This is our truth, tell us yours
On saturday night, along with many others I cheered the victory of Conchita Wurst in the Eurovision Song Contest. It may not have been the biggest surprise ever, after all Eurovision is basically a wing of Pride in most of western Europe but it looked like a moment for those of us who want to smash gender norms to celebrate. My celebratory tone was largely based on the fact I had been told that Conchita was non binary, someone who described themselves as non gender. Since then there has been much discussion in certain quarters about whether this is the case, and what she actually represents, in this article Paris Lee’s says it doesn’t matter, I am afraid I have to disagree,
It turns out Conchita is a creation of Tom Neuwirth, a cis gay man. He (I mean Tom here) is a drag performer, who yes, uses female pronouns in the character of Conchita, but does not identify as female or non binary. Drag as performed by Cis men has a long history, and that history is rarely positive when it comes to the representation of women. It presents us as usually heavily made up, emotional, unintellectual. It is seen as amusing when drag performers talk coarsely or about sex, since of course this is something “real” women would not do.
Lilly Savage is perhaps the most successful Uk performer of this type of comedy, although world-wide it is probably Dame Edna, a caricature of women which has been inexplicably popular for over 40 yeas. Savage was based on the stories O’Grady heard as a social worker, real women he knew in Liverpool. However I am pretty sure none of them dressed in the hyper feminized way of Lilly when he heard their stories. In many ways if we must have men dressing as women for comedy value I would prefer Cissie and Ada. Again the joke often tended to be shock horror women being sexual, but the creations of Les Dawson were deliberately plain, dowdy even.
Which brings me to the heart of my problems with drag, and Conchita.
The image of femaleness that Tom Neurwirth has chosen to present is a conventional, and oppressive one, It is conventionally attractive, slim, one which is emotional and cries while flapping hands to stop mascara running. It reinforces patriarchal ideas of what a woman should be. The very fact that a woman having a beard is seen as so notable is part of this, lots of women, trans and cis have facial hair, from upper lip mustaches to full beards. As a gimmick it is actually one that says “real women” do not look like this, I am something different and worthy of comment.
There are, it seems to me, two main theories of what gender is. The first is Platonic, gender is an ideal against which we are measured, this is the view held by swerfs/terfs and patriarchy. The concept of platonic ideals sees them as concrete things which exist (so gender can be destroyed as the radfems desire) and as a measure of perfection none of us can live up too. In a Platonic view of the world there is an ideal woman, or man, and this is where my objection to drag, including Conchita, comes in. The representation is one that most women fail to live up too, and which causes pain and suffering for many, cis and trans. It comes as no surprise that a white cis gay man chooses to express femaleness in such a way. Patriarchy, which he benefits from uses our failure to live up to the ideal of woman as an instrument to keep us in our place. Tom Neurath when he is not Conchita does not face his body and emotions being considered public property. He does not face losing his children if his job does not conform to the Platonic ideal, his birth control choices policed, being told to smile by strangers, because the ideal woman is always smiling, compliant and available.
The other concept of gender is ontological or Cartesian. I am a woman because I am, the knowledge I am a woman is all that is needed to be a woman. There is no ideal based around vaginas, or body hair or chromosomes. We define ourselves as the gender we know ourselves to be. In a Cartesian world the mind creates facts, they are not immutable nor are they universal. Of course the problem with a Cartesian view of the world is one of communication, as theory after theory on private languages, meta languages and so on has shown. How can I be sure that your sense of gender and my sense of gender are at all similar? Indeed how can I be sure we are not all just brains in vats waiting for Neo to come and save us? Of course we cannot, and this is why people cling to the Platonic concrete certainties. One of the huge advantages of taking an ontological view of gender, gender as a belief we have about ourselves and the world is it means we do not cling to the racist myths of shared girlhood, which terfs so love with their belief in a Platonic ideal of gender. We do have to accept we can never have perfect communication with others, but we gain a world where my truths are no preferred to yours.
The main issue with an ontological view is that there will be some who argue that our belief about our gender is a construct totally created by patriarchy, the kind of rad fem idea pushed by people like Jefferys. They seem to be unable to see the difference between forms of expressing gender and internal certainties. Which brings us back to my issues with Conchita, and why I think it matters whether a cis man representing an ideal of woman or an agender/genderfuck person won. Intent does matter. Whether Conchita is challenging patriarchal norms or upholding them matters.