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Gender is a social construction. Society presents us with acceptable models of masculinity and femininity and these teach us how to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. in a sense, gender is a role we play and we learn how to play it by a process of social conditioning. This process starts at birth. The idea of blue-for-boys, pink-for-girls is a familiar social convention. It’s so widespread that it seems natural, but it is still just a convention. Films, TV and advertising represent men and women in certain ways and this builds up a shared understanding what the appropriate models of masculinity and femininity are. Tradionally, men were expected to be rational, assertive and active; women were expected to be emotional, caring and nurturing. Not everyone conforms to these stereotypical roles. Since the rise of feminism in the 1970s, it has been recognised that gender is a social construction. From this period we start to see alternative modes of masculinity, including camp, homosexuality and androgyny. Camp is a form of behaviour in which homosexuality is exaggerated and turned into a performance. Gay men often recognise that gender is not fixed and inevitable, but shifting.
For example, Quentin Crisp created a gay persona that he performed as a role. He became famous after publishing his memoirs, The Naked Civil Servant. There was a TV adaptation of the book, starring John Hurt. This was very important in gaining acceptance for homosexuality in Britain.
Liberace was a popular entertainer. Today, he is a gay icon, but he never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality (it would have destroyed his career). Like many gay men, however, he used his camp persona to hint at it. He lived in a mansion that was notoriously kitsch. ‘Kitsch’ is a German term meaning shallow, tasteless and tacky, and can be seen as a form of camp taste. Liberace’s house is now preserved as a museum.
This is Liberace in his bath, a Mock Baroque extravaganza with gold taps. Luxury has been intensified to a ridiculous degree. This is an example of camp taste.
David Bowie is a rock star who emerged in the 1970s. He used to perform as a series of separate characters, including Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. Bowie is bisexual and his persona is androgynous – simultaneously masculine and feminine. He demonstrates that gender and sexual identity aren’t fixed and definite, but fluid. Incidentally, Bowie is a big influence on Lady Gaga.
Morrissey was the lead singer of the Smiths, one of the most influential bands of the 1980s. He has an ambiguous masculinity – no one knows if he’s gay or straight and indeed he refuses to be pigeonholed. He can be seen as anti-macho; his lyrics often celebrate failure and despair in an ironic way. He has an acute sense of style, which is usually associated with gay identity. If you went to a Morrissey concert, you might witness a strange phenomenon. Masses of heterosexual male fans try to hug him in a homoerotic display of affection. It could be that Morrissey brings out their latent homosexuality, but I think they are really responding to the alternative model of masculinity that Morrissey represents: they reaction signifies a the relief from the pressure of conforming to stereotypical modes of masculinity.
Jean-Paul Gaultier is a French fashion designer who has played with gender conventions and presented alternative modes of masculinity. Gaultier is gay and he has created glamorous images of gay identity. This is an advert for his aftershave, Le Male. The bottle is a homoerotic sculpture of the male physique. The character is a sailor, a typically gay persona. The tattoos suggest toughness and machismo, but are still consistent with the sailor image.
In conclusion, gender is a social construction. Society presents us with acceptable models of masculinity and femininity and these teach us how to conform to conventional gender roles. However, not everyone conforms to these stereotypical roles. Since the 1970s, it has been increasingly common to see alternative modes of masculinity, including camp, homosexuality and androgyny.