Before queer theorists like Judith Butler advocated the breakdown of gender boundaries, there were a variety of artists who used the body as primary material to criticise the objectification of female bodies and the reification of femininity within patriarchal society, these include Vito Acconci’s Conversions (1971), Lynda Benglis’s Centerfold (1974), Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), and others. In a notorious performance entitled Sailor’s Meat, Sailor’s Delight (1975), the artist Paul McCarthy masqueraded both as a female sex object with a blond wig, blue eyeshadow and black translucent underwear and a sexually excited male sailor who has sex with raw hamburger meat and ketchup. A potentially shocking performance, it could be argued that this tricky video does not only contains the self-objectification of female and images of junk food products, furthermore, it also does not help to excavate the consumer culture and decode the existing patriarchal system. However, contra this kind of argument, this essay aims to give a different dimension to the interpretation of Paul McCarthy’s artwork, via a short critique which is applied by looking at Butler’s gender performativity and related theories. It will first explain the definition of gender performativity, then analyse McCarthy’s video-performance in terms of relevant queer theories, and finally discuss how he develops a genre of performance incorporating a critique of gender roles and video documentation.
This following section will investigate some aspects of Judith Butler’s arguments account of the sex/gender. She argues that gender is constructed through people’s own repetitive performance of gender. It is a result of repeated “styles of the flesh” (Butler, 2006: 190), a set of behaviours that are repeated within a highly rigid control-framework that congeal over time, producing the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of representations. This process makes people think that there is a natural inner essence to gender identity, as Judith Butler states, “the construction ‘compels’ our belief in its necessity and naturalness” (2006: 190). For Butler, gender identity is constructed unconsciously by the reiterative power of discourse (2011: xii), it could be said that self-identity is constructed by linguistic structures. Namely, there is no fixed and coherent gender identity in Butler’s theory. Even the scientific fact of the anatomical sex is also a social construction which can be called a process of the materialisation of sex. This process means when people in society admit the unquestionability of ‘sex’ or its ‘materiality’ is precisely the recognition of a certain state of ‘sex’, a certain construction of ‘materiality’. Just as trying to refer these to a natural and pure body, it has actually participated in the further formation of the body. That is to say, there is no such thing as ‘nature’ or ‘matter’ that can be independently existing, only the continuous, repetitive process of constructing ‘sex’ or ‘materiality’ – the existence of ‘sex’ or ‘materiality’ does not precede this process of materialisation; it is this process, solidified over time that produces a boundary-like effect, stability, and a surface people call ‘matter’. From this perspective, sex is as culturally constructed as gender, “it was always already gender” (Butler, 2006: 9) and gender subsumes sex.
Butler defines ‘performativity’ as the result of symbolic expression, including the construction of objective reality itself. As she writes:
Acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organising principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. (2006: 185)
In other words, gender exists through performance. The performativity of gender is an imitation of the dominant conventions of gender; it creates a specific trait while replicating that trait; people show their gender so that they can find a suitable foothold in society. Due to the constraints of norms and the power of taboos, people have to follow this kind of performance, and the threatening of social exclusion further forces the norm to produce gender; finally, the “naturalness” of gender roles and heterosexuality emerged. In the process of socialisation, people internalise the perception of men/male/masculinity and women/female/femininity through television, schools, their parents, and specific discourses. Especially when people observe others, they will notice others are acting whether similarly or differently (to themselves). Therefore, gender is a core self-concept generated by people trying to imitate the feminine and masculine behaviours and thinking patterns which are acceptable by the dominant sociocultural system.
