I made a recent realization: discussing complex gender issues leaves me speechless. I realized that after about the 14th time I tried and failed to begin this article. This new manifestation of my ignorance comes courtesy of the MIT List Visual Arts Center’s exhibition entitled Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde. Curated by Michael Rush, the former director of the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University, the exhibit covered themes of alternative identity, gender roles, and sexuality. I was strongly drawn to two pieces in particular, one of which was Michelle Handelman’s video “Dorian” (2009), the other was Kalup Linzy’s “Conversations wit de Churen III: Da Young & Da Mess” (2005).
A Sequin Sequel to a Wilde Classic
“Dorian” commanded attention if only because of its four large video screens, high production values, and glamorous actors and actresses. The plot arc is familiar, and not just because Handelman used Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as its foundation. Rather, it is a classic story of fame and hubris and the humiliation those two things seem to always entail. The main character is discovered, made famous, and then made to perform on stage while wearing pasties, a restrictive corset, and a giant fabric phallus covered in sequins. She then proceeds to spiral out of control with the help of copious amounts of cocaine and narcissism.
Most everything in the movie is visually interesting, which is necessary because the point of the story is easily understood (namely, fame can wreck people’s lives). Handelman created a burlesque underworld filled with eye candy of all sorts, most of which was covered in sequins (the sequins are not edible, don’t eat them). There are costumes that would make Lady Gaga jealous, including a recurring character wearing a black wig and a black bodysuit covered in sequins — sequins abounded, in case you were wondering.
Unfortunately, the video seems insistent on telling the viewer that they are watching “Art!” Sometimes this is literally spelled out, such as when a naked woman appeared, grimaced at the viewer, and then turned around. Painted on her back were the words “Real Art” with an arrow pointing to her rear-end. So that’s where real art comes from! I always wondered. I mean, here I am holding a paintbrush, looking like an idiot.
Another scene that screamed “Art!” (a little too hoarsely) involved the main character moping about her room after a crack binge. Her body language, combined with a screechy violin track, surprisingly resembled the independent film that anchorwoman Diane Simmons from the animated series Family Guy starred in during her college days. Family Guy’s send up of “avant-garde film making” is in this instance surprisingly apt. They may have even used the same violin track.
Although Dorian is beautiful and the plot is not uninteresting, for me the video essentially remained at the eye candy level. The video has glitz, there is cross-dressing galore, and even a theremin player, but I didn’t find that the critical or analytical content of it could stand up to Kalup Linzy’s “Conversations wit de Churen III.” Linzy’s simple no-frills video involved such a tangle of gender roles, expectations, assumptions, and preconceptions that figuring out the plot alone occupied me for a long time.
Low Budget, Highly Gendered
The first thing I noticed as I left Handelman’s video and started watching Linzy’s piece is the decidedly low budget feel of “Churen III.” The lighting and video quality both look amateur, but this decision actually permits the massive amount of ideas and questions in the piece to come out, unfettered by technical and visual considerations.
Linzy’s video didn’t seem as self-aware or self-conscious as Handelman’s. Unlike Handelman’s, Linzy’s is not occupied with declaring itself “Art!” Linzy just gets on with it. Another advantage is that “Churen III”’s runtime of about seven minutes allows for several repeat viewings, which are necessary. Compared to Handelman’s piece, which is an hour long, “Churen III” can be seen over and over again, allowing the viewer greater exposure to Linzy’s ideas.
Linzy’s video is presented as a soap opera on steroids, complete with convoluted plot twists, melodramatic dialogue and questionable acting. Linzy plays the main character whose boyfriend has just proposed. He (if his character can even be classified as a he, as there is no direct comment on the character’s gender in the film, which causes pronoun problems for reviewers) lolls about in bed or in a bubble bath, typically wearing very little or nothing at all while making calls to friends, relatives, and a psychic to help him make up his mind. His character’s identification as a woman poses the biggest problem, and serves as the crux of the video. Linzy’s character talks, dresses, and acts in a way that society classifies as stereotypically female. Linzy’s character is grossly indecisive, which seems to be the result of him trying to fit into a certain category in order to be accepted. There are concerns about what the church group and the community will think of their marriage, raising questions about our society’s perception of relationships and the function of gender roles.
As Ariel Levy noted in a New Yorker article last fall about the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya, a world champion track athlete so strong and so dominant that other women began to question her gender, “Taxonomy is an acutely sensitive subject.” A more recent article on Slate.com explores a similar case with women’s basketball player Brittney Griner. But the most complicated and most controversial issue, the prime example of why taxonomy is a sensitive subject, is the case of the “Pregnant Man.” Thomas Beatie, born Tracy Lagondino, became a man through surgery and hormone therapy, but kept his female reproductive organs because his partner Nancy was unable to bear children.
Linzy’s piece and these articles ask an uneasy and often uncomfortable question: what makes a man a man, and a woman a woman? We think of our biological identities as solid and irreducible: you’re either one or the other. But medicine and science are changing that, in a similar way to how the formerly concrete ideas about heterosexuality were and still are being dismantled. When we take the case of Thomas Beatie, how do we talk about a woman who loves a woman, decides to become a man, but still holds onto her female sexual organs? There is no word in English to describe that person — science has outpaced language. Words can’t keep up, and we are left to struggle onward. Yet struggling the most are the people we (read “society”) want to shoehorn into a solid, specific category: namely, the transgender and transsexual.
In the climax to “Churen III,” there is a confrontation between Linzy and his boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Linzy tells her that if he were a woman, he would beat her up, which is a self-defeating return to heteronormativity: a woman can fight a woman but a man can’t fight a woman. Even if that man thinks of himself as a woman, if s/he is stronger, taller, has a deeper voice, (or runs faster, or plays basketball more aggressively) than how a “woman” normally should, then they are not seen as a woman by many in society.
Linzy’s boyfriend offers him love and understanding, but in the end Linzy can’t trust his own self-identification and can’t handle the ambiguity of his situation. The genius of “Churen III” lies in its earnest presentation of complex social issues. There are no answers here, but the viewer is given much to consider.
The simple plot and presentation of events in “Churen III” allows for an intense debate about gender and sexuality, whereas Handelman’s “Dorian” is much more straightforward in the way it presents its ideas. It is interesting how Handelman, equipped with what looked like the larger budget and more star-studded cast did something that is so typically Hollywood: create a sequel. Dorian relays similar messages as Wilde’s story, and ends up looking like The Picture of Dorian Gray with drag queens (and don’t forget the sequins). “Churen III” draws inspiration from soap operas, yet Linzy’s video feels less derivative because of the unconventional roles on display.
That said, I came away from the exhibit with the opinion that seeing these two videos in relation to each other was more valuable than seeing them separately. Seeing them in this way allowed me to compare, contrast, and open a mental dialogue between the two artists’ different conceptions of the issues of cross dressing, gender identity and gender roles. I believe issues like these will continue to appear with more and more frequency. I also hope that more and more people will have a chance to see videos that can prompt debate about such issues in the way Handelman’s and Linzy’s can.
Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde took place at the MIT List Visual Arts Center from February 5 – April 4, 2010.