Is social construction of identity a ‘performance’?

Fraser Institute

The notion of identity is commonly contested in the disciplines of sociology and psychology and due to its subjective nature there is no single definition of what constitutes identity, but rather varying theories relating to its formation.

One such theory states that identity is not a result of personal choice or agency, but is a product of the processes of socialisation and is therefore, due to its roots in the very formation of our personalities, fixed and unchanging. Another seemingly opposing theory describes the development of identity as a process resulting from multiple human interactions. However, although these theories may appear contradictory, one may consider that identity as a social construct is actually a combination of aspects of each theory.

When considering the concept of identity as a societal construct, it is important to note the two key purposes identity serves: it is firstly used as a means of establishing individuality and secondly as a means of forging connections with wider groups. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the latter. I believe that both of the aforementioned theories that describe identity support Richard Schechner’s claim that ‘any and all of the activities of human life can be studied “as” performance’[1]. This is because although they are different in certain ways, they both emphasise the prominent role of society and interactions in the creation of one’s identity.

One may therefore argue that identity as constructed socially must, at least to some extent, be viewed as a performance, purely because society and interaction imply the ‘consumption’ of our identity by a separate entity and it thus follows that identity is ‘performed’ for that entity. In this article, I aim to analyse the extent to which identity can be considered as performance.

It is necessary to start by situating the terms in context and outlining the particular meaning that I ascribe to keywords such as performance and performativity. This distinction between performance and performativity will call into question the idea that ‘the consumption of our identity’ must mean that identity is a performance. To make these points clear, I will focus on the gender binary and female identity through two significant examples, namely belly dancing and female wartime roles. My argument is centred around the idea that gender roles are, at least in most parts, socially constructed through the constant production of performatives over time and gender binary can be challenged from a social constructivist perspective.

The term ‘performance’ should not only be applied to rituals, dances or activities within the realm of what is considered to be art, but also to the practices of our everyday life and the processes by which we develop certain ways of behaving in relation to our social and historical circumstances. Performance studies scholars have provided varying definitions of the term ‘performance’, therefore indicating that the term can be perceived in numerous different ways.

However, Richard Schechner’s definition of performance is particularly significant, firstly because he extends the definition of performance to one’s daily life practises and secondly because he highlights the determining influence of social and historical surroundings upon our behaviours (performances). He has claimed that ‘any and all of the activities of human life can be studied “as” performance’[2]; and has later stated that historical and social context, including conventions and traditions, are the main defining factors when considering whether or not something may be categorised as a performance.

This means that the perception of performances varies greatly from culture to culture under different historical circumstances. For this reason Schechner makes a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘as’ when he refers to performances; however, I hold that one’s everyday life practices are also highly influenced by social context. Therefore, those practices of everyday life, rituals and habits that Schechner calls ‘restored behaviours’, are also performances as is clearly indicated in his writings, in which he considers restored behaviours to have an impact on the construction of one’s identity.

However, it is not very clear whether the social construction process can be perceived as a performance per se. In order to clarify this one must look at social constructivist theories and what they have to say about the formation of one’s identity. It is also crucial to examine how performances, as defined by Schechner, can be linked to this construction process. One aspect that social constructivism deals with is the way in which people present themselves to others, as well as how they are perceived by others.

The theory argues that it is the historical and social circumstances in which people have been raised that determine the ways in which we identify ourselves, as well as how we identify others. Identity is, therefore, not something given to humans, but rather is produced or constructed by interactions and experiences. In line with Schechner’s argument, if one considers that people interact using restored behaviours, those interactions and experiences may be viewed as performances. It is therefore seen that there is a straightforward link between the formation of identity and Schechner’s concept of performance.

It is also necessary to note that the term ‘performance’ could be more accurately replaced with the term ‘performative’ when explaining its relation to the construction of identity. The basis of this choice of word lies in Judith Butler’s differentiation of performance from performativity. As a result of her engagement with the speech-act theory associated with J. L. Austin, Butler finds it important to distinguish performance from performativity by saying that

‘the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of the subject […] think about the performativity as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names.’[3]

According to Butler, performativity embraces not only the description of an action, but also the performance of that action. A performative is different from a performance because the former is a series of actions, which can be conscious or unconscious, but which nonetheless continues to cateogorise people, thus affecting the process of the formation of their identities. Since those actions are ongoing, they begin to be perceived as facts over time, whereas the actions that Butler calls ‘performances’ are presumed to give some kind of agency to the subject.

