The following text is a mash up of texts written by maymay, texts written by me and collaborative texts.
A role is not the same as an identity, nor is it simply a person’s actions. When we imagine any given social ritual, such as a wedding, we assume that there will be people who perform the actions typically associated with certain roles, such as “bride,” “groom,” and “photographer.” The distinction is made clear in the following thought experiment:
Suppose Alice and Bob are getting married and they want to have pictures of their wedding. They hire Charlie, a friend who is employed by a fashion magazine as a photographer to photograph their wedding. However, Charlie falls ill on the day of the wedding and cannot make it. Does Alice and Bob’s wedding no longer have a photographer?
Each of these words can be used to describe a role, but can also describe an identity: the betrothed couple likely think of themselves not merely as “people who are getting married,” but also “the bride,” and “the groom.” They each have certain expectations about what “brides” and “grooms” are supposed to do (the actions they are supposed to take) during a wedding. Similarly, Charlie has been performing the act of making photographs as such a routine part of their day-to-day lived experience that they think of themselves as “a photographer.” They were also expecting to be Alice and Bob’swedding photographer, but the fact that they cannot take on that role isn’t a threat to Charlie’s self-identity as a photographer, even though Charlie will empirically not take any photographs of Alice and Bob’s wedding.
If Alice and Bob want photos of their wedding to exist but Charlie cannot take on the role of “the photographer” for their wedding, they may hire or simply request that someone else fills that role. That other person may or may not also maintain a self-identity of “photographer,” but this hardly matters to Alice and Bob as long as the actions this person takes results in the existence of beautiful wedding photographs.
This thought experiment also highlights the way in which roles are intuitively understood to be in the service of some outcome (they are “functions of” some process) whereas identities are intuitively understood to be positions of self-certified knowledge. That is to say, the difference between “someone who takes pictures” and “a photographer” is that the person who takes pictures serves the outcome ‘beautiful pictures’ independent of whether or not they consider a part of themselves to “be a photographer.”
Queering roles at the wedding.
All the characters we have just described have roles that dictate what their actions should be. They can ‘queer’ their roles by doing other actions. These actions can stretch the limits of what their role is, or they can disrupt them.
For example, if the bride breaks out of her role by first saying ‘I do’ and then kissing the photographer, people will probably gasp first but then they will laugh and if nothing else queer happens, they will probably not consider the wedding disrupted. It will still be a considered a wedding and the bride will still be considered a bride.
But if the bride where to break out of her role by not saying ‘I do’ and instead turning to the crowd, declaring she doesn’t like spending her life with just one person and inviting all the guests to join her in a large poliwedding that involves no forevers, just the promise to love each other right now, you’d have a very different scene. Most people would consider the wedding disrupted and many would say that this was no longer a wedding and she is no longer a bride. People with an emotional investment in the traditional wedding (like the priest or the parents of the bride) might actively try to prevent the poliwedding from taking place.
So the tradition ‘marriage’ and the role ‘bride’ can stretch to take a certain amount of rolequeering, but add too much and they will be disrupted.
At my highschool there was a tradition. On the last day of school the seniors about to graduate would take all the teachers and force them into the student lounge (using water pistols, cakes and other messy means of non-violence). They would barricade the teachers in and then lecture them in a comical fashion about all the things they had messed up over the years. Some serious things would be mentioned, but most criticism would be lighthearted.
That situation definitely queers role, with students educating teachers, but when you look at it, it was basically harmless and actually supported the existing hierarchy. There was an understanding by all that there was some criticism too serious for this occasion (no student ever stepped forward on this day to lecture a teacher who raped them) and that the teachers would again be teachers tomorrow. Instead of disrupting roles, the tradition released tension and strengthened roles.
It’s possible that this act was once a disruptive rolequeer act commited by students who rebelled out of true anger, but over the years it had been incorporated successfully into the system to become a role-strengthening act.
So to summarize
Acts that ‘queer’ role can
- disrupt role
- stretch role
- be incorporated into the system to strengthen roles
Based on these two examples (and lots of others that I can think of but this post is already quite long) it would seem that playfulness is a crucial factor in making rolequeer behavior less disruptive and easier to incorporate.
If an act is serious and disruptive (if, for example, citizens arrest a violent cop and put him on trial within the community) it can not easily be incorporated as a new tradition, but if it is lighthearted and playful, it can.
Humor and playfulness may at times be powerful tools of resistance. There have been quite a few activist groups that have used playful protests as a way to get a lot of media attention and drive home their point. And protesting through positive acts like play is a great way to boost morale in a very demoralizing world. Queering in particular is often playful.
But humor also lightens the mood and offers a mental way out. People can choose to see just the joke and not the message behind it, or to take a less serious, less radical read on that message. Playful movements are easily seen as toothless nonviolent movements that can’t possibly be out to destroy what they mock -> blunting the tip.
This seems significant, given how we talk about rolequeer play. If we queer roles for shit and giggles, we may end up becoming mostly harmless and not the real threat to roles that we want to be.
When we queer roles, we must ask: are we the threat to roles that we want to be? Are we really disrupting roles or just stretching them? And we need to take into consideration that what may have been disruptive when we first did it can get incorporated and lose it’s power.