In her landmark study of gender, Judith Butler suggests that gender is ‘performed, manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body’ (Butler, 1999: XV). Butler’s Marxist psychoanalytic reading of gender asserts that ‘gender identities are circumscribed and socially constituted’ (1999: 22), and she suggests that gender is performative because it produces a series of effects: ‘We act and talk and speak in ways that consolidate an impression of being a woman or being a man…’ (Butler, Big Think video, 2011). As a film maker with Chinese heritage, I have long been interested in exploring through my films how we fashion our identity through performance, and whether what Butler says of gender can be said of race. In making my documentary, Deconstructing Zoe (2016), I investigated whether race can be performative, and whether we act-out in ways that consolidate an impression of what it is to be Chinese. The film seeks to offer insights into how senses of gender, race, and identity might be performed.
Deconstructing Zoe (2016) was filmed over the course of two years, during which time I interviewed and documented a Chinese transgender performer, Zoe, both on and offstage in London, capturing her public and private performances of herself as a Chinese trans woman. The documentary thus captures the conscious performance of the subjects in the film, as well as the ‘off-stage’ moments of performed identity, and in juxtaposition of these moments, allows the audience to reflect on how we all might be performing our gender and racial identities.
The overarching themes of the film concern the fluidity of gender, sexuality, and race. The documentary seeks to consolidate these themes by responding to the nature of the performance in front of the camera to draw out the nuances of the act, and thus the film itself is an articulation of the themes. The filmic strategy I employed created tensions through the editing by drawing attention to the fluidity of Zoe’s, and her fellow performer Ebonknee’s, gender identity, and by disrupting essentialist notions of race, which I will describe below.
In the two years of gathering footage for the finished documentary, I filmed Zoe candidly, and in semi-structured interviews. I had not anticipated, however, how powerfully Zoe’s performance of being Chinese would affect me, which I will discuss below. In the opening scene of my documentary Zoe celebrates the Oriental stereotype, saying,
[I]t’s fascinating for me when I walk down the street as a guy–how people perceive you as an Asian man and how that is different when you walk down the street as an Asian woman. You know you’ve got this energy and get looks and you know why that is? It’s this exotification, because I’m this exotic Asian woman–this feminine creature which this big Western man wants to protect either that or see me in an adult film on https://www.watchmygf.adult/. The orchid represents this exoticness for me and the exotification of another race and culture. (Zoe, in Deconstructing Zoe, 2016)
Thus, Zoe is all too aware of the racial stereotypes that are assigned in the West to East Asian people in terms of their perceived desirability, and the desexualisation of East Asian men and the sexualisation of East Asian women. This de/sexualisation of East Asian bodies has been well documented by numerous scholars; social anthropologist Chong-suk Han (2006), for example, has looked at the ways categories of race and sexuality are socially constructed, and the historical gendering of Asian men as a result of the Western conquest of the East. In particular, he has examined how contemporary narratives continue to feminize East Asian men, with specific reference to gay Asian men. Han suggests there is an illusion that when [East] Asian men perform in drag they are seen to be more ‘authentically female’ (Han, 2006: 83), yet he goes on to say that the perceived femininity in East Asian men is not due to physical attributes, but rather that the illusion of femininity resides in the mind of the white audience. It is this illusion of race and gender assigned to East Asian men in the West that is of particular interest to my own study, and which is explored in Deconstructing Zoe. Zoe feels that when she is in England it is her race that people notice first and then her gender. As Zoe, she acts out a softer version of her male self, and whilst she may be more coquettish, she insists she is never submissive. Zoe, she declares, is in the eye of the beholder.