This is particularly significant if one finds performatives to be the main players in the construction of identity. Having seen the comparison between Schechner and Butler’s accounts for performance and performativity, if you believe that people do not necessarily have full agency in controlling the ways in which they represent themselves and perceive others, you should focus more on Butler than Schechner.

In order to understand what Butler essentially means, it is useful to look at her theory of Gender Performativity. This is a term first mentioned in her book, Gender Trouble in 1990, is used to explain that gender is not something innate to human beings, but is rather something socially constructed through one’s own repetitive production of performatives. Butler rejects the idea that people’s sense of subjectivity is self-determining. Although it is believed that people act according to their subjective judgements, the sense of subjectivity, according to Butler, is nothing more than a product of the enactment of societal codes and rules. Thus, gender is

‘a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.’[4]

This means that gender is nothing but a combination of our repetitive behaviours, which subtly construct our identity in such a way that we perceive it to be natural, predetermined and necessary.

One critique of this view would be that our biologically fixed ‘sex’ is also a determiner of our identity; however, Butler counters this view by explaining that ‘if gender is the social significance that sex assumes within a given culture . . . then what, if anything, is left of ‘sex’ once it has assumed its social character as gender?’[5] thus devaluing the biological differences of sexes without their social significance. Contrary to the dualistic view of identifying gender roles, Butler supports the abolition of the boundaries between male and female. It may seem to be a very unusual way of defining gender, purely because the gender binary is already so subconsciously embedded in our identity. For instance, we are firstly identified as either a male or female by our names that we have not chosen. This provides a significant example of gender performative because a name also gives meaning to its subject and, to an extent, influences the social construction of that identity.

Through focusing on gender, one can see that the social construction of identity is largely shaped by a set of performatives. Although Butler’s main focus is gender performativity, it is not the sole component of our identity. Other significant elements are race and nationality, which continuously produce their own performatives. In order to be able to amalgamate these two aspects of identity, I have chosen to examine belly dancing, which reflects gender performativity as well as Orientalist performativity, and prove that it is a performance in which a specific type of identity is socially constructed over time.

Sexuality and eroticism are the first two words that appear in my mind when I think about belly dancing; the words ‘exotic’ and ‘Oriental’ would possibly follow. I grew up in Istanbul, the city that welcomed numerous cultures in the most harmonious way throughout centuries. Throughout my childhood I saw belly dancers everywhere as it has been a popular form of cultural entertainment since the time of the Ottoman Empire. I used to find them highly discomforting when I was younger, purely because they looked unduly sexualized, as if they were constantly trying to seduce males. After a time, I realised that the dancers aim was not necessarily seduction; instead, belly dancing embodied something entirely different. The costumes, make-up and music reflected a kind of femininity other than what I had initially perceived.

During my research, I encountered many feminist debates originating from the idea that belly dancing demonstrates a sexualized commodification of the female body, and that it misrepresents Middle-Eastern culture. For instance, the fact of naming it a ‘belly dance’, or an ‘Oriental dance’ can be seen as an Orientalist performative because it was a name given by Westerners, thus inadvertently reinforcing the social and historical connotations of Orientalism. It is believed that belly dancing emerged as a genre in the Middle East, and was later introduced into Western culture by European travellers, such as the prominent British Orientalist Edward Lane, during the 18th and 19th centuries. The travellers’ mystical perceptions of the Middle East led to gender-based interpretations of belly dancers. For example, the 19th century European Orientalist painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, two of the most prominent figures of the Orientalist movement, described eroticized fantasy scenes from harem life, including belly dancing, as a source of pleasure for a sultan or for a group of men.

Hence, the production of endless performatives led to the social construction of what Butler essentially refuses to accept; the gender binary resulting from the subjugation of one by the other. I would also argue that belly-dancing performances innocently supported the sexual commodification of the female body, which, over centuries, reinforced the sense of inferiority to men within the socially constructed female identity.

