Sunday, September 12, 2010

Society's Performative Expectations: Woolf, Butler, and Gender Identity

Having lived life in the body of both a man and a woman, Orlando possesses a broad understanding of the disparate roles of the sexes. Upon undergoing the transformation into a female form, she often experiments with the fluidity of gender by garbing herself in clothes which confuse her biological sex. In the guise of a man, she ruminates the what it was like to be held by society's behavioral expectations for a male. As a boy of noble birth, she was expected to act in accordance with the masculine virtues of pomp and competitiveness. After Orlando becomes a woman, the nature of gender performance continually vexes her. She ruminates the behavioral shift she will have to make in order to fulfill her role as a woman: "I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth...all I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea, and ask my lords how they like it" (Woolf, 116). Orlando is commenting on what Judith Butler call the performative nature of gender. Butler posits that "if gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way" (Butler, 9). This argument complicates the strict binary between the biological notions of male and female. Butler suggests that it is society that dictates what it means to be a man or a woman, not biology. Men and women are expected to perform in certain manners based on these social preconceptions. Orlando's is ambivalent because she is forced to assume a new identity to match her morphed body when all she has known is the life of a man. The fact that these two genders are, in the eyes of society, so fundamentally disparate complicates Orlando's transformation. She must perform in such a way that her behavior matches her bodily signifiers.


  1. "Having lived life in the body of both a man and a woman, Orlando possesses a broad understanding of the disparate roles of the sexes." As I read this, Orlando's core being transferred from the physical body of a man to the physical body of a female, but was unchanged. Yes, according to the text, this is so. Woolf says outright that "the change of sex...did nothing whatever to alter [her] identity" (102). However, if her identity did not change, that is, her natural core (remember, she was born a boy (page 1)), how could she truly understand the world from a woman's perspective? She becomes a woman, so spake the narrator--yet she stays a man. I'd say you're spot on in saying that her behavior should match her bodily signifiers, but on a more core level, her behavior should match her core identity. Which, of course, is the trick, as Butler goes on to ruminate, and we discussed in class. If she could only locate her core, she'd be all set. That is, if we have a core (see Dr. Brouwer's Phil. 497)...

  2. This is very thorough analysis. I also believe that Woolf was taking a stand against the social norms that dictate what it is to be a man or a woman. Orlando was able to "play the fence" with gender, constantly going back and forth between either sex. This ability to be perceived as either male or female tests the biological precedent that determines whether a person is male or female. Woolf's transformation of Orlando from male to female in a matter of one line shows her belief that biology is insignificant in determining one's gender.