How Art Taught Me About Gender Identities

by Constantin Lu 

Edited by Shivani Ekkanath 

Gender. A simple word with an eternally changing meaning. Tarrant explains that « Gender isn’t something we’re born with. It’s something we perform. And we learn about doing gender through friends, school, religion and family. We are taught to ‘do’ our gender in many ways. » Seen under the prism of social construction, gender appears as an inherently unique concept, since perceptions of how men and women should perform vary in time and in location, and it is also subject to personal interpretation. 

Understanding Femininity and Masculinity

Traditionally, the ideal of femininity is generally represented with a gracious and slim face and silhouette, clothes and ornaments emphasizing elegance, and a relaxing or nonchalant attitude. Such characteristics obviously change from one place to another and evolve throughout time, but some common features of ‘ideal’ femininity can be found from ancient times to modern ones. For instance, in the archaic period of ancient Greece (650-500 BC) were sculpted statues of young women called Korè. They would be represented standing still, sometimes with a hand on their breast or holding an offering. They can be compared to the male version, the Kouros. Their clothes would hide their silhouette, although they would often have a belt recentering on their hips, emphasizing their femininity. 

Parallelly, the archetypes of masculinity also seem to agree more or less consensually on several characteristics. In more classic pieces of art (but not only), men are represented with large shoulders, protruding muscles, often depicted in active movement. The accent is put on heroism and bravery. The American painter and photographer Richard Prince exposed his work Untitled (almost original) to the MoMa. His pieces of art are composed of a drawing of an image that was supposed to be used in advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes. The artist represents the ideal of American masculinity: the cowboy, viril and independent. Prince explores the construction of masculinity, with generally accepted norms and concepts of male-ness.

In contemporary times, it is difficult to find normative pieces of art for what concerns masculinity. Artists tend to play with, criticize, alienate the concept of male-ness, without really giving a contemporary form of admiration. Those who depict classic stereotypes about men are often those who denounce them. In Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows, two muscular men fight in a boxing match. Their muscular frame, although embodying physical raw masculinity in its most primitive way, seems derisory. This masculinity is put on a show, with « normal » people silently watching in the obscurity: the traditional ideal of strong men appears unnecessary, it is only useful for entertainment.

To the destruction of gender stereotypes: Femininity and Masculinity

A lot of content is produced in the artistic realm for what concerns the critics of stereotypes about women. Art is used as a tool to foster a change of thoughts and perceptions on genders. Examples could be the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and the French Niki de Saint-Phalle. They both fought the commonly accepted idea that to be beautiful, a woman needs to be skinny. In Botero’s paintings and sculptures, as well as in Niki’s, women (and men) with generous forms catch the eye. The Nanas also express an idea of happiness, dancing and almost floating in the air, and the round silhouettes of the colourful sculptures only bring more joy and sympathy. Trans memoirist Andrea Long Chu said that « femaleness is not an anatomical or genetic characteristic of an organism, but rather a universal existential condition ». According to them, it is the need to become a reflection of someone else’s desire. Under this perspective, feminity is performed in order to please.

Moreover, perceptions of masculinity are also studied by artists. From the review of physical masculine traits to personhoods, valued qualities, activities and attitudes, Art appears as a tool to explore all the different ways to perform as a man. In doing so, they push to see genders differently, reshaping it. One of the most marquant pieces of Art is Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. It is an innovative film showing sequences about the fluidity of genders, identity and expression of the self. It has been banned because of its norms-breaking nature, but it inspired other artists to explore the field of Gender and its fluidity. Flaming creatures show eroticism, lyricism, with naked bodies of male and female dancing, falling, and doing a series of strange actions. Men are skinny, one of them put lipstick on, they are absolutely not conforming to the idea of masculinity. With Flaming Creature, Jack Smith overcame the rigidity of gender norms.

Masculinity norms have also interested the Australian artist Ben Quilty. In his work, men appear as grotesque, disfigured individuals, falling into dementia. Some of his paintings show men who suffered from post-traumatic stress symptoms after returning from wars. This image of psychologically affected men breaks the ideal of heroism and strength: men can be weak, too. 

Ben Quilty also studied what is the « straight, white male »in today’s society. He depicts him as an anti-model, despite his perceived place in societal hierarchy. In his paintings, men's faces are contorted, kafkaesque, with blank eyes or facial expressions. Their body seems also very weak, livid, almost sick. This vision of « straight, white male » as alienated individuals can also be viewed as a critic and a review of performed genders.







