IM Issue 8, 2012 Editorial
Editorial by: Mick Broderick
Welcome to this issue on the theme of Masculine/Feminine.
As the cover image for this edition suggests, following the influential works of Sigmund Freud (1905/57) on polymorphous sexuality and through to Judith Butler’s notions of policing sexual norms (2011), gender is always in some sense performative. Yet, paradoxically, the social and culture encoding of any gendered expression may not necessarily be interpreted according to the intent of the performer. Decades of scholarly work in the humanities and the arts, in particular second wave feminist and post-feminist movements, have provided lasting insights that inform subsequent analyses of queer cultures, masculinity and disability. The social construction of gender and sexuality—and its governmentality as Michel Foucault (2010) demonstrated—is fundamental to understanding what constitutes ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ at any given time or place.
Even relatively brief temporal changes can evince subtle alterations to the representation and performance of gender. Stuart Bender’s complex essay concerns the ways in which Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the role played by Tom Hanks as Captain Miller conveys a modernist sensibility in acting that differs significantly from the earlier World War II combat films of the era. Concentrating on the long-neglected theoretical approaches to film acting, Bender’s analysis contrasts Spielberg’s film with the performance of Errol Flynn in Raoul Walsh’s Objective Burma! (1945). The influence of the post-war Stanislavski/Method acting techniques, alongside technological developments and the employment of military technical advisors, has created more nuanced and detailed performances of masculinity. Bender suggests this can help explain why audiences anecdotally read Ryan as more ‘realistic’ and ‘authentic’ than period studio combat films.
Masculinity and its screen manifestation also informs Briohny Doyle’s sophisticated reading of apocalyptic tropes in survivalist films and television series. Drawing from diverse productions such as Deliverance, First Blood, Fight Club, Jindabyne, Man V Wild and The Road, Doyle argues that in order to survive the maelstrom of various ecological or postmodern crises an ‘apocalyptic desire’ operates in these narratives that serves to reinforce, reinstate and reinvigorate ‘traditional’ masculine characteristics as part of a discourse of loss and renewal. For Doyle, the survivalist aggression apparent is these screen representations simultaneously embraces an apocalyptic nostalgia while perpetually portraying ‘masculinity in crisis’ irrespective of the catastrophe or threat. An artistic question remains, what other modes of narrative representation can be invoked in such scenarios to imagine new possibilities for masculinity beyond its current cul de sac.
If mainstream screen images of men mostly conform to predictable performative tropes, the transcendence of femininity is equally problematic. Olivia Efthimiou’s rich analysis of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) suggests how screen art might obliterate conventional gender boundaries. By applying Barbara Creed’s screen theory of the monstrous-feminine to interpret the portrayal of Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, she finds a subversive expression of emergence symbolically via the female vampire. This representation of becoming, of Braidotti’s ‘subject-in-process’ and Kristeva’s other is, according to Efthimiou, a skilfully transformative representation of classical soft femininity, towards a queer ‘sublime’ that is the ‘apotheosis of the monstrous-feminine’, evoking both abject horror and erotic desire.
The problematics of gender representation are similarly replete in small screen drama. Kathleen Ellis considers the American television series Friday Night Lights (2006-11) as non-conventional and ‘radical’ in its portrayal of disability and its intersection with community, sexuality and masculinity. Rather than conform to the TV series’ norm of using disability to ‘kill-off’ characters, Friday Night Lights embraces aspects of the fluidity of bodily impairment alongside the social restrictions that might confine it. By focussing on a high school quarterback whose career/trajectory is (positively) redirected due to a traumatic accident the series offers an alternative narrative to formulaic televisual fare that usually emphasises ‘inspirational’ stories or perpetuates social stigmas of disability.
Beyond cinema and television the online digital world provides opportunities to re-imagine and re-define gender codes and their performative and/or embodied capacities. Entering the virtual cyberspace of Second Life, Jude Elund navigates through the terrain of the Lost Gardens of Apollo, a site of ‘corporeal escapism’ constructed around archaic Greek mythologies of hyper-masculine sexuality that encompass both hetero-normative and homosexual identification. Set on a lush island designed by Dane Zander, the virtual locale is G-rated, which limits the capacity of avatar display to non-nudity with no sexual role-playing, while the site overtly welcomes ‘all genders, shapes, creeds and colours’. In the Lost Gardens Elund finds homoerotic art and architecture everywhere on display and avatars appealing to a gaze that both conveys ideals of (hyper)masculinity while feminising themselves as ‘objects of desire’. Ultimately and ironically, Elund suggests that despite the implicit capacity to invent new fabulations in this virtual, and potentially utopian domain, conventional ideologies are reaffirmed such as gender normativity and patterns of consumption under late capitalism.
Apart from these screen mediations of gender, two articles offer novel interpretations of theatrical production and inventive praxis in their revisioning classic Shakespearean texts and their adaptation. Melissa Merchant affirms that, in its attempts to create a discourse of femininity the Restoration stage was ‘irrevocably altered by the feminine presence’. The proof for Merchant, apart from historical comparison between these period texts, came in the rehearsals and public performance of the new historicist, composite construct Her Infinite Variety. The absence of female actors during the Restoration, in contrast to the myriad of female roles, presented both a problem and opportunity, particularly in the now clichéd understanding of Restoration characterisations of the ‘ideal’ woman, the ‘gay woman, and the ‘whore’. The tradition of cross-dressing actors where men and boys played female roles, Merchant suggests, possibly enabled a knowing acceptance of the more violent Restoration sequences, something contemporary rehearsals foregrounded as troubling.
Theatre director Jenny de Reuck and filmmaker Ken Miller also grappled with the complexities of gendered performance in the production of Titus Andronicus. Inverting the Shakespearean acting tradition, in this production all the actors were women who performed every role, irrespective of the identified, written gender. As with Merchant’s thesis, de Reuck and Miller found performers exhibited an entrenched resistance to certain staged actions, especially in the ‘brutality and violence’ of the drama (assassination, decapitation, mutilation and rape). And yet, the power of the Bard’s discourse, the ‘exquisite lyricism’ of his lines empowered the actors to transcend the binaries of masculine/feminine. The authors contend that perhaps unremarkably, given the source and genius of the work, gender ‘becomes immaterial’ in the realisation, one that nevertheless ‘transgressed the traditional boundaries of performance.’
It is worth noting here that several of these contributions come from postgraduate students. These offerings are a testament to the bounty of emerging scholarship and their sophisticated engagement with key aspects of screen media and theatre in relation to gender, representation and creative arts praxis.
And finally, a word of appreciation to the anonymous peer reviewers for this special edition—once again, many thanks for your time and for your valuable critiques and suggestions.
(for the editors)
Butler, Judith. (2011). Your Behavior Creates Your Gender, online interview.
Foucault, Michel. (2010). The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Freud, Sigmund. (1953). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 74.