- Listening to Gender:A Response to Judith Halberstam
The aural dimensions of gender and sexuality—voice and music—have haunted the margins of theory but have seldom factored as centrally as the visual. "Scopophilia"—the privileging of sight—has become a mainstay in theory, tied to physical morphology, namely, the presence or absence of the penis. This primary visual division of bodies into the "haves" and the "have-nots," around which gender roles have been formed, has relegated the aural component of gender as something akin to a secondary sex characteristic.
Judith Butler has made some tantalizing references to sound and music. In Bodies That Matter she writes that "the process of signification is always material; signs work by appearing (visibly, aurally)."1 "Aurally" seems thrown in here as a gesture toward spoken language, but what she has most in mind ("signification is always material; signs work by appearing") is clearly visual display. Then there is Butler's clever invocation of Aretha Franklin and her recording of "Natural Woman" in the famous essay "Imitation and Gender Insubordination":
Well, consider the way in which heterosexuality naturalizes itself through setting up certain illusions of continuity between sex, gender, and desire. When Aretha Franklin sings, "you make me feel like a natural woman," she seems at first to suggest that some natural potential of her biological sex is actualized by her participation in the cultural position of "woman" as object of heterosexual recognition. . . . Although Aretha appears to be all too glad to have her naturalness confirmed, she also seems fully and paradoxically mindful that that confirmation [End Page 59] is never guaranteed, that the effect of naturalness is only achieved as a consequence of that moment of heterosexual recognition. After all, Aretha sings, you make me feel like a natural woman, suggesting that this is a kind of metaphorical substitution, an act of imposture, a kind of sublime and momentary participation in an ontological illusion produced by the mundane operation of heterosexual drag.2
Here the pop song inadvertently articulates Butler's theory; it is theory au naturel, so to speak, a song that stumbles upon what Butler believes is a "truth" about the "untruth" of gender. Butler does not ask us to hear any meaning in the register or timbre of Aretha's voice or to think about the performance of the words or the interaction of Franklin with the female back-up vocalists. We are only meant to listen through Franklin's voice (as if transparent) to the message that Butler elaborates; that message is essentially to retrain ourselves to recognize a "natural woman" as a type of drag queen.
By contrast to Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam is one queer theorist working outside musicology who has taken music and voice seriously. In her book Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives she discusses how queer subcultural music can sometimes function as an archive, bridging generations and blurring the typical polarity between academic and lay historians. Halberstam notes that this engagement of the lesbian feminist past by present-day "riot dykes" can occur in a variety of ways: through lyrical references that name-check key writers or theorists, through programming at concerts that juxtaposes older and newer acts, and through cover songs that pay tribute to rather than parody a classic number from the women's music back catalog.3 Halberstam argues that music can create "queer genealogies" as well as alternative temporalities. One such queer temporality halts the march of time to heteronormative adulthood and family, lingering instead in adolescence, a time of social rebellion and experimentation. Another queer temporality accesses and reinvests in the past, forcing the present moment into a complex relationship "between the 'now' of performance and the 'then' of historical time."4 For this Halberstam has drawn on the concept of "temporal drag" advanced by Elizabeth Freeman, whose work offers a sly critique of the absence of history in Butler's theory. "Temporal drag" suggests that in some instances of gender performance we can point to "originals" that are indeed copied insofar as past identities and sensibilities are consciously revived. To say that the principal effect of a drag queen impersonating Marilyn...