Destroying Gendered Norms by Realness

‘Realness’ refers to the quintessence of things. Speaking about genders, it is the essence of one’s personhood, how they actually exist, as opposed to the idealistic performance of gender. The expression « liquid genders » and « fluidity » refer to the porosity between binary genders, the in-between, more neutral and non-conforming to norms of binarity. In Art, the constructed borders between genders have often been broken, mixing traits attributed to one gender or the other, playing with identities, personas and concepts.

Frida Kahlo participated in this destruction of the impermeability layer between the binary genders. She cut her hair short after her divorce with Diego Rivera, in a society in which women would never have short hair. She painted a self-portrait to express her realness at that moment, her feelings, her true self. In that portrait, she wears an oversized men’s suit, probably her ex-husband’s clothes. The masculinity of her haircut and her dressing are put in opposition with her feminine earrings and shoes. She also depicted herself holding a scissor and hair in her hands. Above her are mentioned the lyrics of a song, implying that her ex-husband loved her only because of her hair, symbol of feminity. Some people believe that by depicting herself in a masculine way, Frida Kahlo declared her independence from men.

The Fluidity of Gender 

Taking the example of the transmasculine artist (and bodybuilder !) Cassils is very interesting, we may explore the gender-fluidity concept further.  The artist declared that they used their body as a « sculptural mass to rupture societal norms ». With this objective in mind, Cassils use pictures and photomontages to represent non-conforming figures that break « physical and gender ideologies and histories ». Cassils performances show their non-binary gender’s uniqueness and their true realness. Their art is a hammer plummeting norms and stereotypes that dictate one’s identity without leaving the place to freedom of being.

Claude Cahun, a French surrealist photographer, sculptor and writer from Nantes also explored the fluidity of genders in their work. They chose the name Claude Cahun for its ambiguity: it could be masculine, as well as a feminine name. They reviewed the idea that genders are rigid and well-defined. They made several auto-portraits adopting different identities: dandies, dolls, aviators… Their shaved hair, as well as their striking dressing and attitudes, made the gender-queer art of Claude Cahun famous around the world. 

Transgressing Gendered Identities: Ball culture and Drag Queens


Ball culture is an expression referring to an underground LGBTQ subculture that emerged in New York in the 1920s. They consist of competitions in which people « walk », perform a show. Such performance would involve dancing, lip-syncing and modelling. Participants would compete to win prizes, the symbol of notoriety. Ball culture was a counter-phenomenon opposed to laws which prohibited people from one gender to dress with clothes associated with the opposite one.

Ball culture is a particularly interesting artistic phenomenon, mixing intersectional questions of race, gender and sexual orientation. It is a counter and subculture gravitating around artistic performance and gender performance, and that makes it a testimony of perceptions on Realnesses. The dance in competitions is called « vogue », a name inspired by the famous magazine. Voguing is characterised by gestures of hands, catwalk, floor performance, spins and dips, elements imitating poses and postures from models in vogue magazine. The attitudes and mannerisms are defiances of gender stereotypes, social norms and imposed identities.

Drag queens are female impersonators, gay individuals who don female clothing with the explicit goal of performing in front of audiences (Schacht, 2000). It is a practice in which one person, usually a man, dress in clothes usually associated with the opposite gender, « adopting the conventional mannerisms of that gender ». Drag queens are created and constructed personas, using a created name. They challenge the stereotypes about genders, playing with internalized meanings and identities. They do not dress as women, they dress according to the most exuberant stereotypes about women: the excess of makeup, the flashy outfits and exaggerated mannerisms are a performance of stereotypes themselves, therefore breaking gender norms and roles. The gender-bending nature of drag queens is a social protest against heteronormative rules. 

Drag queen explores the relationship between social identity and gender, seeing the latter as socially constructed, and that can, therefore, be deconstructed. The performances play on the fluidity of gender, gender realness, and the acceptance of different sorts of masculinities, thus expanding the spectrum of what it means to be a man or a woman. In such performances, the audience has an important role in « the acceptance and revolutionary effect of drag queen ».Some drag queens have expressed that their performances are relevant to explore their own gender, their own identities and that they are not vitrines of all existing gender realnesses.

Art is a powerful tool at the service of those who want to explore genders. From more classic and conventional representations to others transgressing social norms and breaking free from a binary society, gender appears to be a societal issue revolving around commonly accepted - or rejected - norms, whose core are individual personhoods seeking to explore their own gender. 

By pointing stereotypes, playing with them, or completely destroying social norms by invoking their realness, artists become the motor of an eternally evolving reflection and perception of genders. What it means to be a man, a woman, and the infinite array of gender-fluid identities, can thus be discussed through Art, creating a global platform of exposition and exchange.


by Constantin Lu