Saturday, 10 December 2011

Times: Gender matters

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What did you think of the document Roots submitted tothe General Council of the Nationalist Party?

My impression from the outside is that the party decided not to carry out any radical reformulation of the basic views that had been approved more than 30 years ago. It was deemed sufficient to produce a sort of manifesto that would reassure all citizens that the party accepted as final the divorce legislation and would go ahead with the cohabitation law that would also recognise same sex unions as civil partnerships.

The document itself makesno attempt at any deepconsideration of any forthcoming legislation on family-connected issues.

As a teacher of philosophy, I would have been pleased to see more reflection on the social dimensions of the envisaged changes – a reflection that was not coolly undertaken at the time of the divorce issue.

I was intrigued to read in a recent number of a Theatre Arts Journal an account of how the theatre studies department of the (Catholic) University of San Diego animated the debate when a referendum was held in California on the same-sex marriage issue.

They produced two performances on campus that invited the students and their guests to ask such questions as, ‘What is really the nature of the difference between male and female?’

Can you give us an account of these two plays?

The first was called ‘Plastic Fruit for Hungry Mouths’. The main actor sat unspeaking in a metal dog cage. A sign attached to the cage read, ‘Do not feed the homosexuals’. Three paper grocery bags placed just out of his reach were filled with plastic fruit and were labelled ‘Life’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’.

Two other actors assisted with the performance as oppressors who were assigned the task of maintaining the main actors captive in the cage as well as preventing him from consuming food. Soon various spectators attempted to nourish him with the plastic fruit.

He passed the fruit back through the bars or disregarded the offer. Eventually he accepted an offer of real food. Then the cage started filling with a variety of goods ranging from pizza to organic granola.

The oppressors constantly attempted to remove the food but given the large amount the captive got a substantial meal. They then moved from providing him with sustenance to freeing him outright from the cage.

The second play was called ‘Sex Me’. This time the main actor sought to present audience members with an unstable image of gender. He selected costume pieces that simultaneously hid and expressed his form. He used a neutral mask to cover his face, a skirt-length turtle neck to veil the pelvic region, a loose-fitting hoodie to create ambiguity around the chest region and thin black tights for his legs, the most exposed portion of his body.

The performance space had a sign reading ‘Sex Me’ as well as a range of clothing pieces and objects that could be used to denote a specific gender, such as high heels, a tie, boxers, and a bra. Spectators were invited to select an object and hand it to the performer, and then determine the gender of the performer based on the result.

As spectators placed the objects or clothing items on the main actor, he adopted the physicality of the implied sex,highlighting the ways that gender can be “put on” for the 15-minute performance.

The spectators readily caught the double allusion of the action. On one hand it evoked Judith Butler’s theory that gender difference was not mostly given by nature, but was mostly a cultural construct.

Butler says: “Gender is not a radical choice or a project that reflects a nearly individual choice, but neither is it imposed upon or inscribed upon the individual, as some post-structuralist displacements of the subject would contend. The body is not passively scripted with cultural codes as if it were a lifeless recipient of wholly pre-given cultural relations.

“But neither do embodied selves pre-exist the cultural conventions which essentially signify bodies. Actors are always already on the stage with the terms of the performance. But as a script may be enacted in various ways, and just as the play requires both text and interpretation, so the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives.”

In the setting of a very self-consciously Catholic institution, such as San Diego University, those present would also have understood the performance to be negatively alluding to various Church statements ascertaining more or less an opposed view to Butler’s about the respective contributions of nature and culture to gender differentiation.

The more recent Church pronouncements on the subject stress the maternal function of the female body as its defining characteristic.

Why did you say recent? Was it not always so?

Jean Porter, perhaps the most authoritative interpreter of Thomas Aquinas on Feminism, has emphasised that for the medieval doctor, the difference between male and female is not at all essential, but as incidental as skin pigment.

This of course does not mean that a homosexual union can logically be assimilated to a heterosexual union but it should carry specific rights and duties for the parties engaging in it.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti.

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