By interrogating the identity-based feminist theorists who argued for the certainty of fixed, immutable gender identities, Butler indicates that the categorisations of identity are means for the oppressive regulatory systems. The critique of gender should focus on the process in which a subject is performing a specific gender role within the ideology of hegemonic heterosexuality and its gender binarism, instead of the stable state in the relationship chain. She examines drag, cross-dressing, butch-femme relationship, and transsexuality as practices of parodic repetition and imitation that dispute the dominant heterosexual regime, opening it to the possibility of subversion, resistance, and re-signification. Tracing this back to McCarthy’s video- performance Sailor’s Meat, Sailor’s Delight (Images available in: Jones 2000, pp.76- 77, fig.1) the artist enacted an androgynous figure on which the “personae of both the sailor and a female protagonist, engaged in aggressive sexual behavior with American consumer products” (Rugoff, 1996: 46). The performance took place in a hotel bedroom with the curtains closed which contains a tubular metal bed with a bronze- coloured mattress cover. At the beginning of the video documentation, McCarthy is naked, a nude wearing a long blonde wig and blue eyeshadow. After putting on transparent black lingerie, he introduces a small sausage into his anal area, smears his body with ketchup and simulates the acts of the character in the erotic film. McCarthy puts himself in the situation of being seen as an intermediate object of sexual desire, appealing and repugnant to both the male gaze and female gaze. As the performance progresses, he inserts a hotdog into his anus area while placed raw hamburger meats and liver on the bed, licking them and put the liver in the mouth repeatedly (Dziewior, 1999). Then the videotape showed a series of aggressive and violent sexual acts that make direct allusions to dominant patriarchal culture (Images available in Jones 2000, pp.78-79, fig.2). The culturally-based personae indulges in absurd, obsessive taboo acts, which could be seen as the ‘agency’ and representation of McCarthy’s unconsciousness; metaphorically to reveal the cultural impact to the artist and personal history.
In this video-performance, McCarthy constructs both masculine and feminine roles with phallus-shaped objects during the performance, switched and also employed both at the same time. Applying to the gender performativity theory, although the artist kept showing the ontological state of the biological male, the performance still obscures explicit gender binary by creating the hermaphrodite protagonist which McCarthy enacted, and illustrated the notion that gender is generated by the mechanism of the patriarchy (the discourse that continuously produces the rules and stereotyping of gender roles including the appearances and individual behaviours). In addition, the video documentation creates a cushion space that provokes viewers to re-examine the existing definition of sex/gender and the relationship between gender and sexuality without experiencing direct shocking performance. The understanding of the subject (gender identity) must not be defined by certain traits first (hair, makeup, clothes, et cetera), and then rewind to explain how the subject acquires these traits (already be defined). In fact, this teleological thinking pattern is straightforward, and it has misled current common beliefs about gender identities.
On the contrary, the character’s gender is fluid and unclear, which is determined by the individual bodily behaviour that the viewers observed on the screen through the categorical framework that is influenced by the current social culture. The reactions/thoughts of the viewers to the character’s gender could be related to Butler’s argument that all genders and sexualities are performative, and sex has assumed its social character as gender. It could be said that the coherent identification has always been cultivated, policed and enforced through punishing and shaming violation by the sociocultural system, but in the content of the video-performance, the artist gives the observers a privilege to question their own perceptions and challenge the authority and bring this into their social life.
In conclusion, Judith Butler interrogated the deep heterosexism of prior feminist theory at that time. She questioned the inner truth of the identification of sex/gender. The performativity of gender challenged the idea of an essential “masculinity” and “femininity” by stating gender is a stylised repetition of acts under the constant discipline of patriarchal culture. The ‘authentic’ gender is performed through gender norms — “ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideas and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation” (Butler, 2006: xxiv-xxv) and the notions that are produced and shaped by the discourse. In a sense, Paul McCarthy’s work enacts the theoretical insights about (the implicitly heterosexual) masculine subjectivity examined by Butler; McCarthy “desublimates masculinity” (Jones, 2000: 129), performing it in its most vulnerable, permeable and pathetic embodiment. The video-performance Sailor’s Meat, Sailor’s Delight (1975) exposed the viewers to transgressive violent sexual acts with symbolic significance, intervening their mind to stimulate their thinking. It is an artwork that metaphorically utilises sex and violence to reveal the existing ‘abnormal’ phenomena in the society, presenting that gender is an impersonation under the construction of patriarchal society. Moreover, it could be applied to Butler’s gender performativity and states that the process of becoming gendered involves impersonating an ideal that nobody actually inhabits.
Butler, J. (2006)  Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2011)  Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. London: Routledge.
Dziewior, Y. and Kathrin, S. (1999) Paul McCarthy: Videos 1970 – 1997. London: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig.
Jones, A. (2000) “Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body And The Desublimation of Masculinity” in Yohn, T. and K. McCarthy (eds.) Paul McCarthy. 1st ed. Berlin: Hatje Cantz, pp. 125-133.
Rugoff, R. (1996) “Mr. McCarthy’s Neighbourhood” in Rugoff, R. and K. Stiles (eds.) Paul McCarthy. 1st ed. London: Phaidon, pp. 31-87.