Queering Me Softly – or Expanding Masculinity?

This author feels that queer-thinking (1) is an undemocratic theory and asks whether expanding masculinity projects might be hidden behind trendy queer performance.

Trans and queer

In the debate mentioned above about the trans-movement at last year’s Pride Festival in Stockholm the participants plead that they genuinely “are“ what they feel like, and insist on living as such. For the trans it is important to create an exterior which matches the interior, to signal an inner identity through outer signs or indications such that others understand who they “are”. implies brains.The thought assumes the modernity discourse’s conception of a subject which is divided in an inside and an outside, where the inner and the outer is supposed to correspond according to cultural rules for consistency. As presupposed, it is the inside, the inner feeling,which is superior and is given status of being the “truth” (Lundgren 2001).This is the background when they refer to being born in the wrong body, that they have always experienced and felt themselves as if they for instance “are” women born in a man´s body.

The same day in the same building there is a queer-feminist seminar focusing on sexuality. The signs “man” and “woman” are more interesting than the “real” gender, it is pointed out from the podium, since sexuality in our culture is defined by gender. The audience is told that drag-king is this year´s offer to queer women; but also the butchy lesbian, she who uses male gender attributes, but the performances only discord if one interprets them with a given cultural framework for accordance. The performance depends upon a dichotomus gender model; without the cultural signal for man and woman and their strict interpretation, and with heterosexuality as distance marker, the staging is without significance. The basic recipe, two genders with opposite signs, can be mixed in new ways given that the outer expression such as clothes and make-up are consistent and in accordance with each other. These post-structuralist participants stage identity outwardly, through the use of outer signals which must accord with each other (Rosenberg 2002). For example, it is not possible for the one who dresses as a femme, with female gender attributes, to act like a butch. The rules for what acords and what disaccords are culturally established, and “the others” – individual others, media, the public – must confirm the dissonance.

“The others´” cultural eye

Common for post – and modernity thinking about identity is that people understand themselves through the cultural signs for gender and sexuality. Established categories for gender and sexuality are connected, depending upon which individual identity is being signalled, and “the others’’ confirmation of this identity is completely necessary. “Others” are assumed to see with the same eyes and to understand what the signals indicate, including the cultural codes for what accords with what, and what discords. There is no room for unsorted performance and protesting against category constraint other than the compulsory breaches which follow strict and established rules.

I ask myself: what scenarios do we arrange if we emanate from self-definition being a human right and at the same time insist that acknowledgement in the eye of others is vital – so impor­tant that we demand that “others” see who we are, as we see ourselves? The above mentioned trans and queer proj­ects are intended to queer and discord, some more softly than others, but I wonder: Can expanding projects of expanding masculinity hide behind the queering me softly-staging?

Esben and Esther on stage

In the documentary “All about my Father” the son Even (in front) portrays his father’s performance as the man Espen and the woman Esther (in the background).

In the prize-awarded film “Alt om min far” (“All About My Father”) we meet Even’s, that is the son’s, staging of his father, the Norwegian medical doctor Esben Benestad. When the main char­acter alternately stages himself as a man, Esben, and a woman, Esther Pirelli, it happens in a stereotyped way. Esben repairs his car and smells sweaty; Esther makes herself up and is unusually poor­ly furnished in the head; interchanging between super- and subordination sig­nals. The main character decides not only that he is man or woman, but also when he wants to be a man or a woman, what kind om man or woman he wants to be, and insists, in the meeting with “the others” interpretation, on an interpretation privilege, with the help of arguments like “inherent disposition” and “that´s the way I am”. In my interpretation of the movie in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet (November 2, 2002), this is an illustration of the case that masculinity can mean sovereign freedom of choice (Svalastog 1998), and that Esben´s trans-performance can look like a well known project. This highly modernity-inspired-project of identity can be understood as a masculinely loaded project with a powerful possibility of interchangeability for the one with full freedom of choice. In other words, the identity project has huge profits.

In his answer to me (Dagbladet November 17, 2002) the main character says: “I always feel like a woman, always feel like a man” (my cursives). The outer expression or the outside, “the female expression”, as Esben Esther calls it, is on the other hand a means of making others perceive him /her as a woman, and in that manner create “female belonging” for the main character. Then he feels like the one he always feels like.

The film’s main character differenti­ates sharply between the real Esben Esther and the outer expression, which only is a means to get others to see what he wants them to see. The outer staging – the exposure – in the others’ gaze is still essential in the shaping of identity: it is what is going to confirm that he is who he feels like he is. As well as the pride-seminar speaker, Esben also assumes that it is necessary to put him­self on stage, and they expect that all the members of the audience have the same gaze as they have. They don’t pay a thought to the possibility that others can have other glasses, crooked corneas or even be cross-eyed.

The narrative

In this perspective Benestad’s self-exposure on stage can be interesting through time; that is as it is expressed in the nar­rative about Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad. Through the many exposures in media and in the film “All about my father”, a story is created about a man who early, as a child, sometimes dressed in women’s clothes. A man who in time feels like a man, and sometimes as a woman – but who now always feels like both a man and a woman.

