Becoming oneself or performing another?

As I began to read Judith Butler’s essay, her discussion connected most clearly in my mind to two aspects of the plot and character development of chapters 5 through 7 of The Flamethrowers. First, when Butler says, “For both de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities,” (2) my connection was to Giddle’s endeavor to act like a waitress. When I initially read Giddle’s ideas about performing as a waitress, I reacted to it as a peculiar way to approach life (performing what one sees as another’s identity rather than just finding and living one’s own identity), but now that I’ve read Butler’s discussion of gender identity and how it is formed, Giddle’s “performance” of a role (career, rather than gender) seems more natural. I think that what might make her seem so unusual is that she actually recognizes that she is performing a role – that she is in an “active process of embodying certain…possibilities.” Most people would probably describe their daily actions as living a life that they define, not as acting out a role that has already been defined by culture, which seems to be what both Butler and Giddle suggest.

My second connection between Butler and this section of chapters came when Butler explained, “My suggestion is that the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (4). For me, this gave meaning to Reno and Sandro’s dinner discussion in the Italian restaurant. When I read their discussion about childhood, where Reno explores “[w]hat I thought about as a child, the nature of my solitude, the person I was before I went through puberty and became more readably ‘girl.’ The person I was before I became more readably ‘person'” (Kushner 101), I wondered how these ideas were relevant to the characters and to the themes that we have already recognized as present in The Flamethrowers. Now, I think this concept of becoming girl and becoming person is especially relevant to the recurring presence of the male-female relationship. I’m compelled to wonder whether, as children, Reno and Sandro (or other members of male-female relationships in the novel) already acted out the same typically male or female roles that they do in adulthood. If they didn’t act this way as children, when and why did they start?  At what point did their “body [and mind] become its gender,” and what was the “series of acts” that caused it to happen?

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One comment on “Becoming oneself or performing another?

  1. To touch on your point about Giddle, there is a point, on page 91, after her talk about Andy Warhol, where Giddle makes a very interesting statement that I still can’t seem to wrap my head around. “‘Difficult to even talk about,’ she said. ‘I feel changed. Like, say my mind is a sweater. And a loose thread gets tugged at, pulled and pulled until the sweater unravels and there’s only a big fluffy pile of yarn. You can make something with it, that pile of yarn, but it will never be a sweater again. That’s the state of things” (Kushner 91). This comes after Reno describes Giddle as moving into her “next act, another life, a new performance,” and I’m still finding it hard to wrap my head around the quote from Giddle – but, then again, what about Giddle is easy to wrap your head around?

    Looking at it with Butler’s essay in mind, I have been trying to understand if maybe what Giddle is saying in this passage has something to do with the abandonment of one role and how, after leaving that role (for Giddle, a new job; for Reno, a gender role), it becomes almost impossible to ever make yourself what you were before you unshackled yourself of that role, whatever it may be.

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