Gender and Performance in

American Culture


American Studies 415b

Spring 2003, Yale University


Instructor: Robin Bernstein


Class meets Wednesdays 3:30-5:20

Office hours immediately follow class. 

Additional office hours available by appointment.


This upper-level seminar examines processes through which gender becomes a force in history rather than a self-enclosed personal identity, a building-block of culture rather than a biological extension of genital sex.  The concept of “performance,” by which this course analyzes these processes, suggests that people create and re-create gender through the ways in which we speak, dress, and move, both on-stage and off.  A drag queen’s lip-synch act, a president’s speech, and a student’s everyday behavior in class are all examples of performances of gender: in each, the individual configures his or her appearance and movements to produce a complex masculinity or femininity.  Performance of gender enables the actor to achieve a variety of goals.  For example, a drag queen may use lip-synching to critique gender through parody; a president’s performance of masculinity may enhance his political power, and a student’s performance of conventional gender identity in class may give her a sense of normalcy, acceptance, and security.

We will study ways in which performance of gender connects with performance of race, ethnicity, and religion.  Most significantly, we will examine ways in which performance of gender is key to the imagining—and deconstruction—of a monolithic American identity.  We will build upon this work to examine ways in which selected individuals and groups, in their historical moments, mobilized performance of gender toward specific political ends such as the justification of imperialism or the prohibition of alcohol.  Finally, we will explore ways in which some progressive and radical theatre artists attempt to use performance to alter or re-create gender itself.

The course examines performance of gender from 1840 to the present, but does not attempt to create a linear account of change over time.  Rather, the course introduces students to major issues and questions in the study of performed gender, and major approaches to answering these questions.  The course culminates in a substantial paper on a relevant subject of the student’s choice.





First paper, due February 19: Assignment to be distributed on February 5. 

Final Paper, due May 14: Write a substantial research paper on a relevant subjects of your choice.   The paper must incorporate some of the theoretical frameworks and modes of analysis forged and modeled in this course’s readings.  The paper should run 15-20 full pages.

As you prepare to write the final paper, you will complete the following:

Prospectus, due March 26: The prospectus sketches your project.  In the prospectus, you should describe the evidence you plan to analyze, the theories you expect to use, and any working hypotheses.  The prospectus should run approximately one full page.

Working bibliography, due April 2. After you hand in the bibliography, you must have a conference with me to discuss your project.

Draft of final paper, due April 16.

Oral presentation, April 23: In a well-organized, tightly-written, polished presentation, you will share your research with your colleagues.  Your oral presentation must not exceed 10 minutes.

Please note: you must complete one assignment before you may proceed to the next assignment.



This course is designed for advanced students who will take collective responsibility for the success of every classroom discussion. This responsibility involves two components. First, you are required to arrive in class having completed and thought about all the reading. In other words, merely gulping down the reading is inadequate. You should come to class having chewed and digested the material thoroughly. You are expected to prepare your own thoughts, opinions, and questions before every class. Second, you must express your ideas in a respectful manner that advances our conversation. Practices that are disrespectful of your colleagues (for example, interrupting, hogging the floor, or launching personal attacks) will shut down rather than further discussion; such practices, therefore, are unacceptable.

Your productive, informed participation constitutes 20% of your grade for this course. That means that a student who receives a B+ on every assignment, but who never speaks in class, will receive a grade of D+ for the course. You need not be equally vocal every week, but consistent silence will have an adverse effect on your grade. Lateness and absence will also lower your grade.


Gerd Brantenberg, Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes. Trans. Louis MacKay. (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1995).

Jose Esteban Munoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press,1999).

Coursepack (available at Tyco)

All screenings:

                Flawless [Monday, February 10]

                ’night, Mother [Monday, March 24]

                Fires in the Mirror [Monday, April 7]



20% Class Participation                                        

10% First Paper                                                            

5% Prospectus for Final Paper                     

5% Working Bibliography and Conference                

5% Draft of Final Paper                                     

20% Oral Presentation                                                

35% Final Paper                                                           

Failure to hand in any assignment can cause you to fail the course.

Late papers will be penalized one third of a letter grade for each day overdue.

Attendance and active, informed participation are mandatory. 



Several weeks feature “recommended” texts.  You may read a recommended text, write a response paper of two full pages, and bring your knowledge of the text to the class discussion in a meaningful way in the designated week.  A student who takes this option will, if his or her final average hovers between two grades, receive the higher grade.  In other words, if your final average is 3.16 and you have not completed an extra credit assignment, you may receive, at the discretion of the instructor, either a B or a B+ for the course.  If, however, you completed an extra credit assignment, you will receive the B+.  If your average does not fall between grades, the extra credit will not affect your final grade.  For example, if your average is 3.03, you will receive a B regardless of whether you completed extra credit.  The extra credit, in other words, functions as a “little boost,” not a giant leap ahead.  Multiple extra credit assignments are not permitted for multiple credits.




I. Foundational Theories of Performance and Gender

January 15.  Introduction: Gender as Process, not Object; Verb, not Noun.


What is performance?  Why is it useful in conversations about gender? Why is performance of gender worth studying?  Distributed in class: Laurence Senelick, Gender in Performance: The Presentation of Difference in the Performing Arts, pp. ix-xv.


January 22. Gender: An Essential Biological Reality?

·         Gerd Brantenberg, Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes. Trans. Louis MacKay. (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1995).

·         Questions to consider: how do the Egalians re-create gender every day?  Is their gender “real”?  If so, how do they make it real?  How does the novel—especially in its final pages—connect gender and biological sex?  What role does language play in the Egalians’ creation of gender?  If you were to adapt this novel for the stage, how would you do so?  What special challenges might you face as playwright?  As director?  As actor?  As audience member?



