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Performative Sexuality

Performative Sexuality

Not being an academic I rarely have the opportunity to use the word ‘performative.’ And it feels good.  It conveys the sense of taking a familiar idea to a higher level of significance.  With a word like ‘sexuality’ already fairly weighty in US culture you can only go to the head of the class by putting performative in front of it.  But I really do have an idea here.

Watching the Christina Aguilera/Cher film Burlesque was a delight.  Women’s voices and bodies center stage in an odd combination of scandalous and old-fashioned.  I know some folks would ‘tsk’ at semi-clad women dancing suggestively to provocative songs.  As a lesbian feminist from the Pleistocene Age I’d be the last to deny the rampant sexual exploitation of women in the media and in every day life.

But as a femme/feminist I do insist we not allow that ongoing oppression to inhibit our female sexuality.  The Sex Wars of the 1980s proved one can not suppress sexual expression under the guise of protecting women from exploitation.  Protection too easily turns into censorship—which always strikes lesbians and other queer people first.

At one of the performances of “Burlesque” I attended six women of a variety of sizes and ages arrived in the lobby in full corsetry much like folks have done at screenings of  Rocky Horror Picture Show almost since the film first opened in 1975.  The guys and gals who show up in bustiers and garter belts (ala Tim Curry’s Sweet Transvestite) are playing with displaying a kind of sexuality that most people wouldn’t let themselves do.

Using an old fashioned story—country girl makes good in show biz and finds a family backstage—Cher and Christina perform the mythology of sexuality with spirit and irony.  Everybody needs an idealized community; that they’re wearing fishnets (gals) and mascara (guys) ain’t bad either.

Performative sexuality—that is stylized presentation or performance of sexual attitudes and intents—is everywhere and not always benign for women.  Apache dancing in early 20th century Paris was often like ritualized spouse abuse set to music.  Flamenco dancing from Spain plays out a similar kind of power in the thrusting sexuality but doesn’t cast women as victims.

Bob Fosse has been identified as the master (so to speak) in the field for films like All That Jazz, Chicago, both delicious pieces of performative sexuality.

But we sometimes forget women too have created their own expressions of performative sexuality. It may be stretching it but going back to Esther Williams is not too far fetched.  Numerous synchronized swimming sequences in the movies of the 1940s and 50s were built around her and her classic Jantzen swim suit. She would plunge from a tower, plastic flowers in her hair, into a sparkling pool filled with other women to ‘dance’ with all the flash and sensuality of any Fosse number.

When I go to the Dickens Faire I swirl my skirts with other women who also dress up in the corsets and sweeping skirts we fought so hard to get out of.  We’re feeling something inside the stricture of those clothes. (I’m sure some one else has written a thesis on this.)  Now that we don’t HAVE to wear them the brush of the skirts against our ankles heightens our senses.

The glimpse of our own breasts, not just the glance from others, is intoxicating.  It reminds us we enjoy being sexy, that we have some control over our sexiness.  And that sex can be playful.  The dichotomy of revealed cleavage and sweeping full skirts creates a physical tension internally for the wearer not just for the viewer. That tension is the first energy of performative sexuality.

Of course it’s all an acquired taste. Some prefer lacy garments under a tweed suit. Or khakis and a t shirt, or knee socks and Bermuda shorts, or…

So when Cher stands in her modified tux with its plunging neckline in Burlesque we know she’s in her 60s and has had work done, and she’s sexy because you can tell she feels sexy; the tension of the suit and the flash of skin are the spark to not just men but for women too. Christina Aguilera embodies the irony that is necessary to enjoyment of performative sexuality.  She is able to be provocative and comment on it at the same time.  Not bad for a first time actor.

Finally, the film is successful because ultimately it’s about women bonding and making a place for each other to feel at home.  It’s also about a young woman saving her female mentor from economic disaster. Of course it’s a simple fantasy…but the Surrealists believed you had to imagine or dream a better future in order to get there.  Let the feathers and sequins fly!

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com

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