I've been teaching Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body in my undergrad class, and at the same time, many students have chosen to write their final papers on it in comparison to Virginia Woolf's Orlando. And still at the same time, I've been teaching the plays of playwright Sarah Kane in the grad class, particularly the plays Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis.
Each of these texts plays with gender and genderlessness in interesting ways, and I've found myself rehashing the main tenets of Judith Butler a lot over the last several weeks. In particular, I've been thinking about the notion of gender as textuality a lot: that Orlando's transformation from male to female takes place in the midst of this highly textualized (even meta-textualized) milieu that pits the "biographer" against the mythologized figures of Modesty, Purity and Chastity, and the trumpet blasts of Truth. Kane stages characters in Cleansed with their bodies mutilated and their sexual organs transplanted on one another, but in 4.48 Psychosis gives us unattributed text that is often performed by multiple actors of two genders.
It's Written on the Body that has the most interesting material for me to chew on, because its narrator is, famously, ungendered. I've read readings that imagines the narrator as a collage of multiple possible sex/gender/sexuality permutations, a bricolage of gender pastiche, if you will. As a reader, I constantly find myself resisting the urge to impose a gender on the narrator at any given point, and my students also report this impulse (though they seem less interested in resisting it). The text, in this way, is not a body--the narrator isn't really male or really female--and I have been trying to use this to suggest that all notions of gender are textual...that none of us is really male, or really female.
What's curious is the way that discussions like these (and we've been having them all semester, since masculinity and nation have been throughlines in this course) implicate my body as the teacher. Now, I perform gender far less ambiguously than I have in the past. In undergrad, I wore skirts to class sometimes, used my theatre make-up offstage more than once, etc. I was slight (5'11" 130 lbs) and pretty, I shaved every three days whether I needed to or not (usually not) and since this was the early 90s, had long , lovely hair. And while still I am described as anywhere from flamboyant to expressive, and Willow tells me that if you tied my hands down, I'd be unable to speak, my gender performances are more obviously compulsory. These days, the weight gain of grad school, the facial hair I'm now wearing, the demands of professionalism, the diminished space for play, the diminished need to attract new and diverse partners, etc. means I have fewer avenues and reasons for ambiguity. I'm a married father who's a professor in a fairly conservative region, and I'm taking a lot fewer risks (and am interested in fewer risks) than when I was 20.
And yet because I indulge in the tropes of masculinity less insistently than most of my students, and because I have in the past played against them (and suffered some minor negative consequences, mostly involving hate speech), When we discuss these moments in the grad class, I feel trapped by a spotlight, frozen against the wall. I'm not sure if I'm feeling a certain pressure from students to practice what I preach, i.e. to reveal how merely textual gender is with my own body, or to conform more rigidly to the dominant paradigm. Butler talks about making gender a persistent site of play, but in the classroom, that's a big risk that doesn't fit with the life I have right now. But suddenly, in these moments, while (or perhaps since) Winterson's text is not a body, my body becomes legible as a text.