Despite these misrepresentations, we can observe that belly dancing can also serve to create an identity other than that of the exoticised Middle Eastern woman. For example, Sunaina Maira suggests in her article Belly Dancing: Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, and U.S. Empire that belly dancing fits well into the criterion used in order to create a new identity for Arab and Muslim women in the United States. She explains this by giving an insightful analysis of belly dancing performed by white American women, and how this cross-cultural activity has been reshaped in the United States after 9/11. She believes that both cultures share similar ‘imperial feelings’[6], which are ‘the complex of psychological and political belonging to empire that are often unspoken, sometimes subconscious, but always present […]’ [7]. These feelings led to the gathering of American women from different backgrounds and the creation of a new kind of femininity through belly dancing in order to avoid tension between the USA and the Middle East. I believe that the aim of American women in creating a new identity in terms of their femininity and nationality led to the production of new kinds of performatives thus belly dancing came to be perceived as something other than solely sexual and exotic.

Furthermore, it is intriguing to examine the implications of belly dancing as performed by men. I found that the dominant ideology of heterosexuality contradicts the socially constructed male identity, thus preventing men from performing belly dancing without being perceived as feminine. Krista Banasiak asserts in her article Dancing the East in the West: Orientalism, feminism, and belly dance that ‘the experience of the body is always socially mediated by constructed discourses that produce the body and its meanings’[8]. Because belly dancing is commonly performed by women, it is therefore perceived to be suitable only for a female body.

However, there are male belly dancers known as ‘zenne’ who are mostly transgender or homosexual. The actual meaning of the word ‘zenne’ is ‘woman’ in Farsi, referring to dancers who wear women’s clothes and veils whilst performing. It is important at this point to remember that a performative has the ability to produce what it names; calling male dancers ‘zenne’ could be seen to reinforce the gender binary and the idea that only women are able to perform a belly dance. This insinuates that the characteristics of belly dancing are associated with female body within social and cultural norms.

This causes men to have no opportunity to experience belly dancing without being perceived as ‘womanly’. In other words, men performing belly dance is only perceived as an imitation of female gender, thus showing that socially constructed heterosexuality is fully embedded in people’s identity by means of gender performatives. However, I believe that in adopting what are traditionally viewed as female performatives, male belly dancers are able to blur the boundaries between the genders.

Specific political and cultural circumstances have an inevitable influence upon gender roles. One of the main features of Schechner’s argument was that daily life practices could be seen as performances, if social and historical context qualifies them as such. I found it useful to examine how gender roles have changed for both men and women during the World Wars in terms of their daily lives, and how those changes had an impact on the social construction of their identity. This is significant because during the time of war and its aftermath the gender binary was challenged as a result of the drastic changes in both men and women’s everyday life practices.

The binary view of gender associates women with domestic roles and perceives them as homemakers whereas men are mostly presented in working life and regarded as breadwinners. However, during times of war, because men needed to be in the battle zones, most of the female population was enlisted in the work force in order for them to contribute to the war effort. That is to say that despite the unusual social atmosphere during the war, it can be observed that the basis of male gender roles remained consistent; however, there were significant changes in female roles.

For example, they began to work in the production of heavy machinery in factories, which was previously regarded as a man’s job. Women’s involvement in men’s jobs inevitably caused a considerable change in their daily life practices, since they needed to fulfill both men and women’s roles in society during the absence of the male population. In addition, women’s performance during the war helped to disprove the central misconception of women’s identity, that they were inadequate for male-oriented jobs which require manual and technical knowledge.

Therefore, in terms of identity, it is more useful to examine women rather than men, because the multiple roles that women began to perform during the World Wars led to significant changes in the ways in which they identified themselves. Women’s everyday life consisted of continuous practices such as cleaning, cooking and caring for their children.

I believe that Schechner’s account for restored behaviours clearly indicates that women’s identity was highly shaped by their everyday life practices, as he states that

‘performances — of art, rituals, or ordinary life — are ‘restored behaviours’ … performed actions that people train for and rehearse … But everyday life also involves years of training and practice, of adjusting and performing one’s life roles in relation to social and personal circumstances …’[9]

Since those practices were remarkably altered during wartime, women started to identify themselves as being capable of doing more than domestic work. However, as Doreen Massey argues in her article Space, Place and Gender, ‘space and place, spaces and places, and our sense of them are gendered through and through’[10]. Her point is very significant because the situation for women did not remain the same during the aftermath of the First and the Second World War. Men came back from the battlefield thus causing the political authorities to force women to leave their jobs and return to their domestic roles in order that men could resume their work.

This is to say that, although women were capable of replacing men in the work place, the gendering of those spaces was so deeply embedded in our perceptions of societal roles that a permanent change was not feasible at that time. For instance, Massey investigates the genderisation of local cultures in 1960s and 1970s in Britain and explains that women were pushed into taking new jobs as nurses, cleaners or secretaries, which required flexible working hours and paid low wages. She argues that gender roles and gender relations are socially constructed in many regions of Britain. Considering Massey’s point, it is not difficult to see that the dominant mechanisms of society determine the roles that people perform and ultimately lead to the construction of different identities under specific social and historical circumstances such as those of wartime.