In the narrative the expanding gen­der project is infiltrated in a sexuality project. At the time Esben every now and then dressed in women’s clothes, he was the father of two and married to Liv. He got divorced and married the psychologist and sexologist Elsa Almås. The stable heterosexual direction of desire is in this period combined with Esben sometimes feeling like and “becoming” a woman, but it is not Esther, but Esben who is attracted to Elsa. Esther has no sexual desire whatso­ever; she rather depicts herself as an asexual being giving birth to poetry while she bakes bread. Elsa is left to interact sometimes with Esben, some­times Esther, while it is the man, Esben who she is attracted to. As time passes Esther is the one being staged more and more of the time as Esben disappears, and we understand that there is a limit to Elsa’s interest.

Who attracts who?

In his answer to me Esben Esther says: “I am a person who is attracted to women, not all women, but some of them – and especially to Elsa Almås” (my cursives). It is probably no coinci­dence that the gender terms have disap­peared here replaced by “person”. Is the man and woman – as the main charac­ter always feels like – attracted to Elsa? “Lesbian flirt with Elsa is not the thing in my life that gives me the greatest erotic experience, but it’s not complete­ly without reward’, says the main char­acter. Lesbian is a term for female same gender sexual desire, it assumes in other words that it is Esther who desires Elsa. Here at least I get confused, and not only by the apparent contradiction. The main character’s performance is depend­ent on acknowledgement from “the other” to be who she is, but Elsa does not desire Esther – and then Esther can not, according to her own logic, get the acknowledgement which is necessary to perceive herself as the one she feels she is. And if the main character always feels like two genders, man and woman, and Elsa and the rest of the audience know that and see behind the stereotype one-gendered outer exposure, who and what is it possible for “the other” to acknowl­edge? The expanding gender? That there are no limits for the male gender?

The expanding gender

In the TV-3 documentary “Född i fel kropp” (“Born in the Wrong Body”) (November 21, 2002), we meet twenty year old Jojo – Johan – Pettersen. He has a short fur jacket, lips like Julia Roberts’, false eyelashes, long bleached hair, glit­tering long nails. “Maybe I look like a Barbie doll – but a smart Barbie doll”, says Jojo. He follows the well known script of being born as a boy, but has as far as he can remember felt like a girl. Jojo has lived for years as a homosexual man, but has now decided to live as a heterosexual woman. To become what she feels like, Jojo is going to eat hor­mones and attain womanly forms. What distinguishes Jojo’s story from many oth­ers is that Jojo wants to keep his penis while his friend Hanna wants “to change gender completely”. Jojo says: “I feel like a girl, but at the same time I like my body and my dick”. “Do I have to muti­late myself to fit into a form?” To become a woman the usual way, to get the genitals that correspond to the gen­der, is to be mutilated for Jojo. The mutilation indicates the cutting away of something that belongs to oneself, in other words: the normgiving model is a male body.

Jojo does not want to be a mutilated woman; she wants to be a woman with a penis. But female identity is not “locat­ed in the genitals”; as for Esben it is located in the inner feeling. None of them is willing to lose the penis, but they both want “the others’’ acknowl­edgement of their femininity. According to the researchers Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna (1978) showing the slightest penis-attribute is enough to be considered to be a man in our culture. It is often more difficult for MTF (Male To Female) transsexuals than FTM­transes to convince their surroundings of their “inner gender-identity”; at the first sign of “a five o’clock shadow”, they are revealed. According to this line of argu­ment it is the main criterion for being male Jojo and Esben will keep. Is it pos­sible that we find the added value of the masculinity projects in the phallus, where the penis symbolizes the power potential? Is that why masculinity be such an all-encompassing project – expanding to sovereign freedom of choice, interpretation privilege, two gen­ders in one, woman with penis?

In Suzanne Osten’s play “Det allra viktigaste” (“The Most Important”) at the Unga Klara theatre in Stockholm actress Ann Petrén changes gender as others change costumes. Five male gestalts are staged. The erotically attrac­tive dream man for women is androgeni­cally perfect, carries himself well, is beau­tiful, flows in his sexuality, and desires both men and women. But mostly women. Another attractive man is the heterosexual lonesome cowboy. Regardless of version, to fill space and room as a man does was the most diffi­cult part of the performance, says Ann Petrén (Dagens Nyheter January 12, 2003). Acknowledgement from “the oth­ers” is also necessary to become a man; but a man does not have to seek acknowledgement, for example by adapt­ing and nodding, or laughing and acting happy. To stage oneself as a man means to take for granted that the others are lis­tening to who you signal you are, and give you adequate space as this person without you tidying yourself up. If this is the costume of power in the sense given to the male sign by Petrén, then a man can count on the outer exposure and per­formance bringing not only the others’ acknowledgement, but also that they will confirm what he wants them to confirm.

Sex in the public eye

It seems that Pirelli to a higher degree perceives himself to be who he “is” when he is exposed to the public eye than from the acknowledgement of Elsa’s eyes. The stage seems to suit his project, and illustrates that identity as an outer performance needs an increas­ing amount of exposure to the public eye. The supposedly private – sexual meetings – can then easily be trans­formed into something public. In a sit­uation where queer-inspired sexual dis­play has become public – exposed for the public eye with demands of acknowledgement – one can become whoever one wants to be: correctly transgressing boundaries. As a logical consequence, in Stockholm men’s homo-political demands to be using public parks for fucking and blow-jobs in others’ acknowledging sight are being promoted.

