The Purse’s Gaze: What an (In)animate(d) Object Reveals About Culture, Dominance, and Gender

In deliberating Western discourse about gender below, I will be referring to this video.  (So you should probably watch it first before reading the entirety of this post!)  It presents a quirky art project that explores dominance as it is created through a “gaze.”

In attempting to deconstruct the Western colonial gaze on the gender binary and its derivative “other”—the third gender—one needs to consider the very roots of what gender is, and how gender is formed.  The readings this week focus on gender as simultaneously conflated and as competition with racial identity and other modes of self-definition and expression.  When comparing gender to other facets of social human existence, like race or ability, these categories become stratified based on the focus or foci of the student in question.  For example, some people consider race to be the most important facet of their own identity (or identity in general) to examine, and then perhaps use race as a lens to further understanding of the gender identity in question. For example, Samoan fa’afafine Don in Katrina Boen’s “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalization” puts his race first in discussing his identity and concerns with the encroachment of Western ideas of “third gender” identities (TSR 660).

However, it is impossible for a human to focus on all the different modes of being—the scope of intersectional existence.  This very fact undermines theory about gender, but allows for much potential in the development of new disciplines concerning social identities.

The reasons that I find the small project presented in Tanuja Mishra’s video above so particularly interesting is because, in completely different way, the piece sheds light on the same kinds of issues that are caused by the Western—or any other—gaze.  Rather than focus in on a cross-cultural gaze at gender, it takes embodiment completely out of the equation and focuses on the agency in gazing itself.  It does not even deal with trans* issues in particular, but it does take a singular viewpoint prominent in popular culture—the male gaze—and turn it in on itself.  It genders an inanimate object—a women’s purse—by giving it movement and “autonomy” in its returning gaze to the male viewer, and disrupts the male gaze in this way.

I find this relevant and further inspiring in thinking about “gender studies” and what “crossing gender” actually is.  This project gets at the core of responding to narratives of gendered gazing in our culture—the male gaze being challenged is the popular gaze in Western culture today, just as the Western gaze is the popular scholar and critic of what it means to experience gender.  Furthermore, it is being challenged by something without a corporeal form that one usually thinks of as “gendered.” The bag is only gendered because it is a purse, what one usually thinks of as being used by women—by extension, it echoes femaleness.  However, the bag is gender-neutral as far as it resists categorization by not having a biological sex to fall back on, as may be a concern in a “female form” (such concerns expressed in TSR, p. 661).

The questions that theorists on gender and the transgression of narratives of gender in society will need to ask, then, fall upon the most basic reducing of gender and intersectional modes of being.  Taking animation into the equation is only a further reduction of gender as culture.  Here, gender most likely exists outside of human modes of existence—and thus illuminates the gaze as inextricable as gender itself.

– Marie Kosakowski



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