January 29.  Gender: a Performance in Everyday Life

·         Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959). “Introduction,” pp. 1-16; Ch. 1, “Performances,” pp. 1776; “Conclusion,” pp. 238-255.

·         Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography (Seattle, WA: The Real Comet Press, 1988). “High Street Photographer,”pp. 26-47.

·         Robin D.G. Kelley, “Confessions of a Nice Negro, or Why I Shaved my Head.” In<> Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream, Don Belton, ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 12-22.


February 5. Gender: a “stylized repetition of acts”

·         Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.”In Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 270-282.

·         Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). “Preface,” pp. vii-xii; Ch. 1, “Subjects of Sex/GenderDesire,” pp. 1-34.

·         Judith Halberstam, “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene.”Social Text 52/53, nos 3 and 4 (Fall/Winter 1997),105-131.



·         RECOMMENDED: Kate Bornstein, My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely (New York and London: Routledge, 1998).



II. Gender as Performed Struggle


February 12. Struggling toward Masculinity

·         SCREENING: Flawless [February 10]

·         Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Dutchman. 1964; reprint in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, William J. Harris, ed. (New York: Thunders’ Mouth Press, 1991), pp. 76-99.

·         Gaylyn Studlar, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1996). Chapter 1, “Building Mr. Pep: Boy Culture and the Construction of Douglas Fairbanks,” pp. 10-89; chapter 2, “‘Impassioned Vitality’: John Barrymore and America’s Matinee Girls,” pp. 90-149.

·         John Preston, “The Theatre of Sexual Initiation.” In Gender in Performance: The Presentation of Difference in the Performing Arts, ed. Laurence Senelick (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992), pp. 324-335.


·         RECOMMENDED: Simon Bronner, The Carver’s Art: Crafting Meaning from Wood [Previously published in 1985 as Chain Carvers: Old Men Crafting Meaning] (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).


February 19. Struggling Toward Femininity

·         Chrys Ingraham, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1999). Chapters 1-3, pp. 2-121.

·         RECOMMENDED: Chrys Ingraham, The Miracle Worker (any edition)

·         FIRST PAPER DUE!!



III. Performance of Gender: A National Concern


February 26.  Performing American Identity through Gendered Bodies

·         Lisa Merrill, When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999). Ch. 4, “Embodying Strong(-minded) Women: The Shapes Charlotte Cushman Wore Onstage,” pp. 80-109.

·         Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995). Ch. 1, “Remaking Manhood through Race and ‘Civilization,’” pp. 1-44; ch. 5, “Theodore Roosevelt: Manhood, Nation, and ‘Civilization,’” pp. 170-215.

·         Robert H. Vorlicky, “Marking Change, Marking America: Contemporary Performance and Men’s Autobiographical Selves.” In Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater, ed. Jeffrey D. Mason and J. Ellen Gainor (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999).


·         RECOMMENDED: The full text of any of the above three books.


March 5. Performance of Gender as a Force in National Politics

·         William H. Smith. The Drunkard, or, The Fallen Saved: A Moral Domestic Drama in Five Acts. 1844.

·         Glen Hendler, “Bloated Bodies and Sober Sentiments: Masculinity in 1840s Temperance Narratives.” In Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture, ed. Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 125-148.

·         Donna Minkowitz, Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury (New York: The Free Press,1998).  Ch. 3, “Cross,” pp. 47-78.

·         Kim Marra, “Taming America as Actress: Augustin Daly, Ada Rehan, and the Discourse of Imperial Frontier Conquest.” In Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater, ed. Jeffrey D. Mason and J. Ellen Gainor (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999).


·         RECOMMENDED: Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).


March 12, March 19. SPRING BREAK!!


IV. Strategies: Using Performance to Re-Make Gender


March 26.  Realism

·         SCREENING: ’night, Mother [March 24]

·         Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Research Press, 1988). Ch. 2, “Feminism and the Canon: The Question of Universality,” pp. 19-40

·         Jeanie Forte, “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright—A Problem of Reception.” Modern Drama 32.1, 1989.

·         PROSPECTUS DUE!!


April 2.  Anti-Realism: Camp

·         Holly Hughes, The Well of Horniness.  1983; reprinted in Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays, ed. Don Shewey (New York: Grove Press, 1988), pp. 222-251.

·         Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1961). “Notes on ‘Camp,’” pp. 275-292.

·         Sue-Ellen Case, “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” In Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre, ed. Lynda Hart (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1989), pp. 282-299.


·         Individual conferences to discuss final paper

·         RECOMMENDED: Jill Dolan, Presence and Desire: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Performance (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1993). Ch. 1, “Personal, Political, Polemical: feminist Approaches to Politics and Theater,” pp. 43-68; ch. 7, “Peeling Away the Tropes of Visibility: Lesbian Sexuality and Materialist Performance Practice,” pp. 151-158.


April 9.  Identification

·         SCREENING: Fires in the Mirror [April 7]

·         Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror (New York: Anchor Books, 1993). “Introduction,” pp. xxiii-xli.

·         Anna Deavere Smith, “The Word Becomes You: An Interview by Carol Martin.” In A Source Book of Feminist Theatre and Performance, ed. Carol Martin (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp.185-204

·         Individual conferences to discuss final paper


·         RECOMMENDED: Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) OR screening of PBS broadcast of Twilight.


April 16.  Disidentification

·         Jose Esteban Munoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

·         PAPER DRAFT DUE!!  If you will be absent because of Passover, please meet with me in advance to discuss your arrangements for handing in the draft.


V. Sharing Our Work


April 23. Student Presentations




Enjoy your summer!