Saturday, June 2, 2007

Iconographic Binaries

The automatist's undoing
The whole world starts unscrewing
As time collapses and space warps
You see decay and ruin
I tell you "No, no no no"
You make such an exquisite corpse.
~Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I'm sitting at work again, digging into Beauvoir's The Second Sex, because I finished up Butler's Gender Trouble yesterday and still feel the need to continue my haphazard foray into feminism. And at some point, my mind wanders from Beauvoir's introduction back to Butler and then over to my recently discovered bosom buddies, the transvestite saints. Yet again, I found myself wondering -- why to the vast majority of icons depicting the transvestite saints portray them in women's clothing? After all, these were women who had donned men's clothing in order to pursue the ascetic life. Why put them in women's clothing, when they are basically remembered for successfully passing themselves off as men?

The transvestite saints do, I believe, disrupt and subvert the idea of separate and discrete sex and gender categories. Drag queens in reverse, they demonstrate that gender is performed, made of a grouping of attributes, rather than magically endowed in the form of a person's genitals. All their stories are, of course, filtered through centuries of retelling and editing by people with all sorts of agendas and biases, but it is legitimate to view them as signs that some Early Christians saw the Kingdom of God in terms that might resemble the ideas grouped today under the label of genderqueer.

But, as best I can tell, all of transvestite saints proper are returned to womanly garb by iconography. The only potential exception is Saint Mary of Egypt, whose hagiography shares many features with the hagiographies of the transvestite saints, but she is not precisely a cross-dresser.

The iconography of the transvestite saints that we have today is, while ancient and traditional, from a much more recent period of Christian development than the transvestite saints themselves. Thus, it reflects the concerns of a later time. The practice of cross-dressing, attested to by prohibitions from various councils, pre-dated the formation of an institutionalized, socialized church. It was a practice typically found in more radically counter-cultural Christian groups who tended to view human civilization as a product of the fall of humanity away from God's intentions. (And yet, the transvestite saints must have been extremely popular to have survived the transition into institutional Christianity at all.) The forms of iconography that we have today are from a period at which the institutional church had taken a fairly strong hold over Christianity in both the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire. The practice of iconography extends back much farther, but the earliest icons have been lost either to age or iconoclastic uprising.

My first thought was that the placing the transvestite saints in women's clothing could only be a sign of the institutionalized church's desire to preserve male and female, man and woman as discrete separate categories. After all, the intention of iconography is to reflect eternal realities and provide a window into heaven. So, iconography places holy cross-dressers back into women's clothing to communicate a message that you can try all you want to escape the category of woman, at the end of the day, in your ultimate existence, you are still a woman. A righteous woman, but a woman. Needless to say, this baby postmodern feminist doesn't much care for that idea.

The question then becomes, even if the preservation of gender binary was the intention, is that the effect of returning cross-dressing saints to women's clothing? After all, the idea of a righteous woman is, for Christianity, a somewhat transgressive idea because of the association of holiness and virtue with manliness for much of the history of Western thought.

The more I thought, the more it seemed to me that the impossibility of creating a cohesive image out of the transvestite saint adds to the genderqueerness of their existence. If the holy cross-dresser slips neatly from the category of woman into the category of a man, the gender binary remains intact and unquestioned. One is either a man or one is a woman, and one must belong to a discrete category. However, because the transvestite saints are slipping back and forth between the categories -- living as a man, but being revealed as a woman in death, celebrated in hagiography for performing the gender of man, but memorialized in egg tempera in woman's garb -- they show the categories to be permeable and far away from discrete. The transvestite saint is a man or a woman. The transvestite saint is man and woman, combining and confusing the categories in the saint's body, revealing them to be permeable and mixable, rather than separate and discrete. The portrayal of the transvestite saints in women's clothing iconography, while it's intention might have been to enforce a gender binary, actually contributes to the queering of the categories of gender and sex! And perhaps indicates by this breakdown something about the nature of the eternal.


Karen said...

you know, pretty much all your posts sound like PhD rantings. You seem smart in person, but when I read your writings I am like, I no can understand, me no has good word brain. No wonder I never got good grades on papers at Rhodes, it's because they are used to geniuses like you!

Fun blog, keep it up.

WordK said...

Thanks, Karen!