…and still more expansion

If identity is an outward indication, something we choose to be, why then limit the choice to gender and sexuality

-woman, man, trans, hetero, homo, bi, queer? I personally have for a long time been wanting to be a young Nigerian horse of aristocratic blood. Can I choose ethnicity? Class? Age? “Forever young…” The 74 year old Norwegian artist Lars Kristian Gulbrandsen who comes from my home district does just that. Every time he looks in the mirror he sees Tatjana, 23 years old. Tatjana wears a mini-skirt and plateau shoes, and paints herself with wall-paint. The same company who stood behind the film “All about my father” has also made a documentary about her.

If we can chose who we want to be, we also have to take the consequences of our choices, and expose them for criti­cism. With the possibility for male expansion that is offered by this think­ing, dirty old men should accept the hard criticism they receive when they are so silly as to choose such an unpleas­ant identity! If we can choose who we are and how others are to see us – as temporary gender-benders, as two gen­ders at the same time, as women with penises, then it is a matter of an expansion-project. What will the next expansion-sign be, if acknowledgement in the others’ eyes works as a kick which needs still greater expansion?

Unsorted sight – how queer is queer?

Queer’s intention to question bound­aries for gender and sexuality indicates an enormous interest for borders and boundaries. Boundlessness and disso­nance can only be understood in the light of such obsession with categories (terms). This implies that what is trans­gressed, that which is on the wrong side of the border, become important as the normal back-drop against which we pose. In a society lacking these codes which queer lifestyle wishes to challenge and oppose, staging oneself as a western queer would not be especially challeng­ing or oppositional. Its explosive force is dependent upon certain cultural codes for it to be able to cause dissonance. I imagine that the explosive political force in the feminist project can not lie in wanting to maintain patriarchal arrangements just to have a back-drop for us to appear feministically clear, but rather in driving the patriarchal arrange­ments toward the cliff and over the edge, smashing them in the fall, until there not even be dust left of them. In this perspective queer-theory’s symbiosis with existing hetero-normality and strict gender-rules is quite problematic. And identity-shaping exclusively within the frame of the cultural monkey does not give any opening for unsorted identity construction, neither individually nor group-wise.

Well known masculinity

Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad represents a well known masculinity based on free­dom of choice. He alternates between stereotype categories, but is completely dependent upon the outer performance to become who he is. There is always a risk involved when one mirrors oneself in other’s eyes, both individual others and the media as other. Because it is not sure that the others see that which Pirelli or the pride participants or Jojo want to express. Pirelli assumes that he is on top of the interpretation hierarchy, he – as Petrén’s men – having learned from the Old Testament’s god Jahve’s presentation: “I am who I am”. Pirelli just assumes that “the others”, they who one mirrors oneself against, slavishly follow the cultural norm concerning gender-signs and sexuality-signs, corre­spondence and dissonance. But fortu­nately it happens that others have unsorted sight, breaking with the cul­tural codes for what fits together and which boundary breaking is correct.

Queer calls for a feminist agenda

The renowned lesbian who I mentioned in the introduction was afraid to use the wrong terms. If self-definition and its acknowledgement in other’s eyes is a human right, the fear is well grounded. If the others only get to see what I want them to see, then I assume a position of great power demanding that other people’s brains be colonized. In this per­spective queer is an undemocratic proj­ect, and is based on – and will preserve
– inequality and super-/subordination. On meeting the expanding masculinity focus under the queer-flag of sexuality, where masculinity appears as without power, feminist theory should not con­tent itself with reminders that there is more than one gender. Analysing gender without dismissing power’s performance is more feministically demanded than ever.


Född i fel kropp – TV-3 dokumentar 21/11 2002 (se også kerstin.nilsson@aftonbladet.se: ”De är kvinnor – födda som män”).

Kessler, Suzanne og McKenna, Wendy 1978: Gender. An Ethnometodological Approach. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Lundgren, Eva 2001: Ekte kvinne? Identitet på kryss og tvers. Pax Forlag A/S, Oslo.

Lundgren, Eva 2002: En gammeldags machomann. Dagbladet 2/11.

Pirelli Benestad, Esben Esther 2002: Eva Lundgrens uetterrette­ligheter. Dagbladet 17/11.

Skawonius, Betty 2003: Befriande att få vara sexistisk. Dagens Nyheter 12/1.

Svalastog, Anna Lydia 1998: Det var ikke meningen. Om kon­struksjon av kjønn ved abortinngrep, et feministteoretisk bidrag. Teologiska institutionen, Uppsala universitet.


1 Queer-theory analyses heteronormativity as a heavy cultural categorization. One way to exercise a critical approach to het­eronormativity is to stage oneself as queer. Often one then tries to create ‘disharmony’ through untraditional combinations of gender attributes and sexuality.

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2003 © NIKK

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