Concrete Roles and Undercover Agents: Performativity in “Weekend” and “Naked Lunch”

Judith Butler is a philosopher and theorist renown for her work regarding gender and sexuality, and the means through which gender and sexuality are understood and used often to subjugate those who do not conform to what is deemed “normal” expressions of sexuality and gender. The general conception, as I see it, is that people in Western culture have of gender and sex is that gender is an innate or essential property of individuals, and that one can identify the gender and thus the expressions of gender through identifying the sex — the physical characteristics — of individuals. Those of the male gender have particular sex characteristics that identify them as such, and those of the female gender have particular sex characteristics that identify them as such; sex and gender fall along this binary and are immutable, and attraction is based entirely on this binary, traditionally that “opposites attract.”

Butler, however, challenged this binary and essentialist conception of gender and sexuality through her book titled Gender Trouble, which argues that unlike the traditional notions of gender and sexuality, there is nothing which establishes gender as inherent and stemming from one’s sex characteristics. In fact, even our conception of sexual characteristics are not as stable or obvious as we believe. Butler’s argument is that what we call gender is something that is performative, or something enacted through our day-to-day life and through the language we use. One has no inherent “male” or “female” gender, but instead performs male and/or female gender. However, this is not meant to suggest that individuals can merely choose to be male or female, nor does it deny the existence or fact of physical sexual characteristics. Rather, society and culture operates according to what Butler terms a discourse, which exists prior to the subject and forms and shapes them. In other words, what we take as a binary conception of gender and sex where the former follows from the latter is instead what we have conceived of in response to our examinations of the body and of expressions of individuals. Categories of the genders “male” and “female,” of the sexes “man” and “woman,” exist as a means of making sense of the body and how individuals express themselves, and the discourse that has formed to make sense of these things has shaped what we consider normal as a society: heterosexual, binary categories into which individuals must fit. However, this ignores how not every body neatly conforms to categories of “man” or “woman,” and it ignores also the many ways in which individuals express themselves that complicate this binary.

Butler followed up her book with further works that sought to clear up and explain any misconceptions or questions that readers may have had regarding her theory, among them her essays “Critically Queer” and “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In “Critically Queer,” Butler makes sure to note that individuals do not precede the discourse that shapes our notions of gender and sexuality: “Where there is an ‘I’ who utters or speaks and thereby produces an effect in discourse, there is first a discourse which precedes and enables that ‘I’ and forms in language the constraining trajectory of its will. Thus there is no ‘I’ who stands behind discourse and executes its volition or will through discourse.” Butler states that through citation and iteration of laws, practices, codes, and so on, power is exercised, that figures like the judge in his court has power through his ability to cite the law rather than through anything conferred onto him or through which he exerts himself. As Butler puts it, “The ‘I’ is thus a citation of the place of the ‘I’ in speech, where that place has a certain priority and anonymity with respect to the life it animates: it is the historically revisable possibility of a name that precedes and exceeds me, but without which I cannot speak.” Iteration of this discourse is also vital to sustaining it, and yet iteration requires some degree of differentiation each time this discourse plays out. Therefore, while heterosexual binary and essentialist notions of gender and sex are sustained through iteration, they also risk being undermined through contradictions inherent in them; Butler feels that this is best expressed through the practice of drag, which, while it cannot quite escape the discourse that forms the traditional understandings of gender and sex, it can confuse and “queer” that discourse and demonstrate that alternatives are conceivable.

In her “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler argues against fixed notions of what makes one “be” gay or lesbian, stating that these terms, as they stem from oppressive forces, run the risk of excluding those who do not fit neatly into such categories. She writes that “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression.” She also argues against the conception she has noticed of homosexuality as something like a “bad copy” of heterosexuality, noting that all sexuality and gender is ultimately performative and imitative — being a heterosexual does not mean that one’s heterosexuality causes one to act as a heterosexual, but that it is through repeatedly acting in ways which are described as heterosexual causes one to be defined as such. The same goes for categories of gender and sex; ultimately, the repeated performativity of heterosexuality, or homosexuality, and so on, is to prevent the distress that comes with breaks or disruptions in one’s identity. Because the notion of “inner sex” is contested in Butler’s theory, no performance can ever truly express sexuality at its fullest. Butler feels that instead we ought to embrace the disruptions which occur when performativity fails, to buck the trends of fixing our understandings of sex and gender as binary and essential.

