which came of age in the 1970s and is often associated with the countercultural movement, rejected the re-articulation of heterosexual gender roles in butch/femme dynamics. They considered “mimicking hets,” as one character in Mixed Greens puts it, to be outdated and socially regressive. However, Citron’s narratives do not condemn performances of butch/femme roles as heterosexist attempts to normalize the queer. As Citron points out, it is a question of desire more than politics:

“For some, desire is very much connected to butch/femme dynamics, and for others it is not” (Citron interview).

It is also a matter of historical change. In creating the characters for Mixed Greens, Citron interviewed over 20 women of all ages in order to gain insight into generational differences in the construction of queer identities. What she found is that for the 1970s generation, the burning issue was the freedom to express queer sexual orientations rather than challenge gender norms. When queer identities were finally recognized (if not legitimized or accepted) in the 1990s and 2000s, attention shifted to challenging gender roles and the very construct of gender itself (Citron interview).

There is no doubt a liberatory element in being able to express queer desire, whatever form it takes, including that of butch/femme performance. However, we should question the assertion that our desires can ever be totally separated from the dynamics of power and social contexts that influence our modes of being and ways of living in the world; from politics, in other words. The central concern surrounding queer performances of gender in the narratives of Queer Feast is whether or not these performances conform to or disrupt the heterosexual norms that they reiterate. That is, do they reify the dominance of heteronormative values by demanding that queer subjects structure their identities and relationship dynamics according to a gender binary? Or, do their performances of heteronormativity effectively “queer the norm” and undermine its authority?

The matter at stake is whether the reenactment of masculine and feminine gender roles augment their strength and ubiquitousness, or if queer performances of these roles reach an extreme point of parody where their powers of normalization are subverted, and the supposed naturalness of masculine/feminine identities and roles is exposed as a heteronormative ideological construction.

Namely, we are looking to establish the political significance of gender performance in Queer Feast. This question of performance politics can be explored most effectively through reference to Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity. Butler follows a Foucauldian line of thought in defining norms, specifically those governing sexuality and gender, as symbolic and material demands made upon subjects. These norms function on the plane of discourse and through the actions of our bodies as we live them out in our everyday lives. Sexual orientation and gender roles are thus ideological constructs that must be performed constantly, whose historicity is hidden under a façade of naturalness. In Butler’s view, the male/female gender binary is a construct that derives its legitimacy from its presumed naturalness—the idea that it pre-exists ideology and politics.

Gender roles are thus always performed, even by those who define themselves as heterosexual. Repetition of performance is a key step in this process. Butler writes that our performances of the masculine/feminine, butch/femme paradigm

“do not index a sameness, but rather the way in which the social articulation of the term depends upon its repetition, which constitutes one dimension of the performative structure of gender. Terms of gender designation are thus never settled once and for all but are constantly in the process of being remade.”
(Undoing Gender 10)

That is, we reconfirm heteronormativity on a daily basis through our performances of its dictates. These performances constitute us as either male or female, masculine or feminine subjects—we structure our lives and identities according to this binary. Butler, again following Foucault, characterizes this conditioning of our subjectivity as a form of biopolitical production:

“If gender is a norm, it is not the same as a model that individuals seek to approximate. On the contrary, it is a form of social power that produces the intelligible field of subjects, and an apparatus by which the gender binary is instituted. As a norm that appears independent of the practices that it governs, its ideality is the reinstituted effect of those very practices.”
(Undoing Gender 48)

Butler argues that these norms mold our subjectivities, as

“to become subject to a regulation is also to become subjectivized by it, that is, to be brought into being as a subject precisely through being regulated” (Butler, Undoing Gender 41).

This binary is not restricted to heterosexual relationships, or the identities of those who define themselves as heterosexual. The narratives of Queer Feast offer examples and critiques of the reiteration of the gender binary within queer identities and relationships, illustrating what Butler calls “the transferability of the attribute[s]” (Undoing Gender 213) associated with heteronormativity.

