Gender is a role, and we’re all but players

(Sorry, Shakespeare.)

It’s not difficult to come to the conclusion, after reading a bit of Judith Butler and viewing the world around us for only a few minutes, that we all play out our gender roles on a daily, even hourly, basis. And re-treading the same conclusion that many others have come to so many times before me would make for a boring article. (I should know; I bored myself while writing it.)

Chicken or egg?

So, instead, I began to look to the media for examples of when gender roles are both incredibly dominant, and for those few who eschew gender roles entirely and try to live their lives however the hell they want. It’s tough to break out of your perceived gender role, as Jennifer Lawrence discovered when she tried being as blunt as her male peers in a meeting. Our gender roles are so ingrained in us from birth that they become a very basic part of our identity.

But we have to consider the fact that gender is just that: a role. And who out there plays gender like it’s nothing but another acting role to the greatest extent right now?

Tilda f*cking Swinton.

It’s hard to describe the sort of effect Tilda Swinton has on you until you’re watching a movie and can experience it for yourself. I became fascinated with her in the 2005 film Constantine, where she played an androgynous take on the angel Gabriel.

Tilda plays with gender fluidity with ease, and the best part is that we (at least I) just don’t question it. She makes it easy to accept the dissolving barriers of gender identity. She carries herself with such poise and otherworldly elegance that all questions about her gender — whether she’s representing herself as male, female, or neither — fly away.

In fact, after receiving a huge role in the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, Tilda mentioned that she wasn’t sure if she was going to play the role as either male or female. (In the comics, the character is male.) That she can choose to play either gender role is amazing, and I have no doubt that no matter what she chooses, we’ll accept it.

One drawback to Tilda’s openness with how she plays with androgyny is something that Judith Butler mentions: when we see someone who doesn’t fit into established gender roles, “their very humanness…comes into question” (Bodies That Matter, p. 8).

And, while reading back just two paragraphs, I realize I’ve done it myself: I called her “otherworldly,” as though Tilda’s androgyny marks her as not one of us. Not human.

Minus ten points to Hufflepuff.

My point is, breaking out of established gender roles is hard. I find myself immediately labeling someone as either male of female when I first see them. I’m willing and able to accept whichever gender (or none) someone chooses, but it’s still hard. I still occasionally call someone she when they prefer they pronouns.

Breaking down and rewiring the circuits in our brains is a daunting task, and something we need to keep working on, both individually and collectively. We all need more Tilda Swinton, if only to keep us questioning gender and the roles that have been forced on us our entire lives.

Orlando, 1992
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