The year celebrated by the 2011 Academy Awards was one of rigid political identities -- the one percent vs. the 99 percent, the perennial Democrats vs. Republicans, the "people" vs. the leaders whose corruption brought about the Arab Spring. But in American movies, by contrast, it was a year of fascinating fluidity -- gender fluidity, that is. Women performers and the characters they played for us on screen didn't just complacently inhabit gender; they flaunted, overturned, redescribed or revolted against it.
Glenn Close, for instance, is getting a great deal of attention for her convincing and moving performance in the film Albert Nobbs as a woman living as a man in late 19th century Dublin. But Close and her character aren't the only ones performing in drag among the nominees.
In fact, the performances of all five women nominated as Best Actress demonstrate that gender is more of a continuum than a strict binary. "Masculinity" and "femininity," these performances show, fall along a much longer line of traits and gestures, and also vary according to the actor/character's race and class and their moment in culture and history.
John Wayne, with his gruff demeanor and cowboy gait, was an icon of extreme white male masculinity. Dolly Parton, with her ample bosom and beehive hair, represents the other end of the continuum, as almost a female impersonator of femininity. And Ellen DeGeneres performs her gender somewhere between extreme masculinity and femininity. Perhaps not incidentally, DeGeneres was recently targeted as "anti-family values" by the American Family Association's One Million Moms organization when she was appointed a spokesperson for J.C. Penney.
You see, how we perform our gender matters, and not just to those million moms (and the more than 80,000 people who supported DeGeneres on Facebook in response). Each choice of gesture and facial expression, each piece of clothing we select or avoid, signifies a step towards or away from the traditional expectations of what a man or a woman should do. From how we sit on the subway to what we eat for dinner, all of our daily actions are coded with gendered meaning.
Because the movies magnify all those choices, they offer a wonderful laboratory for observing gender performance at work. And this year's Best Actress nominees all played parts that illuminate the continuum of gender in compelling and moving ways.
As Close plays him, Albert Nobbs is a quiet, retiring, soft-featured man. His occupation as a waiter in a hotel in the late 1800s requires that he hold his body erect and that his movements be economical and efficient, so that he can pass persuasively as a man and guard the secret of his sex.
Close's performance of Albert's masculinity in Nobbs is different from Janet McTeer's as Hubert Page, the housepainter whom Albert learns is also a woman living as a man. Page's masculinity is terse, marked by his solitary work. Page takes up space differently than Albert, moving through his world with larger gestures and freer movements. Part of the film's genius, in fact, is how it showcases these two very different women's performances of masculinity.
Consider the more extreme feminine end of the gender continuum, on which I would place Michelle Williams' portrait of the iconic 1950s movie star in My Week with Marilyn. Williams has described how she painstakingly learned and rehearsed Monroe's signature walk. Her movements were dictated by her tight dresses and provoked by an hourglass figure that seems unnatural to most women in the 21st century (except, perhaps, Christina Hendricks, whose signature shape lets her play another 1950s woman in the television series, Mad Men). Williams couldn't perform as Monroe just because they share female biology; she had to learn how to perform the star's distinct femininity.
Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander, the fierce computer hacker in director David Fincher's adaptation of the popular Stieg Larsson book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, falls at the middle of the gender continuum, where masculinity and femininity blur. Mara's makeup and costume hides Lisbeth's body under facial piercings, ripped t-shirts and baggy cargo pants. And in shots of her riding her motorcycle, Lisbeth wears a helmet with a shield that completely obscures her face -- she could be a man or woman, of any age or race, for that matter.
Lisbeth's generally guarded and hostile demeanor flaunts conventions of femininity that suggest women should always be friendly and fully present to their interlocutors. When her evil guardian brutally rapes her, Lisbeth retaliates in ways that re-empower her physically and socially, putting her actions closer to the more masculine end of the gender continuum.
Toward the film's end, Lisbeth/Mara masquerades as a woman, traveling to move funds that will ruin the financier who's slandered her friend, Blomkvist. The stark contrast between her everyday gender performance and her impersonation of traditional, more heightened femininity beautifully demonstrates how easily gender can be constructed for social effect.
Meryl Streep creates another kind of gender impersonation playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. With Thatcher's mid-80s hair and clothing style, and her singularity as a woman in rooms full of male British politicians, Streep demonstrates that her carriage and her diction and her command of herself had to be strict and severe -- in fact, more masculine.
Viola Davis, the only woman of color acknowledged in this Oscar category, demonstrates how gender performance is influenced by race. In The Help, she plays Aibileen, a dignified maid in the pre-Civil Rights movement south. Davis wears a carefully combed wig and a maid's outfit to represent an African American domestic workers' 1960s femininity, performing her gender as a muted complement to her performance of race and her understated resistance to white bigotry. Davis' stolid bearing constrains her carefully enacted but angry subservience. Her performance as Aibileen contrasts with the gender displays of the film's white characters, whose (southern) femininity is flouncy and free, unless they're clad in the white-gloved propriety of fancier social occasions.
That these accomplished, uniformly moving performances appear in films released in the same year demonstrates how variably we understand gender to be, though we rarely remark on the continuum we know exists. Not one of these vastly different performances of gender is "right" or "wrong."
Yet too often in American culture people are punished for "improper" gender performance. Brandon Teena was a Nebraska teenager who passed as a man until he was unmasked as female and brutally murdered. (His story was performed on screen by Hilary Swank, who won a 2000 Best Actress Oscar for playing Teena in Boys Don't Cry.) Performing your gender "wrong" in certain contexts, as feminist theorist Judith Butler suggests, can still have devastating personal and social consequences.
But this year's array of award-nominated performances by women acknowledges the potential of how fluidly we move around gender, rather than forcing us to choose between extreme masculinity and femininity as the only two possibilities. The movies help us imagine the freedom we might experience by understanding that gender, too, is an act.
Jill Dolan is the Annan Professor of English and Theatre at Princeton University, where she also directs the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of several books of feminist theatre and performance criticism, and won the 2010-2011 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for her blog, The Feminist Spectator (www.feministspectator.blogspot.com). Via The Op Ed Project's Public Voices Fellowship at Princeton University.