In 1997, the famous Ms. Universe pageant asked, then candidate, Sushmita Sen a question that would trigger discussion all over the world. She was asked, “What is the essence of a woman?” To this, she replied,
“Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”(Sen, 1997)
Although her answer highlighted the caring and nurturing qualities of a woman, it also put a spotlight on motherhood. And, while the whole world was discussing what should be the answer to this question, most were agreeing that to be able to give birth or to mother a child is the essence of being a woman. This, in itself, is troublesome because it puts aside women who are unable to produce children because of medical reasons. It also disregards women who choose not to have children, or could not adopt, or could not afford surrogacy, and so much more. Pinpointing the essence of a woman to just her ability to reproduce is locking her purpose into a society-given task which, if she fails to do it, would decrease or even eliminate her value as a person. Sen’s answer, as heartfelt as it is, highlighted “sharing, caring, and loving” as women’s traits, despite the fact that these qualities should be present in all types of people. As a matter of fact, in any way one looks at the question, there could never be a correct answer because the question, itself, is what is problematic. To look for the essence of a particular person is to basically ask what differentiates her/him from anyone else. It’s a question of identity, and it’s troublesome because it cages and reduces that person into a certain trait or quality. It is a question that does not seek to explain, but rather seeks to impose a definition, as a means of exerting power. The fact that this question was asked to a woman, in the most prestigious pageant in the world where she is supposed to reign, just shows how the world belittles a woman’s glory and tries in any way possible to take her away from her rightful pedestal. I, for one, would argue that the essence of a person lies in their sense of identity and the strength and determination that goes with assuming this identity. But with a world so obsessed with defining someone’s identity, this “identity” becomes a task, an element to be proven and questioned, rather than what one ought to live by. For people to live out their respective identities, they must face the challenge of getting out of society’s definition of them. This is exactly the unnecessary challenge imposed on members of the community, most particularly on the LGBTQ+ community.
With the rise of the LGBTQ+ empowerment, the world is determined to better understand their identity, but in the process of doing so, we are once again falling into the pithole of putting stereotypes. These stereotypes, not only serve as limiting entities, but rather they instill certain impressions on these groups of people in order to generate further hatred and avoidance geared towards that which they do not understand. It is only common, after all, to fear what one does not understand.
“It is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialization. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different and deviant.”(Creed, p. 101, 1995)
The lesbian community, for example, have been stereotyped for being the “tomboy” persona, a woman who typically dressed and acted like a man out of her desire to be a man. This stereotype puts the “essence” of the community in the way they dress and behave. This also completely sets aside lesbians who are society’s definition of “feminine” in action and appearance. In the context of film, along with the butch lesbian is typically the comedic gay character, who acts “feminine” and dresses in women’s clothing. They are also typically shown in beauty parlors, as well as comedy bars. Do not get me wrong, some of these stereotypes are truthful. There are such people as butch lesbians and comedic gays in parlors, but there is an outrage for such representation in the media because it limits people’s image of them to just those. Such images are what people get used to, and when they end up being shown something else, they react negatively and shocked because, to them, what they are seeing is not anymore Queer Cinema, but misrepresented people who are “bad” examples. The danger is in idealizing a kind of queer because it marginalizes and, therefore oppresses, everyone else outside that limited definition.
“…the politics of representation is still the method of choice in the popular gay press, where it has devolved into movie-star interviews that let us know which actors are out of the closet, and brief film reviews that help us to locate “positive” or “liberating” images of gay people.”(Hanson, p.6, 1999)
The world is so curious and invested in people coming out of the closet. Whenever a celebrity does it, it’s always all over the news. A person’s sexuality is always a big deal to the point that people are bombarded with questions the minute there is a speculation about their sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is none of anybody’s business, whether the person chooses to hide it or not. It should be celebrated but it is not for another person to pry on. The dream is to live in a society where people don’t have to come out anymore because being queer is normal. Technically speaking, “coming out” is at the service of the heterosexual, as much as it is a celebration of the identity of the person coming out. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexuality is a huge part of gossip culture because to be queer is to be “unnatural”.
“We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).”(Wittig, p.9, 1992)
By this definition of Wittig, during oppression, that is, in the state of queerness, one exists as an “unnatural”. She furthers by saying that “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig, p.10, 1992). I definitely agree that it is nurture and culture which forms the identity, and not biological factors. However, the use of the word “unnatural” is problematic for the masses. To say that being a lesbian, for example, is “unnatural” because women are formed and are not born by “nature” just makes it easy for society to tweak this and put on a negative connotation to being queer. We are arguing that gender due to nature does not exist and it is extremely ironic that nature, particularly biology, is also the primary argument for the discrimination of the queer community. People who take pride in discriminating genders would just argue that being “unnatural” connotes a problem, psychological perhaps. The challenge in this case is, therefore, how to translate the cultural contribution to one’s identity in a way that could be understood well by the masses and not be an added factor to further discrimination.
