Painted and Powdered: Performative Gender

In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses how working class men viewed gender as performist and were able to take on different levels of masculinity or femininity.  This fluidity allowed gay men in particular to choose how they wanted to present their identity in public.

Working class men could identify and be identified as women by dressing in ways culturally seen as feminine, such as the “plucked eyebrows, rouged lips, powdered face, and marcelled, blondined hair” of the fairy.  [1]  Their actions and how they carried themselves also denoted femininity.  In contrast, men could engage in homosexual activity with fairies and maintain their masculine status as long as they played the active role.  [2]

Participating in gender inversion was an active choice undertaken by these men.  Regardless of sexual preference, any and every individual ultimately had the choice of how to represent himself in society.  What made some men choose to embrace femininity, and others choose to reject it?  Chauncey mentions how some men are disgusted by the fairies’ performance of gender, but never really delves into why repulsion might exist. [3]

It is interesting to note, and Chauncey does, how this binary exists in terms of gender and not sexual preference.  [4]  But if you can’t choose who you’re attracted to, why did working class gay men choose to become fairies?  Cultural perceptions viewed sexual desire for men as purely part of a woman’s desire, and so a “manifestation of their fundamentally womanlike character.”  [5]  Chauncey attributes it to wanting to conform to societal gender roles ascribed by the patriarchy, with a dominant male and a subservient female.  [6]  In order to satisfy this pre-existing power dynamic, men transformed into fairies to play a feminine role, and some men chose to only play the “insertive” role in any encounter in order to maintain their masculinity.  But what made the fairy choose to be subservient?  Why did this power dynamic continue to exist in a subculture that was already rejecting dominant social norms?  Why retain some and not the others?

In the introduction, Chauncey states that he deliberately excluded women from his study because it seemed “virtually impossible to write a book about both that did justice to each and avoided making one history an appendage to the other.”  [7]  But I can’t read Gay New York without wondering: did women have the same freedom of gender performance?  Did lesbian culture even follow similar ideas of gender performance?  In an already repressed social hierarchy, how did gender performances of women affect the agency of the individual playing the submissive role?

[1] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 54.

[2] Ibid, 66, 81.

[3] Ibid, 89.

[4] Ibid, 65.

[5] Ibid, 48.

[6] Ibid, 56.

[7] Ibid, 27.

One thought on “Painted and Powdered: Performative Gender

  1. I would argue that men did not have freedom of gender expression. Middle and upper middle class men only indulged in their femininity in the clubs of the Bowery or Lower East Side. It seems to be a class based freedom, in which the working class tolerated the presence of gay culture in a way that the upper and middle class would not. And while the clubs gave “fairies” the opportunity to act and express themselves, it also created a stereotype to which men, both gay and straight, had to measure themselves and their gender status.

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