In her study, “White ‘men’ and their Chinese ‘boys’” (2016), historian Claire Lowrie traces the roots of the desexualisation of Chinese men to a Western colonial discourse. She claims that the colonial master/servant narrative, that has since been perpetuated in countless stereotypes, sought to infantilize male servants in order to assert white male potency (Lowrie, 2016: 35). Citing Gail Bederman (1995), Lowrie further suggests that ‘colonial conquest was justified by contrasting white men’s manliness with “other” men’s lack of it’ (2016: 44). In particular, male Chinese servants were thought of as ‘eunuch-like and servile boys’ (ibid, 2016: 42). In contrast, East Asian women were seen in the West as highly sexualised, yet models of old-fashioned feminine virtue (Kawaguchi, 2010). Growing up in Malaysia, Zoe has perhaps experienced first-hand the legacy of the British colonial narrative that Lowrie speaks of. In my film, Zoe traces this Western image of East Asian women to colonialism by declaring, ‘That’s why a lot of mail order brides come from the East, because these men have this perception that Asian women are great cooks and whores in the bedroom–the perfect wife’ (Deconstructing Zoe, 2016). She goes on to say that she plays to the ‘Madame Butterfly’ image–that is the exotic, passive, sexualised ‘Oriental’ woman: she thus knowingly plays with Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism, a Western construct of the East ‘based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”’ (Said, 1979: 2).
As a Chinese woman myself, I found that Zoe’s performance of the ‘Oriental woman’ created tensions within me: Zoe saw the stereotype as powerful, while I felt it shackled East Asian women. The film gave me an opportunity to exorcise these tensions. To do this I drew on scholarship on ethnic drag and mimesis in postcolonial debates posited by Katrin Sieg (2002) to help me formulate an understanding of how race and ethnicity could be performative. Sieg argues, in Ethnic Drag (2002), that drag can uncover how race intersects with national identity and gender: she borrows Butler’s use of the term drag as the parodic subversion of gender and applies it to race (Sieg, 2002: 20). Although Sieg’s study applies specifically to performing race and sexuality in West Germany, her analysis is a useful lens through which to examine a broader notion of ethnic drag. In particular, I draw attention to her analysis of postcolonial theories of ambivalence and mimicry, and dramatic theories of mimesis and impersonation (2009: 16). In Sieg’s exploration ‘[e]thnic drag includes not only cross-racial casting on stage, but more generally the performance of “race” as masquerade’ (2002: 2).
After a period of gestation and reviewing the recording of the interviews, it was clear that Zoe and Ebonknee knowingly perform an idea of race. They do this with an air of parody, and as Ivan Heng, a Singaporean actor I interviewed for the film states, they are ‘playfully, playing a game’ (Deconstructing Zoe, 2016). Whilst Zoe performs an oriental woman, Ebonknee’s performative identity is that of a glamorous English woman. The name Ebonknee calls to mind something that is strong and black, but interestingly this was not her own choice of name; rather the name was given to her by a friend. Ebonknee does not see herself as a black woman and admits her experience growing up was not a typically ‘black experience’ (In Flux, 2017), nor does she affirm any racial constructs; rather she ruptures them through the use of drag acts.
With this in mind, I asked: what filmic strategies could be employed to highlight the performative nature of Zoe and Ebonknee’s ethnic identity? I was keen to avoid the use of a verbal commentary, turning instead to a technique I had used in my documentary Linear Rhythm (Fong, 1990). This documentary weaved staged performances together with interviews, allowing themes and ideas to be exposed without the need for commentary. When I discovered that Zoe had written a one-person play with Ivan Heng called An Occasional Orchid (1996), I decided to restage and film scenes from the play that specifically echoed my investigation. The juxtaposition of the scenes from the play with the interviews ‘contest the mimetic logic of race’ (Seig, 2002: 19), exposing the performance as a masquerade. Thus, Deconstructing Zoe constantly asks the viewer to evaluate what is natural and what is performed. Likewise, the editing strategy juxtaposes contradictory information by employing continuity cuts, and disrupts on occasion the ‘seamless flow’ by cutting to close-up facial details that hint at the more masculine aspects of Zoe’s physicality, such as her Adam’s apple and stubble. For one viewer this technique went further, and they reported that they were disturbed, saying, ‘It [also] cuts on Zoe’s hands and that was clearly a male hand… and every cut went hard to the next’ (In Flux screening, 2017). This visual disruption points to the shifts in Zoe’s gender identity, which powerfully parallels the fluidity of racial identity. This is one of the key aspects I wanted to highlight in this documentary, and which Ebonknee and Zoe discuss in relation to their gender identity. Clearly it is the cultural context of Zoe’s ‘acting out’ that brings currency to her ethnic-drag persona and allows for a diverse reading of performance around race and gender. What I hope my film captures is the way that race and gender are performed on screen, and the ways in which the medium, and the form of representation, can reinforce or challenge stereotypes.