Mixed Greens provides various examples of the ways in which gender performances reiterate heterosexual norms, the most striking of which is the young butch lesbian’s testimonies of her past relationships. She begins by stating that she is “swearing off straight girls,” whom she believes are only attracted to her because they “mimicked hets [heterosexuals]” in their relationships by adopting butch/femme roles. She confesses that she has begun to think that these roles are perhaps necessary in structuring the dynamics of queer relationships, as “There’s nothing in society that teaches you to love something like me.” She also admits being attracted to “high-femme” lesbians, and considers their exaggerated femininity to be effective queer performances of “owning” their sexuality.

However, in another interview the butch girl also speaks about the problematic aspects of adopting an ultra-butch persona. She complains about butch “dykes” that are “ten times worse than straight men” in competing to display the most masculine behavior. She describes this behavior as “exaggerated male swagger”: smoking ostentatiously, moving in packs, and hitting on women with lines such as “if I get you stoned down in the basement, do you wanna fuck?”

In addition to the butch girl’s criticisms of hyper-masculine butch performances, her ex-girlfriend Cassandra also denounces strict compliance with butch/femme dynamics from within a Polaroid. Cassandra, who is black, tells her ex and viewers that butch/femme role-playing is essentially “a white girl subculture thing” in which you must “leave your identity at the door” in order to conform to its demands.

These segments of Mixed Greens illustrate both the advantageous and disadvantageous aspects of reiterating heteronormative gender dynamics within queer relationships. Whether these dynamics fulfill lesbians’ desires or not, we see that the rules governing social relations within queer relationships can be just as confining and exclusive as those governing heterosexual relationships.

The concept of performance also extends to the act of viewing the works in Queer Feast. There is a performative element in interacting with the various segments of the works in a way that allows us to interlace their own personal histories with the narratives Citron presents. Spectators are called upon to be active participants in the production of meaning and transmission of affect that are essential elements of the spectatorship experience.

Viewing Queer Feast is also a performative act in that it involves a political choice to engage with works of art that reveal and celebrate queer identities and ways of living. Citron’s decision to put these films on the Internet for free, where any number of viewers can reach them, is important in this regard. She removes the barriers that prevent the general public gaining access to experimental art, especially important when much of her subject matter here revolves around the pain and hardship of invisibility and non-acceptance. Queer Feast allows for queer spectatorship practices that, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the viewer, engage them in a performative politics that celebrates the subversion of existing societal norms.

Performance as politics

So far, I have explored how performance both within and without the narratives of Queer Feast relates to queer identity and desire. Another related issue at stake here is the role performance plays (or can play) in a queer politics. Butler writes that performances that queer the norm

“show us how the norms that govern contemporary notions of reality can be questioned and how new modes of reality can become instituted. These practices of instituting new modes of reality take place in part through the scene of embodiment, where the body is not understood as a static and accomplished fact, but as an aging process, a mode of becoming that, in becoming otherwise, exceeds the norm, reworks the norm, and makes us see how realities to which we through we were confined are not written in stone.”
(Undoing Gender 29)

Butler describes a politics of performance enacted through queer bodies that actually challenges (rather than simply reproduces) norms. These performances demonstrate that heteronormativity does not exclusively define the parameters of possible identities, desires, lifestyles and viewing practices– the queer “outside” becomes a liveable option instead of a mere spectre haunting the borders of normalcy.

In this sense, we can view all of the stories of queer identities and desire presented in the interactive narratives of Queer Feast as ethico-political demands of the queer “others” of heteronormativity to claim visibility and recognition. Citron’s narratives affectively convey personal stories of queer desire and identity while also addressing broader issues such as the invisibility of the queer community and the complex and contradictory politics surrounding queer citations of heteronormative gender roles.

Even when subjects such as Norma and Virginia choose to remain secluded and invisible, Leftovers performs a political act in lending representation to their previously hidden identities. Cocktails & Appetizers, Mixed Greens, and As American as Apple Pie also engage in queer politics by exploring the matrices formed by the intersections of desire, the power dynamics of gender performativity, identity formation, and assimilation. The narratives’ ethical call to make the queer community visible is augmented by the increased level of responsibility and control given to viewers by the interactive structures of the narratives, which allows us, like the characters, to become performers who express queer stories and identities of our own.

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