Gender Issues1 Cabello/Carceller

How can we explain a term which is in itself so complicated, but which most of society is determined to simplify? How can we explain that the majority prefer to appear not to understand its diversity? And what is it that makes this pretense possible? Why do gender differences still exist as bipolarized and insurmountable categories? Who benefits from the continuation of this binary split? Why is it indispensable to pathologize those who transgress gender boundaries? Why do most of the transgender representations existing in the collective imagination end up appearing exaggerated, as though from a pantomime? What is it people are so afraid of? The prescriptive division of gender leaves us standing before an undisputed frontier, whose existence we not want to recognize in case we find ourselves disputing it. Those who cross it at best begin to sicken … at worst they can be assassinated for “moral reasons”; either way it is clear that the mere fact of crossing that frontier confers a special status on us and converts us into a political problem which demands the intervention of the public authorities. On the other hand it is perfectly clear that if the boundary is not crossed completely and one decides to live undefined, the problem becomes more serious, partly because there is no room in society for these possible new hybrids. We say “new” not because the issue did not previously exist but because, as we have already said, there is no will to discuss this matter in a down to earth and effective way. We can describe it as a new theme because it was not relevant, because its existence was marginalized on the whole deliberately, because it has been insistently dealt with as a subject associated with sexuality, thus reducing its political magnitude. The discussion was postponed until it turned into the last question, to be faced only once the rest of the problems affecting our society were resolved; when it comes down to it, they said, it is just a minority problem. They are right, because the majority of citizens cannot or will not face the fact that one of the principle variables marking their lives and driving their way of interacting with others is something imposed on them, just as they cannot face the fact that they themselves have turned into what is called the “gender police,” a force of law and order which judges others, takes action, and forces them to maintain the current categories. And they do it frequently in daily life, through apparently insignificant gestures, boring conversations, and attitudes which are so assumed they pass unnoticed. The gender police are present when employees are hired, in schools, and at the doctor’s, when tax returns are presented and in the queue for the public toilets … How then can we consider ourselves free when we have naturalized gender and turned our bodies into prisons of identity?

Masculine or feminine. Apparently we have to accept this simplistic choice. It would seem that according to our political systems only predictable persons can be emancipated/emancipable; that is to say, only predictable persons can be social beings with rights. Unpredictable persons—to use the terminology of Carla Lonzi2—are not politically useful, they are instead potentially dangerous, and for this reason they should be relegated to being an invisible caste. In societies based on communication, invisibility ends up being the greatest punishment, as it has as its consequence the loss of effective political rights. This is why the de facto powers have to hinder the possibilities of representation for those who do not wish to take an active part in the social network, and above all, those to whom it wishes to deny—as it is currently doing—their civil rights. Nowadays, presence in the collective imagination is indispensable to gain a voice in the social network; without that visibility one cannot even declare oneself part of the political body or be understood as a part of it.

If we agree with Judith Butler that gender constitutes an imitation without an original, which “imitates the myth of originality itself,”3 building the illusion of an existence of a primary and internal gender, or parodying the mechanism of the aforementioned construction, we can understand that there are many possibilities for the corruption and transgression of the established gender divides, divisions which are fictitiously presented as “natural” from the perspective of the dominant heterosexual. In the field of representation, and more specifically in that of visual representation, the spaces for the construction of possible identities which hinder the ruling assignment of gender are a priori multiple; identities which would distance us from the insistence on the illusory creation of that stable and sexualized self that Butler associates with the management of a regulatory hetero-normative fiction. This regulation however is perfectly in force and deeply anchored in various societies and cultures. If we interpret representation as an action of “presenting oneself again”—of re-presenting oneself in an indefinite postponement of the stability and unity of the generically regulated and ordered presence—we would have in it an apparent ally which would allow us to play with its possibilities and we would make the most of its important impact on the contemporary social space. However, images created from resistance to the hegemonic view and established categories are displaced and interpreted with the help of a spectacular and histrionic key; they are distanced from spaces where a genuinely plural and impartial imagination is being constructed. The receptive echo of these possible images in the critical discourse places them in closed compartments, by which their variables of interpretation are reduced and the opportunity for them to access open readings denied. A redundant order of gender, whose structure remains hidden under the cloak of neutrality—which is in reality impossible—looks after the promotion of all those images which fit into the aforementioned order without flagging, while it condemns the exhaustion caused by any kind of nonconventional imaginary.

As artists we considered the possibility of working with what we denominate “arte degenerado” as early as 2000. In the first place, “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst) was the concept chosen in 1937 by the Nazi regime in Germany to classify and insult productions of avant-garde or modernist art. Secondly, degenerate also means an “individual with an abnormal or depraved mental and moral condition, commonly accompanied by a peculiar physical stigma”4 and has been widely used to refer to individuals with sexual “perversions” (a classification which enfolds in the same concept people who use violence, such as rapists, and people who are on the receiving end of violence from the dominant group, such as homosexuals). Thirdly, despite institutional opposition, in Castilian Spanish the word género has taken root as the literal translation of the English concept of gender. This was the basis on which we decided to use the term degenerado additionally in the sense of genderless in cases where affiliation to a normatively valid feminine or masculine gender was absent. Fourthly, in Castilian Spanish, the word género also relates to the usual classification of the various artistic disciplines: photography, painting, sculpture, video … (in English, the term corresponds to the word “genre”). In all these senses, arte degenerado5 could, as a minimum, cross four frontiers: political, sexual, and social frontiers, and that of destabilization of conservative artistic language.

Can one really jump over the gender barrier? What we do know is that this has scarcely been examined. During the moral revolution that took place in some Western countries in the second half of the last century, the question really was posed as to whether the supremacy of the female and male element had to be equalized; but no one asked about the need to transcend the permanence of this symbolic order, whereby the possibility of upsetting the normative gender was limited only to the field of entertainment, pathology, or adjusted marginalization. It is true that changes have only just begun, and, by simply looking around us (a look that includes, of course, the art world) we realize how far we are from that judicial, economic, and political equality (if any of these categories can be used separately from the others) among those necessarily masculine biological men and those necessarily feminine biological women who constitute the ideological majority. But maybe we are asking the wrong question, because the answer is obvious: we currently lack that freedom, and in the public sphere we are still being identified as a part of one gender or the other. That is to say, it is not a problem that should be analyzed within the private sphere. It is a public question about power relations. Our assignment of gender is, in our identification, documents, which are almost more important than we are, as their possession conditions our mobility through the world; in fact its absence puts our very existence into question. Race is not stated on them (at least not in Spain); neither is economic class (although to show solvency the documents should be accompanied by credit cards). Nor is our religion stated … but the need to know the compulsory gender to which we have been assigned is almost obsessive. Why? Let us go back to the beginning. Who benefits from the continuation of the binary split?


1 / This text is connected with the text “Archive” in this volume by Cabello/Carceller.

2 / Carla Lonzi, Escupamos sobre Hegel, Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona 1981. Originally published as Sputiamo su Hegel e altri scritti, Rivolta Femminile, Milan 1972.

3 / Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London 1990, p. 38.

4 / Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la lengua española, Espasa-Calpe, Madrid 1984, p. 447.

5 / In English it would be a sort of mix between Degenerate Art and Degenderate Art.