Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures (1987) is a prime example of the identity politics that emerged within the post-Judson, postmodern dance scene of the ‘80s/‘90s in America. Widely considered Goode’s signature work, the piece is an unapologetic, brazen critique of social constructions of masculinity and the behaviors prescribed for American men. He expounds upon this line of social commentary by framing and exalting the physicality and identity of effeminate men who do not conform to societal rules and constructs of the binary system of gender performance (1).
Goode’s solo attends to notions of the body in quite extreme, oppositional ways. At first the body is carried in the manner of acceptable masculine comportment and operates within the framework of movement potential required for male gender conformity (2). Dressed in quintessentially blue-collar, workman’s coveralls for the first section of the dance, Goode assumes the liner, direct and expressively-limited range of movement socially allocated for men. Brandishing a chainsaw, he violently destroys a wooden chair with broad, unflinching strokes. Here, Goode is embodying a caricature of commonly-accepted displays of masculinity. Following the beginning section--peeling down the coveralls, rolling and tying it around his waist, exposing his muscled arms--he steps into the body of the effeminate male. Now utilizing a wider range of expressive gesture and a more lush, rounded, theatrical physicality, the tall, muscled body of Goode appropriates movements typically assigned to the female gender. Exposing his arms while exacting iconically feminine postures and gestures seems to have a dual purpose. Visibility of the whole arm, uncovered, allows the viewer to potentially observe more nuance and detail than if it remained covered with the thick cotton twill. On the other hand, Goode’s bare arms create a visual juxtaposition when performing soft, fluid gestures executed by strong, muscled limbs. In the 1980s, as a reaction to the taboo and fear surrounding a gay community blindsided by the AIDS epidemic, the emphasis on muscularity and masculine physique became a common aesthetic imperative for gay men as a means of combatting the visual effects of the disease’s body mass wasting. This body ideal remains an aspirational condition of the gay male even within the ‘post-AIDS epidemic’ LGBT community (3). The well-built masculine form often operates in ironic opposition to the expressive, animated, outgoing personality commonly ascribed to many homosexual males--a dichotomy between body and self.
Concerns with body and self are tightly woven in Goode’s solo--owing to its marked focus on performance of identity politics. Discursive considerations of gender identity and sexuality often stem from the understanding that the gendered self might align with social conventions and mandates, or might exist in opposition to expected presentations of one’s perceived gender. The interplay between these oppositional relationships of body-self is the meat of the dance. In Gestures, Goode presents himself in direct opposition to gender constructs for the majority of the piece. Though the solo’s beginning is marked by masculine conformity and the end devolves (from the effeminate gestures) into more typically neutral dance movement, the strength of the middle, gestural section--and its subsequent repetitions and reiterations--ground his identity firmly in the exaltation of feminine expressivity. The discontinuity between body and self here becomes somewhat of a spotlight on the very notion that the self--at once masculine, feminine and all points in between--is always a performance of social norms. The degree of “success” or “failure” in that performance, in relation to societal expectations, then becomes the emphasis. This notion, of “failing” at the “proper” performance of gender, illuminates the narrow criteria with which individuals are judged by society (Butler).
The very nature of a solo performance could seem to place the individual against society or perhaps in no relation to it. Goode’s solo, however, relates to greater notions of society in that his very presence and frictional performance of movements atypical of his sex become a comment on the social rules and codes, and question why/if/how individuals adhere to these constructs. In that respect, though society is not directly represented on stage as a group form (considering the work is a solo), societal concerns are present in the space between audience and performer, and in the viewer’s potential to identify with/against the identity expressed in Goode’s masterful performance. It is then extremely evident that body, self and society are inextricably linked in dance as a medium, and perhaps within all modes of embodied communication as well.
1. Drawn from Judith Butler's theories of "gender as performance."
2. Concepts of gender-specific physical constraints are drawn from Mark Johnson’s, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, in reference to the article “Throwing Like a Girl” by Iris Marion Young.
3. These notions of gay male body image in relation to the physical effects of muscle wasting that often resulted from the ravaging effects of AIDS on the body are drawn from various lines of cultural discourse I have encountered. The idea is a widely considered hypothesis about the somewhat direct reaction to the AIDS body, by the gay male culture, and the subsequent emergence of a prized muscular body as a result.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” The Twentieth Century Performance Reader, 2nd ed. Ed.; Michael Huxley and Noel Witts. New York: Routledge, 2002. 120–134.
Johnson, Mark. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, 19-32. Chicago/London: U of Chicago P, 2008.