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Gender as Performance in the Work of Nan Goldin

Cynthia Wilson

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary . . . the prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”

                                                     -- Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera1

In 1991 Nan Goldin spent an afternoon photographing friends as they prepared for, and took part in, a gay pride parade. The photographic series records the gender transformation of three individuals through drag performance, and includes the work Misty, Taboo! and Jimmy Paulette Dressing.2 By donning “feminine” coded attire and other accoutrements such as wigs, jewelry and make-up, the drag queens in Nan Goldin’s work perform, and therefore create, the “feminine” gender of the two-sex system. Yet, while performance places them securely within the binary male/female gender system, it also fractures the same system by “undoing” gender through slippage.

The binary and the idea of the normative both rely on gender as an innate or intrinsic characteristic based on one’s birth sex. In other words, if a child is born with male sex organs, he will also innately possess, or develop, a “normative” masculine gender. There are at least two problems with this viewpoint. The first lies in what Anne Fausto-Sterling has proven in her studies of the intersexed: that sexual difference itself is not strictly a male/female duality.3 Therefore, if gender is based on the sexed body, it follows that gender can not be defined as a strict duality or binary. The second problem is that although sex is understood as a physical or natural attribute, gender is typically thought of as a cultural construct. As such, gender is created through enactment; it is played out on the surface of the body as well as through coded actions. Because gender is outside the body, it remains fluid, changeable.

The fluidity of gender is nowhere more evidenced than in Goldin’s images of transvestites. In one particular photograph of Goldin’s, Taboo! sits in the middle of the room and is the only figure completely dressed. Misty is to the left in a state of undress, still in undergarments with no wig and incomplete make-up. Jimmy Paulette is to the right of Taboo!, wig and make-up in place, but wearing only underwear and a girdle.4 In the midst of transformation, slippage exists here purposely. We are without a doubt viewing men, yet they are in the process of becoming women. The play of slippage in gender is ever present throughout the set of photos, suggesting that such slippages may be the only things “natural” about gender. Even when presenting the completed feminine transformation, the viewer knows that these are “physically” male bodies. The fact that slippage occurs here seems to imply that “non-normative” gender exists, which also implies that gender is non-performative. However, examining the construction of “normative” or binary gender disproves this, as well as illuminates societal biases not only based on the construct, but necessary for its continued existence.

During an interview published in The Haraway Reader, Donna Haraway states that, “Gender is a verb, not a noun… (and) is always about the production of subjects in relation to other subjects, and in relation to artifacts.”5 So the construction of gender not only exists through “doing,” but through interaction each person involved is further

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