Gender as Performance

Lie: Gender is fixed and exists outside of social change. There is a right way to express gender.

Gender is abstract and politically charged, but we know it when we see it. Gender is a performance, one we learn from a young age and act out in our daily lives, often without knowing it. Gender is expressed differently across cultures and is often explicit in performances. Performance can include dance, music, and costume. Think about how certain gender roles are presented in theater and movies through specific behaviors and appearances. Sometimes these performances can overlap with identity and it can be difficult to draw the line between them. It is counterproductive to try to separate performance and identity since they are linked. 

Agbogho-Mmuo (maiden-spirit) Mask 

Igbo

Nigeria, 20th century

Logan Museum of Anthropology

In Memory of Rita Gaples

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Masked Spirit Maidens Perform in Masquerade 

Akwa, Nigeria, 1935

Taken by unknown photographer, published by Aniakor & Herbert (1984)

Performance can be used to portray and negotiate gender ideals and expectations. In Nigeria, Igbo men portray feminine ideals in masked dance, negotiating gender roles within the community. When a man puts on a mask and costume, he is transformed into a feminine ancestor, spirit, or character. He inhabits a space between masculine and feminine, and between human and spiritual.


This mask (above left) represents a maiden-spirit and is used to reflect Igbo standards of feminine beauty, especially through elaborate hairstyles and scarification. The maiden-spirit is brought to life through dance and music. The performer's body is covered with a colorful costume to complete the transformation (above right). Women of the community judge the performance for its accuracy and together they decide on the ideal of feminine beauty. This performance both reinforces and creates gender, and shows that gender is not as static as we often assume. 

Wayang Popeng (dance-drama) Mask

Unidentified Cultural Group

Java (Indonesia), 19th or 20th century

Logan Museum of Anthropology

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Males Performing Femininity in Ngrema Putri Dance

Java (Indonesia) 2006

Taken by Christina Sunardi during her fieldwork

This mask (above left) was used in Javanese masked dance-dramas to help actors embody 

characters. The gender of the character did not always match the sex of the actor, some dance-dramas intentionally transgress gender roles. For example, Ngremo Tayub is a masculine-style dance performed by women and Ngremo Putri is a feminine-style dance performed by men (above right). These performances are not static, and gendered labels and roles like them change over time, especially in reaction to larger change like colonialism and globalization. 


In the 1940s-1960s male dancers, called tandhak, performed femininity in Ngremo Putri. They wore costumes, make up, wigs, and padding to transform into women. Although femininity in male-bodied people was looked down upon by Indonesian society, performing it on the stage was a more accepted form of exploring cross-gender behaviors. Some tandhak risk intolerance and take their performance off stage, living some, or all, of their daily life as women. In the 1970s, the government started regulating gender transgression, an influence of westernization, and cross-gender performances became less acceptable and common.

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Warias Socializing in Hair Salon 

Sorong, West Papua (Indonesia), 2015

Taken by Terje Toomistu during their fieldwork

Tandhak transgress gender by defying gender norms and doing gender in the 'wrong' way. They were encouraged to live their daily lives as men and restrict their gender transgression to Ngremo Putri performances. Performing femininity was still brought off stage by some tandhak. By the 1990s, government intervention forced many tandhak to abandon gender transgression in their performances. Some brought it into their daily lives instead, taking on the role and label of waria. 


Waria is a combination of the terms wanita, meaning woman, and pria, meaning man, and is a gender role in Indonesia. Outside of their own personal identities, waria are generally not viewed as women but are also separate from men. They are visible and accepted in daily life while still experiencing violence from those outside their community, primarily cisgender-heterosexual men. Many move to cities to escape hostile hometowns, working at hair salons during the day (above) and doing sex work at night. Although waria do other work, it is more difficult for them to get jobs in other fields since they are not valued in those spaces. Instead, beautification is considered the talent of the waria; since they can transform themselves, they can transform others to become more beautiful.