“Disidentification: An Avenue for Escape from Heteronormativity” by Sarah Largosa

Posted: July 3, 2015 in Vol. 7: Spring Essays 2015

Rolling_the_RsIn America, before a baby is born, before a baby is even conceived, its identity has already been determined or partially planned out. The parents, family, or friends start coming up with possible names for it, names that are divided into “girl” and “boy” names. When the fetus has grown large enough to have its genitals visible via ultrasound, the sex of the baby is announced. Baby shower gifts are specific to the newfound sex of the child (e.g. pink for girls and blue for boys). In addition to adhering to gender roles, it is often assumed that the child will be heterosexual. And from the moment the child is finally born they will be bombarded with binary genders and gender roles throughout childhood. But, these predetermined gender assignments are premature— they do not take into account the possibility of the child not fitting into the heteronormative structure. So when the child finally realizes that their identity is not what other people say it is, they are left with only heteronormative terms and ways of being. In order to create a space in which this queer subject can exist comfortably, terms and concepts must be reworked and transformed. R. Zamora Linmark created an atypical novel, one that reflects lives outside of the American heteronormative society. Similar to how subjects in the documentary Paris Is Burning reconstruct the meaning of typically heteronormative words and ways of being, Linmark uses literary techniques and characters to produce a space for queer meaning and ideas to exist and grow.

To understand how heteronormativity works one may turn to the works of Judith Butler. The heteronormative, being the dominant, white, heterosexual society, is what most people are familiar with and adhere to. Heteronormative concepts are perpetuated through performativity, and this performativity is how a person acts out heteronormative concepts through actions and words. Butler specifically speaks of gender performativity. Since heteronormative standards are and were essentially created or made-up by the dominant society, these performances help to keep them alive. “In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (Butler, Gender Trouble 173). What a person performs through physical means does not necessarily equate to how they actually are on the inside. One simply may be performing the roles that society has asked one or pressured one to do, and by performing these roles they are perpetuated. For queer subjects to resist heteronormativity and create new spaces of being for queer, they can perform a role that doesn’t “match up” with their other traits that supposedly indicate gender.

José Esteban Muñoz describes this process of the individual taking a heteronormative concept and reworking it as “disidentification” which “is the third mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that neither opts to assimilate within such a structure, nor strictly opposes it,” instead it does both. That “instead of buckling under the pressures of dominant ideology (identification, assimilation) or attempting to break free of its inescapable sphere (counteridentification, utopianism), this ‘working on and against’ is a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance” (Muñoz 11-2). Words and ways of being are taken in and are transformed, and in doing so work against the heteronormative meaning of the word or action. This is apparent through drag balls, as seen in the film Paris Is Burning, and the novel Rolling the R’s.

When drag is being performed there are three categories of physicality being addressed: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance. Butler states, “If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance” (Gender Trouble 175). Participants in the drag ball show that sex, gender, and performance aren’t bundled together tightly in Saran wrap, a person can mix and match; there is no correlation between sex, gender, and performance. A person who is anatomically male can identify as a gender and play the part of a beauty queen. Drag performers dress up and act in a particular way to play a part “well,” and this is all they have to do to fit a specific role as the gender and anatomical sex are not relevant. This confirms how the heteronormative structure is maintained through mimicry of old ideals and behaviors.

There’s more than just gender and sex affecting the queer subject, there is also race, the color of one’s skin. Kim Pendavis states his father said to him, “You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two— that they’re just black, and they’re a male. But you’re black, and you’re male, and you’re gay” (Paris Is Burning 1991). A homosexual person of color has to contend with a mainstream white gay culture, in addition to the heteronormative (Muñoz 9). This is where disidentification can be used to create room for a minority homosexual person to exist. “Disidentification is the hermeneutical performance of decoding mass, high, or any other cultural field from the perspective of a minority subject who is disempowered in such a representational hierarchy” (Muñoz 25). Disidentification gives minorities a voice in a heteronormative-dominated society, allowing them to extract, repackage, and perform meaning. Again, not becoming a part of, or completely rejecting, the mainstream, but swaying between them.