That Zoe and Ebonknee are performers means they are freer than most to explore self-authorized performances of their identity (Hill, 1997), and because of this it has been relatively unproblematic for them to act out their transgender identity. Indeed, in the making of the film I felt that it was important to show a range of different experiences within the transgender community. Several transgender audience members (Refuge, 2017) said it was empowering for them to see transwomen speak positively about their experiences. This positive portrayal of a particular trans experience is why Liverpool Pride chose to screen Deconstructing Zoe on the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (FACT screening, 2016). However, this is not to deny that many transgendered people face the continual threat of violence. Racial constructions also have been used as a way to contain and control, often combined with the threat of extreme violence (Hartman, 1997). Ultimately, essentialist notions of gender, race and sexuality only serve to uphold ideas of binary oppositions. Deconstructing Zoe sends a message that gender is not fixed or binary, but for some is a spectrum, and that at any one time we can be gender queer and sexually fluid.
At a screening of the film in Hong Kong I was reminded of the tensions I had around Zoe playing up the ‘Oriental flower’ stereotype: a black woman noted that African women have been similarly exoticised in the West. She said the hypersexualization of black women in the mainstream media in the West had led her to disavow her sexuality. She went on to say, however, that after watching the film and hearing how Zoe had taken ownership of her sexuality, she too wanted to reclaim her sexuality and celebrate her sensuality as a black woman (HKLGFF, 2016). Deconstructing Zoe thus reveals racial and gender discourse, and by revealing, empowers.
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Butler, Judith. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge.
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Han, Chong-suk. (2006) “Being an Oriental, I Could Never Be Completely a Man: Gay Asian Men and the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Class,” Race, Gender & Class, Vol. 13, No. 3/4: 82-97.
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Kawaguchi, Yoko. (2010) Butterfly’s Sisters: The Geisha in Western Culture. Yale University Press.
Lowrie, Claire. (2013) “White ‘men’ and their Chinese ‘boys’: Sexuality, Masculinity and Colonial Power in Singapore and Darwin, 1880s-1930s,” History Australia, Vol. 10, Issue 1: 35-57.
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Sieg, Katrin. (2009) Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany. The University of Michigan Press.
Said, Edward. (1979) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Vintage Books.
Festival Screenings and Conferences
FACT (2017) screening: Deconstructing Zoe, Rosa Fong (dir.), 20 November, Liverpool, UK.
HKLGFF (2016), Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Queer Shorts, screening: Deconstructing Zoe, Rosa Fong (dir.), 26 & 30 September, Hong Kong.
In Flux: The Queering of Race and Gender (2017) screening: Scent of an Orchid, Rosa Fong (dir.), and roundtable discussion, 21 June, Edge Hill University Festival of Ideas.
Refuge (2017) screening: Deconstructing Zoe, Rosa Fong (dir.), 8 November, Picture House, Liverpool, UK.
Films and Theatre
Fong, Rosa (dir.) (1990), Linear Rhythm: A Portrait of Three Artists [documentary]. Black Arts Award, Arts Council of England.
Heng, Ivan and Leow, Chowee (1996), An Occasional Orchid [theatre performance], Heng, Ivan (dir.), London: Etcetera Theatre, Camden, UK.