Film not only documents culture, it creates it by focusing, framing, and editing the lenses through which we encounter the world. Taking this functionality of film as a cue, Russell Sheaffer explores gender and sexuality as performance in Masculinity/Femininity, which has its world premiere on May 26 at Toronto’s Inside Out.
Inspired by his film Masculinity & Me with James Franco, Sheaffer expands his point of inquiry beyond masculinity to include femininity, as well as to question what these defining markers of gender mean in daily expressions of lived bodies. “What’s your favorite thing about being a man?”—the catalyzing question of Masculinity & Me, originally given to Franco during a magazine interview—is inverted and broken down into a series of questions about living one’s gender. These questions, in turn, are both posited and performed by a series of astonishing queer and performance scholars and artists—Susan Stryker, B. Ruby Rich, Pratibha Parmar, Sophia Wallace, Linda Williams, Jack Halberstam and Barbara Hammer, to name just a few.
To portray the constructedness of gender, Sheaffer experiments with the form of filmmaking. Part script, part documentary, and shot largely on Super 8 film, Masculinity/Femininity aims to prove how performance underlies all active, external expression in the world, especially in terms of gender. For Sheaffer, every aspect of the film—“from the cast to the crew to the camera”— is about performance. “The use to Super 8mm film is intimately tied up in this performance too,” he explains in a press release. “I deeply wanted the film to be an analogy for gender. It’s messy. It’s labored. It’s in sync and then out of sync and then in sync again.”
This messiness of gender is precisely the sentiment expressed by all the interviewees/performers in the film. When the film opens, Sheaffer and crew almost bum rush Susan Stryker, who has rushed home to meet them for her interview. Still collecting herself upon entering her home, she gives the most fantastical, quizzical look at Sheaffer when he asks her, “What is your favorite thing about being a woman?”
She doesn’t answer—not immediately, anyway.
Acclaimed filmmaker Barbara Hammer delivers perhaps the most poignant, and pointed, line about the idea of “gender as performance”: “Masculinity is trained subjectivity; anyone can be masculine,” she says, as she appropriates a deep voice and swaggers around her studio.
This, then, is ultimately the question about gender that “queer” and “postmodern” thinkers need work through: To what extent is gender a performance?
Or, to evoke the culture v. nature debate, how much of your gender is “trained subjectivity”?
It is ultimately the question the viewer is left pondering, especially in light of some queer trans narratives which base transition in an origin point of gender awareness, which would, in turn, negate the idea of gender being a continual enculturation.
Masculinity/Femininity offers a survey course on gender as it would be analyzed in media studies. It excels in depicting how the camera creates the conditions of perception, revealing the performative side of gender. Evocative of other cerebral pseudo-docs like Astra Taylor’s Examined Life, this film is sure to draw audiences across the country this summer.