Dr. Emer O’Toole and Panti Bliss discuss subverting gender norms
“I love being the least-interesting or least out-there person in the room,” said Emer O’Toole, an assistant professor at Concordia’s School of Canadian Irish Studies, referring to the full-to-the-brim auditorium packed with people emblematic of Montreal’s liberal, artsy, vegan-granola-queer-fringey sensibilities.
O’Toole, who holds a PhD from Royal Holloway University of London, sat down with Ireland’s Person of the Year, gay rights activist and drag queen performer, Panti Bliss, to strip down the notions of performance and gender as part of The Globe and Mail “Thinking out Loud” series Feb. 16.
Last year, O’Toole invited Bliss to Concordia to speak about the now-infamous “Pantigate” scenario, wherein Bliss became an “accidental activist” by publicly calling out Irish journalists for being homophobic, and spurring an international conversation about gay rights in Ireland. This year, their dialogue turned towards what it means to be a gender nonconformist in today’s Western society.
“There are repercussions to acting outside the role of our assigned gender,” said O’Toole, stretching out one of her 100 per cent naturally hairy legs.
O’Toole has been playing with traditional gender norms for years, and earned a moment in the International spotlight for masquerading her unshaven armpits on T.V. Tonight, she is “pioneering stilettos and hairy legs.”
For O’Toole, rejecting the traditional female archetype was about making a firm choice to subvert expected gender norms. That choice isn’t about rejecting femininity, but rather creating her own definition of what it is to be a woman. “I’m not saying that free choice isn’t a possibility [for girls and women who do employ traditional gender norms], but in a coercive capitalist society, it’s not a given.”
“It’s almost impossible to divorce yourself from the society around you,” said Bliss, asserting that more than just being “intellectual masturbation,” these sorts of discussions about the perception of gender nonconformity are inherent to one’s safety in society.
For Bliss, the label of drag queen and a caricaturesque costume have been a security blanket against harassment. The persona of Panti Bliss, bouffant blonde hair, false eyelashes, stilettos et al., is a performance, and is read by society as such. It is much easier, much safer for him to walk around like a giant cartoon woman, than it is for somebody who is for example, transgender to walk around in gender-bending garb. The difference being that one is read as performative, comical, or theatrical, while the other is seen as nonconforming and “otherized.”
Yet, for Rory O’Neill, dressing up as Panti isn’t “playing a character. This is who I am, I’m just expressing it slightly differently. Certain aspects of me are magnified by the makeup but it’s the same person, the same essence, but the power of that presentation is so much that people accuse you of being two different people.”
“People feel much more comfortable when they can pigeonhole you,” said O’Toole, citing examples of labels like “butch lesbian” or “drag queen.”
“If, though, you dress femme and have one or two masculine aspects, then people are nervous.” This rings true for her, as it does for anybody who chooses to step outside their prescribed gender norm, she explains. In general, society doesn’t know where to put you and they assign you the freak label.
“You don’t have to fit into the patriarchal norm of beauty to be beautiful,” said O’Toole.
According to both O’Toole and Bliss, everybody should make conscious efforts to challenge traditional gender norms.
“There are many more than just two or even three genders,” said Bliss, saying that while it’s great for you if you do fit into one of these traditional archetypes, its “so much more fun and interesting” to fall somewhere else on that rainbow spectrum.
So how can straight-edge men tap into their feminine sides? “All the men should go home and bottom really hard,” Bliss recommends. Or, at minimum, everybody should crossdress—no holds barred—at least once in their lives, just to see how the other side feels. It’s a slightly more ambitious take on the old “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” adage.
O’Toole’s recommendation requires a slightly less invasive approach. For her, stepping outside your preconceived notions of gender could be as simple as “wearing your towel differently.”
She councils everyone to go home and after their shower, to wrap their towel the way they wouldn’t normally; for women, wrap it around your waist and set the ta-tas free to air dry, and for men, try making that towel dress. She says you’d be surprised at how even such a small adjustment can make you evaluate your gendered habits a little differently.
For more insights into gender-bending and performance, be sure to check out Rory O’Neill’s best-selling book on how he became Panti Bliss, Woman in the Making, and keep an eye out for Emer O’Toole’s book, Girls Will be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently which will be released at the end of this month.
“I love being the least interesting or least out-there person in the room” – Emer on Mtl
“From the second that youre beorn and the doctor shouts ‘its a girl’”… that starts to define you and limit you – OToole
“when it comes to gender everybody thinks they know women, and they think they understand the fundamental natural elements o fwhat it is to be a woman. Everybody has a gender so everybody thinks theyre an expert on gender”- OToole
“Nobody in their right mind is going to confuse me for a natural born woman, I’m not impersonating women, I am trying to parody the tools that society has attributed to femininity” Bliss
*quotes at roughly 9mins on gender peacocking
*Emer 13:30 roughly
“see that girl over there, shes very attractive but i fear she’d cut my balls off” “thats my sister” OToole
“When we act outside the boundaries set for us by our bio sex people think theres something wrong with us” OToole
“Ive modified this cartoon to appear more serious to you” Bliss
“Tonight ive chosen to pioneer stilettos and hairy legs” OToole
“Im not saying that free choice is not a possibility, but in a coercive capitalist society, its not a given” on “choosing” to apply normative gender norms as a young girl
It’s almost impossible to divorce yourself from the society around you”
more than “intellectual masturbation” these ideas and inherent to your safety in society as a gender bender or non conformist – Bliss
Emer OToole quote 29 mins
people are more comfortable when they can pigeonhole you.. “if you dress femme and have one or two masculine aspects people are nervous” OToole, they don’t know where to put you and they assign you the freak label.
Judith Butler theories on performance
Quebec law proposal 33:30mins
“there are repurcussions to acting outside the role of our assigned gender” OToole
“you dont hve to fit into the patricarchal norm of beauty to be beautiful” OToole
“im actually quite a dull person as a boy” Bliss
A lot o fpeople in this room can relat eto that experience of feeling nervous walking past a car or something because you fear the people inside might harass you, because youve been harassed in that situation before
“Im not playing a character, this is who I am, I’m just expressing it slightly differently. Certain aspects f me are magnified by the makeup but it’s the asme person, the same essense, but the power of that presentation is so much that people accuse you of being two different people”
46:30 feminist and raising little girls
:im so glamorous im constantly in pain” Bliss
on how evrybody should challenge gender norms “the men should go home and bottom really hard” Bliss
55 mins “wear your towel differently” OToole