One particular result of shifting gender roles after the First World War was the enfranchisement of women, which not only had an impact on politics and gender roles but also on female identity. For thousands of years women’s influence had been restricted to the boundaries of the home, however once they were extended the right to vote they were instantly possessed of a tangible ability to influence the country in which they lived. At the same time, the media began to target their advertising campaigns for new technologies such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners at women, thus encouraging them to stay in their home sphere. We can use slogans and wartime propaganda to examine the ramifications of these contrasting changes in women’s lives.

I find that the most prominent example would be the famous American wartime poster ‘We Can Do It!’[11] designed in 1943 which depicts a woman wearing working clothes and showing her bicep which in the masculine nature of the pose indicates that women are just as capable as men of carrying out manual labour. Contrarily during post-war years, the adverts in the 1950s portrayed a woman wearing an apron and high heals, emphasising her passion and happiness for cooking for her family. I argue, therefore, that the performatives produced in society during the war and post-war periods had seemingly contradictory effects on women’s identity.

This article firstly considered Schechner’s definition of performances, which appeared to show that identity can be considered ‘as performance’ if we accept that our identity is, at least partly, comprised of ‘the restored behaviours’ of daily life. The theory of social constructivism, as detailed above, not only supported this initial conclusion, but also strengthened the argument on the grounds that it places a great deal of emphasis upon the role of interaction in the formation of identity, thus implying an audience for the performance. Judith Butler contradicts this view by arguing that a performance cannot, in fact, play a role in the construction of identity because it implies a conscious actor.

The social construction of identity, according to Butler, consists of a series of performatives, which are clearly visible in the gender binary of today’s society. This refutes the theory stating that identity is fixed I went on to show that belly dancing can be seen to both reinforce and refute this gender binary by means of physical and linguistic performatives. I then considered the influence of societal constructions on our performance of our own identities by using the example the unstable position of women in post-war times dues to changes in wider society.

To sum up, I believe that, if identity consisted only of the ‘restored behaviours’ and interactions of everyday life, I could respond that the extent to which the social construction of identity is a performance is great. However, after having considered the implications of Schechner’s use of the word ‘performance’ and Butler’s convincing argument for its replacement with the word ‘performativity’, I find that the social construction of an identity is, in fact, a series of far more complex performative actions.

In other words, identity cannot really be viewed ‘as performance’ when it is comprised of notions such as gender, the interiorisations and expressions of which are more complex than can simply be described as a performance.

References / Bibliography

· Banasiak, Krista. 2014. Dancing the East in the West: Orientalism, feminism, and belly dance. Volume 10, Number 1. Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association.

· Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

· Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge.

· Butler, Judith. 1994. Interview with Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal. Radical Philosophy 67.

· Massey, Doreen B. 1994. Space, Place, And Gender.

· Miller, J.Howard. 1943. ‘We Can Do It’. Westinghouse Electric

· Sunaina, Maira. 2008. “Belly Dancing: Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, And U.S. Empire”. American Quarterly 60 (2): 317–345. doi:10.1353/aq.0.0019.

· Schechner, Richard. 2002. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

[1] Schechner, Richard. 2002. Performance Studies. London: Routledge.

[2] Schechner, Richard. 2002. Performance Studies. London: Routledge.

[3] Butler, Judith. 1994. Interview with Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal. Radical Philosophy 67.

[4] Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

[5] Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge.

[6] Sunaina, Maira. 2008. “Belly Dancing: Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, And U.S. Empire”. American Quarterly 60 (2): 317–345. doi:10.1353/aq.0.0019.

[7] Sunaina, Maira. 2008. “Belly Dancing: Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, And U.S. Empire”. American Quarterly 60 (2): 317–345. doi:10.1353/aq.0.0019.

[8] Banasiak, Krista. 2014. “Dancing the East in the West: Orientalism, feminism, and belly dance”. Volume 10, Number 1. Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association.

[9] Schechner, Richard. 2002. Performance Studies. London: Routledge.

[10] Massey, Doreen B. 1994. Space, Place, And Gender.

[11] J.Howard Miller. 1943. ‘We Can Do It’. Westinghouse Electric

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