Simply by studying the structure of Linmark’s novel one will notice how it reconstructs the normative. Rolling the R’s is referred to as a novel, but the structure of this novel is not the norm. Novels are usually written as a narrative, with pages and pages of paragraphs that follow each other in a logical order, that are divided into chapters. Even when a novel jumps around through time and perspectives, the chronology is still something the reader can map out. Linmark’s “novel” is composed of “chapters” that do all connect together to tell a story, however, these chapters could be read as individual works as well. The chapters vary in literary formats: some are poems, letters, a screenplay, a vocabulary quiz, and a book report. The very nature of his work disrupts the normative definition of a “novel,” and to try and call it anything else, a short story collection or a chapbook, doesn’t really work in a normative environment either. Therefore, Linmark has already made space for the queer subject outside of heteronormativity by structuring his novel the way he did. This is comparable to the plethora of categories one may enter in a drag ball, as opposed to the limited category of “Miss America” pageants; the format of the drag ball redefines who is worthy of receiving recognition, allowing queer subjects to receive fame that they couldn’t otherwise receive in a heteronormative environment.

Words and concepts are given new meaning in the world of Linmark’s novel. In particular, pop culture is absorbed by his queer subjects and recycled for their own purposes. In the chapter “Kalihi In Farrah,” an Orlando Domingo takes the identity— name, clothes, makeup, and hair— of Charlie’s Angels actress Farrah Fawcett, making it his own. By contrast, there is Ernesto Cabatbangan, who masturbates to Farrah’s image (Linmark 22). Although masturbation isn’t included in the heteronormative sphere, his response to Farrah’s image is considered heteronormative— an anatomical male finding a “beautiful” white woman sexually attractive is perfectly acceptable in heteronormative society. Orlando Domingo’s attraction to Farrah is considered queer because it is not a sexual attraction, it is one of admiration; he wants to be her. An anatomical female who wants to be like another female is not unusual, but an anatomical male who wants to be like a female is.

In response to Farrah of Kalihi, the heteronormative-minded school staff wanted him stopped at all costs as they only see him as a threat to the heteronormative structure of their school. But, he is more than a genderqueer anatomical male— he’s a highly successful and talented student (Linmark 25). This character disrupts stereotypes of genderqueer individuals being mentally ill or unstable, or even not being “normal” in any way. In the context of Linmark presenting this in his writing, he is not only demonstrating how queer individuals perform and use disidentification, he is giving the reader a place to explore the queer and enjoy queer thinking by disrupting stereotypes and assumptions. In regards to Muñoz’s idea of disidentification of giving minorities, those not a part of the racial mainstream, material to use for their own nonwhite culture. Orlando’s education appears to be highly heteronormative, where one must learn to write and speak “proper” English, as opposed to speaking Hawaiian pidgin or having a Filipino accent. This piece of culture is forced onto him, and it is something that he is made to mimic. On the other hand, Farrah is a slice of the mainstream that he decided to have and use on his own. In this way, the queer subject in Linmark’s novel used disidentification to create minority meaning and culture that did not conform to the heteronormative.

Paris Is Burning displays disidentification through the construction of drag culture. Butler notes that if drag “performances are not immediately or obviously subversive, it may be that it is rather in the reformulation of kinship, in particular, the redefining of the ‘house’ and its forms of collectivity, mothering, mopping, reading, becoming legendary, that the appropriation and redeployment of the categories of dominant culture enable the formation of kinship relations that function quite supportively as oppositional discourse within that culture” (“Critically Queer” 28). Creators and participants of drag culture take heteronormative definitions and implications out of words and replace them with new ones. Men now “mother” other men and a “house” is a place where drag balls take place; the heteronormative nuclear family has been disrupted and reinvented through disidentification.

The subjects and structure of Paris Is Burning’s drag balls and R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s show how heteronormativity functions and how disidentification disrupts and reinvents the heteronormative to work for non-normative subjects. This method of negotiating with the current heteronormative heavy American society, is a fairly safe and useful method for creating a society that includes those individuals who are usually unnoticed and unaccounted for. Texts like the documentary and novel provide an avenue to escape from heteronormativity, and allow individuals to discover and create new meanings for themselves. And maybe, babies will one day be any kine.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Ed. Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose. London, GBR: Routledge, 2013. 18-31. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition. London, GBR: Routledge, 1999. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Linmark, R. Zamora. Rolling the R’s. New York: Kaya Production, 1995. Print.

Livingston, Jennie, dir. Paris Is Burning. Perf. Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, Anji Xtravaganza, Kim Pendavis, and Junior Labeija. Miramax Films, 1991. Film.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.

Written for Dr. Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo’s ENG 441: Gender and Sexuality in Literature and Film


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