- Undermining Identities in Johnny Blazes’ Check One PleaseThe Ambiguous Body as Feminist Performance Tool
Ambiguity generates uncertainty. It thwarts classification through resisting definition. As defined by Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo, ambiguity refers to “both … and” rather than “either … or.”1 Ambiguity thus suggests plurality and resists categorical definition. These qualities make ambiguity a useful performance tool for feminist intervention in gender and sexual hierarchies that have originated from the male/female binary—particularly when it is deployed on and through the body itself. An ambiguous body cannot be clearly sexed as either male or female but rather exists in between these sexual identities. Performing an ambiguous body positions identity as a process and challenges the materiality of corporeality. While the body can be seen, touched, smelled, and heard, rendering it very much physically actual, the ambiguous performing body creates a slipperiness of that actuality through crafting a fiction in which corporeal experience intersects with social discourse.
Performances of sexual ambiguity, such as Johnny Blazes’ Check One Please, use the body as a disruptive force in order to explore the connection between material sex and the discursive performance of gender and sexuality. Using costuming and physicality, Blazes crafts an ambiguous body, forcing the spectators to ground their performance analysis in a theatrical body without trustworthy physical indications of Blazes’ “actual” sex. As a theatrical body, the body becomes discursive, a construction manipulated to fit the interests and needs of the performer. By rendering the material discursive, I argue, Blazes presents an effective method of using theatricality to challenge identitarian categories. Through a close analysis of the performance, I examine how the ambiguous body Blazes creates both resists definition and reveals the continued dependence upon sex in determining gender classification. The average audience member does not know Blazes and cannot be certain of the performer’s biologic or gendered identity. Their inability to determine sex and relate it to the gender roles with which Blazes plays creates a crisis of definition [End Page 72] that reveals the need for a more expansive understanding of, and vocabulary for, gender rooted in individual expression versus categorial expectations.
Indeed, Blazes reveals definitions for trans and queer identity as equally restrictive as the rigid expectations of masculine and feminine. The performance consists of two distinct parts. As described by Blazes,
The first part creates a simple visual metaphor for the dilemma faced daily by trans, genderqueer, and other gender variant people: which box do I check? The second looks at the tendency of communities to demand “proof” of one’s trans identity and history as a transperson. Both sections use humor, props, and vibrant physicality to position Femme as part of a larger, complicated identity.2
In so positioning Femme, Blazes critiques rigid definitions of trans and queer identity to a predominantly queer and queer allied audience. The performance empowers the spectators through its depiction of their experiences and perspective while challenging them to think critically about the implications of “demands for proof” of belonging.
Although Check One Please was originally created in 2008 for the Femme Show, a production of “queer art for queer people” that toured the northeastern United States, Blazes subsequently posted the entire performance to the websites YouTube and Trans-Genre, expanding the piece’s reach and extending its “run” indefinitely through digital accessibility.3 While the video has not gone “viral,” part 1 on YouTube has been viewed more than thirteen hundred times since November 2008 by individuals and groups.4 Thus, while Check One Please originally served as an act within the variety performance of the Femme Show, it has assumed an independent existence on the internet. As such, I am most interested in how spectators react to the piece as a singular performance and its social justice potential as a freely available and widely viewed video. Blazes’ intentional posting of the piece functions as a moment of digital activism by raising consciousness and spurring conversation.
A Boston-based drag artist committed to undermining binaries, expanding queer identities, and challenging identity based oppressions, Blazes seemingly takes pleasure in ambiguity on and offstage. Indeed, Blazes’ Facebook profile features an anonymous quote asking “Are you supposed to be a...