These ideas which Butler expresses are valuable when applied to the films Weekend (directed by Andrew Haigh, 2011) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991). Both deal on some level with the notion of performing queerness or homosexuality as Butler outlines it, and how the characters within them deal with the discourse that they have inherited on sex and gender. In Weekend, the protagonists Russell and Glen have what starts as a hookup turn into a more intimate relationship between the two of them, and the film’s drama revolves around how the different needs and beliefs of these two men clash and are reconciled. While Russell is not adverse to picking up men and bringing them to his apartment for sex, he desires a more stable, monogamous relationship with another man that lasts for the long term; Glen, conversely, is disdainful of such relationships as they apply to him, and while there is some suggestion in the film that his attitudes about monogamy and marriage stem in part from a past relationship gone south, Glen shores up his arguments with how the existence of gay sexuality provokes discomfort in heterosexuals even if they are tolerant. Glen also resists what he repeatedly refers to as being encased in cement, his way of referring to the status quo. But it is taking these two men together that Butler’s theory on performativity can be illustrated: both men are preceded by and reiterate and cite the discourse on sex and gender which Butler outlines, while also queering or disrupting that discourse which produces gender and sex as performative. While Russell desires a monogamous and stable relationship, his homosexuality serves nevertheless as a disruption of traditionally held notions of masculinity and sexuality. Besides his sexual preferences, Russell can be seen as taking on more feminine attributes, of performing more feminine attributes, through his desire to commit to a partner rather than accepting hook up after hook up. Russell angrily accuses Glen of wanting the same thing: “You think I’m a fucking idiot, because I want a fucking relationship.” Glen, meanwhile, rejects the idea of marriage and domesticity as being necessary to legitimize his existence as a gay man, and while he inherits the aspects of the discourse which would stereotype him as being promiscuous and nontraditional, he embraces this stereotyping while attempting to break down and point out how marriage and domesticity, as heterosexual institutions, are not necessary for all or inherently right. He points out how so-called straight people “shove it down our throats all the time: Being straight. Straight story lines on television, everywhere — in books, on billboards, magazines, everywhere. But, ah, the gays, the gays — ‘We mustn’t upset the straights. Shh. Watch out. Straights are coming. Let’s not upset them. Let’s hide in our little ghettos.’” When Russell points out his obsession with the concrete-as-metaphor, Glen’s response is, “But why would you want concrete when you can have whatever you want?”

In Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, meanwhile, performativity is evoked repeatedly as a “cover” for so-called “agents” to adopt in the paranoid and psychotic worldview of junkie protagonist Bill Lee. After he shoots his wife in the head during what they call their “William Tell routine,” Lee escapes to what is called the Interzone, which is a space constructed of Tangiers-derived exotica, drug users, bizarre creatures called Mugwumps, fellow writers (“agents”), and homosexual men and a butch woman. The role that Bill Lee adopts within the Interzone is as an agent attempting to unpack potential conspiracies that surround him, via the writing of reports on his typewriter, which turns into a giant cockroach that responds with sexual ecstasy as Lee types on it. The typewriter urges Lee to write the words “homosexuality is the best all-around cover that an agent could have,” which he will not; Lee is also seemingly preoccupied at every other moment in the film with urges and desires within him, whether it be when he makes love to a doppelganger of his wife when another agent’s typewriter sprouts a phallus and flops onto them, or his “routines” describing prolapsed anuses and talking assholes. In Naked Lunch, the conventions of international thrillers are appropriated as a means of expressing the performances which pull at Lee as a character. He wants to be a clean, heterosexual bug exterminator with a wife; he is instead compelled towards spousal homicide, drug-infused paranoia, and homosexual yearnings, never quite able to reconcile these contradictory demands in such a way as to point out, as with drag, how traditional notions of gender and sexuality can be inadequate. Roy Schneider’s Dr. Benway serves this role in how, near the film’s climax, it is revealed that the butch, exotic Fadela is really a disguise which Benway inhabits. Fadela grabs her chest and rips herself apart to reveal Benway within, who jokingly refers to the skin he wore as “this ol’ thing,” and then makes camp gestures at Lee afterwards, a limp wrist and fluttering eyelashes. Benway, through drag and through camp homosexuality, readily and easily slips between fluid identities in a way that Lee cannot allow himself to, thus undermining fixed notions of gender and sex.

In their own insightful ways, Weekend and Naked Lunch examine Butler’s conception of performativity and how it is enacted through the things we do. Russell and Glen respond to this demand of performativity in their own ways, with Russell longing to settle into the confines of a committed and monogamous relationship while Glen struggles to accommodate his feelings for Russell alongside his disdain for the conventions of marriage and domesticity. Bill Lee, meanwhile, is trapped in a surrealistic and paranoid manifestation of his own struggles with performativity versus his latent homosexuality, with the antagonistic forces in that manifestation embodying the queering of relationships and the inevitable death of his relationship to his wife through literal death of his wife. Neither film resolves with these characters truly breaking out of the confines of performativity, since it is arguably impossible to do anything but play with the conventions — the question is, are these men game?