In this American Film Institute Archive clip, Dustin Hoffman recalls the process of developing the external appearance of Dorothy Michaels for Tootsie (1982) and the concatenating effects of realizing his internal sense of self did not match the external reality of what even the studio’s elite hair and makeup teams could provide.
This clip points to several different personal and cultural questions I seek to explore in The Skin I’m In. We all likely agree at this point that judgments of beauty, femininity, or masculinity are not absolutes but rather culturally constructed. But it is one thing to know this intellectually and quite another to a) feel at peace with these metrics or b) to transcend their use as the driving measures of self or others.
If self is not to be fully found in our tyrannical minds or our ephemeral bodies, then where does it reside? Explorers of nonduality would say this question is itself a trap, as it remythologizes the existence of a singular, finite, knowable self.
Making this film and dividing my identity into multiple personas, each just as real and just as “me” as the next, has certainly helped me to understand the ways in which each of us restricts and binds ourselves through personal and cultural narratives.
But on the flip side, once we see that none of our experiences, diagnoses, personalities, hopes, resentments, possessions, and appearances can fully describe “self,” but rather serve as nodes or mapping points for the experience of consciousness, we begin to glimpse the infinite possibilities for adventure, experimentation, and play in life.
It is this sense of freedom that I think many of us are pointing to via the (albeit feeble) term “spirit”–a realm I held at arm’s length for some thirty years because “spirituality” seemed fettered to religion and dogma, not a path to possibility and play.
‘Tis true that a good play needs no epilogue, but it seems fitting to close a post on gender, performance, and identity with some Shakesepare:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
–Jaques from Shakesepare’s As You Like It (Act II Scene 7)
I thought this poster from Wipe Out Transphobia was really helpful not only for being an effective trans ally, but also for thinking about identity more universally. The point that “gender identity is not sexual identity,” applies to anyone. In the end, we are all “trans” to whatever degree our sense(s) of self or performance(s) of identity differ from culturally-constructed/popularly-accepted “norms.”
One of the perks of being a media maker and cultural critic is that I can procrastinate online and call it “art” or “research.” Here’s what happened when Dina Brown got her hands on the InStyle Magazine Hollywood Makeover tool back in 2008. Can you recognize the “celebrity hair try-ons?” Talk about perpetuating the culture industry!
I like to think I’m subverting the machine a bit, but I have been thinking a lot lately about how so much male drag, my own included, still subscribes to such a specific performance of gender in culture. That’s one of the reasons I highlight Leigh Bowery as a queer hero of mine in THE SKIN I’M IN. He (along with the artists who documented and interpreted his performances like Fergus Greer and Lucian Freud) pushed ideas of drag and performativity out of easily understandable binaries into the realms of the surreal and the unconscious.
I KNEW HIM, a 2007 video of mine that challenges preconceptions of rape and sexual assault has received some interesting and important recirculation this winter. The video played the festival circuit and was nominated for the Iris Prize, the world’s largest LGBT media prize, back in 2007. Then this month, in light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s gender-neutral redefinition of rape, RAINN, the Rape and Incest National Network picked up the video as part of a new online outreach campaign.
The video has since been discussed and reposted in a range of online community contexts including the interdisciplinary University of Minnesota-based blog The Society Pages.
It’s heartening that the piece has become a tool and a catalyst for cultural debate, a phenomenon distinctly afforded by the Internet and the digital age.