“To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man…For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”(Wittig, p.13, 1992)
This beautifully put quote from Wittig further emphasizes that things are not just black and white. It was never about being just either a female or a male. There is a wider spectrum between the male and the female that people have to understand. And the breaking of these black and white definitions goes beyond furthering into the borders of masculinity and femininity. It also involves the refusal of an ideology and an economic and political assertion of power. To deny the dualist stereotype is to deny power to a system that placed dualism as a dominant structure in the first place. This is why the call for a progressive representation, not just in media, is important because it goes beyond dualism and tries its hardest to explore and understand the marginalized communities. But what is, in fact, a progressive representation?
“Instead of psychological complexity, we find predictable types and cardboard role- models. Instead of intellectual depth, we find a political slogan disguised as a narrative. Instead of aesthetic ingenuity, we find a stilted form of social realism. Instead of “accurate” or “positive” images of the gay community, we find an anodyne fantasy of the gay community.”(Hanson, p.8, 1999)
“I was troubled by a pronounced audience tendency: the desire for something predictable and familiar up there on screen.”(Rich, xxii, 2013)
As previously mentioned, it is very likely for society to keep falling into the trap of stereotypes, especially because queerness is attached to capitalism because it is linked to what is marketable and what the audience will like. We cannot change the tendency that the audience will want to look for a familiar stereotype or something that they are used to. However, we can try to change that which they are used to.
“Instead of being politically correct about what we see, we are asked to be politically correct about how we desire.”(Hanson, p.13, 1999)
We need to examine our own desires as much as we need to examine what is being desired. It is important to call out misrepresentations, but it is equally as important to look into our own tendencies and, therefore, our own standards because, more often than not, these standards are highly influenced by the power in play in the society. A progressive representation is that which is inclusive, therefore, our standards have to be inclusive, as well. All representation matters because, the moment you put people in a box, you oppress them. Queer people, just like any other character in a film, have to be able to be everything, from heroes to villains. Their representation should not be limited only to what is “politically correct” because this is, yet, another definition that may be limiting. When there are limitations, chances are, you remove their possibilities.
In order to promote inclusivity in forming queer characters in cinema, there has to be enough discourse. Another danger to this is the bias against emotional discourse. Wittig describes it as “the one which says: you do not have the right to speech because your discourse is not scientific and not theoretical“ (Wittig, p.26, 1992). It is, in essence, a wrongfully put assumption that you do not know what you are talking about because of your biological limitations characterized by your emotions. For example, people feel strongly about their sexuality as being queer, but this identity is invalidated by society because they assume that it is based on emotion and not scientific facts. The society nowadays, being in an age of exploration and new discovery is, fortunately, more open to discourse. However, in this discourse, a common mistake is to engage in conversation for the mere purpose of generating yet another definition. Society should stop trying to define. It seeks to get a glimpse of queerness, for example, just so it could be put on a canvas. It’s effort to understand is equated with the effort to produce something marketable and definable. This way, cinema is not progressive in its totality, but performative because, more than trying to market queer, it is also still sanitizing it to fit a certain definition. Current cinema, in this sense, is still a barrier to progressive representation.
Lastly, just as with the argument that nothing is ever natural and that culture prevails, we have internalized everything, including homophobia and biased judgment towards the queer community. We were not born politically correct and incorrect. Rather, it is us who decided which aspects of culture we will allow ourselves to be instilled with. This is why discourse is extremely important. We need to keep talking about these things because they matter in as far as people are actually being oppressed. The moment we stop talking about something, it ceases to matter. So we need to keep discussing progressive representation, especially in the media, which is highly influential. And in doing so, we need to ask the right questions, and not keep questioning the essence of things, seeking to define a scope which is immeasurable in the first place because, at the end of the day, the essence of a person is not what matters, but rather her/his freedom to assume fully the person that s/he is born to be.
- Creed, B. (1995). Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
- Hanson, E. (1999). Introduction. In E. Hanson, Out Takes. Duke University Press.
- Rich, B. (2013). Introduction. In B. Rich, New Queer Cinema. Duke University Press.
- Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman, The Straight Mind. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press.