I just watched the fascinating and beautiful documentary Pageant which follows several female impersonators on their quests for glory in the Miss Gay America competition. These gay men transform into stunningly beautiful women, and perform choreographed dances and songs that make Miss America look like a 5th grade talent show.
One thing that struck me in relation to the themes of this blog was that many of the competitors spoke about the importance of “being yourself,” i.e. authentic. Fascinatingly, many of these men have felt from a young age that part of their authentic expression in the world was to impersonate the opposite sex. If impersonating a different sex is authentic, than what is meant by authenticity?
Authenticity and Gender: WTF?
I’ve written several articles here on Beyond Growth critiquing pick-up artist gurus who teach men how to transform into “authentic” badboys and players. This movie got me thinking—to what extent are all gender displays impersonations?
It seems to me that putting on a believable gender display is what matters to be recognized as “authentic” masculinity or femininity by others, and feeling congruent about your display of gender is what matters to be felt as “authentic” by the individual. Is there more to it, or is authenticity just a convincing story we tell ourselves and others? Is one’s level of authenticity to be measured by how much we are convinced the story is true, or is there “really” truth above and beyond the story?
The Authentic Man Program teaches men to have “a magnetic presence,” which is defined as “women just notice you and feel drawn to you, before you even say a word, and naturally just love to be around you” (from their marketing squeeze page). Being “authentic” in this context is for a heterosexual man to give a convincing, congruent display of a particular socially-constructed masculine gender identity that nonverbally elicts a certain response from (some?) heterosexual women. In this case “natural” means “cultivated to appear natural,” for authentic magnetic presence is made, not born. What these men are selling is basically how to adopt a particular gender identity in order to have sexual power in certain heterosexual social contexts.
In contrast, being “authentic” to the men who compete to be Miss Gay America is to put on many layers of thick makeup, padding to hide their crotch bulge, and a sequined evening gown to convincingly appear as a beautiful woman. In this case, such a man (woman?) might get heterosexual men to naturally notice them for their “magnetic presence”—at least until they learn the true sex of this lovely lady that has caught their eye. I wonder if any former Miss Gay Americas have created any information products on how to be an authentic drag queen? Unfortunately, there’s probably not as much of a market.
In my previous critiques, I have challenged the notion that the “authentic” pick-up guru is truly authentic. But now I don’t know if there is such a thing as true authenticity when it comes to notions of gender, besides that of a convincing display and inner congruence. Is the quest for authenticity simply to find a character we can convincingly play and feel good about it? To become typecast in a social role of our (apparent) choosing?
In an early part of the movie, contestants were interviewed by the judges as men. Some had quite a magnetic presence or charisma when displaying masculine gender, wearing a suit, etc. If a man developed the ability to both have a magnetic presence when displaying masculine gender identity as well as when in drag, would he thus be doubly “authentic”?
Just as a straight man might fail to appear “authentic” in his display of alpha male magnetic presence and thus lose a woman’s attention, a gay cross-dressing man might fail to appear “authentic” in his (her?) display of femininity on stage at Miss Gay America and thus lose the competition. Both fail tests of authenticity when they appear incongruent to others.
Here’s a question for you: who’s more authentic—the gay men who are impersonating women in Miss Gay America, or the women who are impersonating women in the regular Miss America competition? Both give a convincing display of a socially constructed notion of femininity, and I assume that both are convinced that they are “being themselves.”
The eventual winner of the Miss Gay America competition (spoiler alert!) was a woman (man?) who shared a heartfelt and authentic story of surviving a personal hardship. Other competitors inauthentically boasted of their guaranteed victory. One wonders if the winner was chosen due to his (her?) convincingly authentic story—or was it actually more authentic to communicate in this way?
Almost everyone would say that authenticity is about “being yourself” regardless of how you appear to others. Yet if our displays of authenticity aren’t seen as authentic, we will modify them until they appear convincing. To be authentic is to be praised by others for being so, as in “he’s the real deal.” Central to the notion of authenticity is a lie about what the very quest is about. I wonder if in order to “truly be authentic,” we must lie to ourselves about the reasons for doing so, or else risk incongruence and thus appearing inauthentic.
Personal development relies on the fact that who we “really” are is a personally- and socially-constructed narrative. If we are the roles, feelings, and behaviors we currently exhibit, they wouldn’t be possible to change. But most personal development gurus go further and posit that their preferred narrative is who you really are—then they sell you the means to convincingly display this new role in a way that promises to someday feel congruent. A new role is still an act, new conditioning still socially-constructed, new beliefs still limiting. My bias is towards greater flexibility and perhaps even wisdom in those roles, conditioning, and beliefs, but I’m not sure that “flexibility” and “wisdom” are less problematic than “authenticity”!
Consciously becoming something else is perhaps the greatest act of inauthenticity imaginable—yet we all do it all the time. Perhaps we can be honest about the lie, even if in order to function effectively in society we have to act as if we believe it. I wonder if this honesty about the lie inherent to the quest for authenticity can perhaps free us from the notion that our authentic self is found in someone else’s high-priced advice.
In any case, I highly recommend you watch Pageant and consider these questions for yourself.
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