There is a constant tension between hegemony and agency in our everyday activities. For example, while you choose how you want to dress on a given day, your choice of what to wear is shaped by the social situation. You wear something different at home than you do when going to work, to the beach, to a concert, or on a date. The range of what is considered acceptable attire in different
social settings is an example of hegemony—for instance, a suit would be expected for a professional conference whereas a bathing suit would be entirely inappropriate (compare, for instance, Figures 2 and 3). An individual’s choice within the culturally defined range of appropriate options is an example of how agency—an individual’s ability to act according to his or her own will—is constrained by hegemony. Getting dressed is an example of an everyday performance of culture. When Jayden and Dakota paid extra attention to their appearance in anticipation of their date, they demonstrated—performed—their interest in pursuing a romantic relationship.
On the surface, our everyday performances probably seem inconsequential. A single failed performance may lead to an unfulfilling evening but usually does not have long-lasting consequences. However, when we look at patterns of everyday performances, we can learn much about a culture and how members of groups are expected to behave and present themselves to others. The subfield of visual anthropology is based on the notion that “culture can be seen and enacted through visible symbols embedded in behavior, gestures, body movements, and space use.”11
Presentation of Self
Sociologist Erving Goffman coined the phrase presentation of self to refer to management of the impressions others have of us.12 People adopt particular presentations of self for many reasons. A couple who aspires to be upwardly mobile, for example, may subsist on ramen noodles in the privacy of their apartment while spending conspicuously large amounts of money on fine food and wine in the company of people they want to impress. A political candidate from a very wealthy family might don work clothes and affect a working class accent to appeal to voters from that demographic or make a political appearance at a “working class” bar or pub rather than a country club. In many cases, people are not being intentionally deceptive when they adopt such roles. It is normal to act differently at home, at school, and at work; behavior is based on the social and cultural context of each situation. Goffman thus notes that impression management is at times intentional and at other times is a subconscious response to our enculturation.
Goffman uses theatrical terms to discuss impression management when distinguishing front and back spaces. Front spaces are arenas in which we carefully construct and control the audience’s perception of the actors while back spaces are private zones where actors can drop those pretenses (see Figure 4). The front includes the setting—the physical makeup of the stage, including the furniture, décor, and other props, that figuratively, if not literally, set the stage for a social interaction.13 For example, a restaurant and a church are both designed to seat tens or even hundreds of people and sometimes serve wine, but they are easily identified by how the seating is arranged, the kind of music played, and the artwork on the walls. Thus, presentations of the self also tend to be defined in part by the physical environment. Waiters adopt their role when they step into the restaurant and step out of those roles when they leave at the end of their shifts.
Another important component of these performances is the personal front: aspects of one’s costume that are part of the actor’s body or worn in close association with it.14 Clothing, physical characteristics, comportment, and facial expressions all contribute to one’s personal front. Some of these traits, such as height, are unlikely to change from one performance to the next. Others, such as a priest’s collar, a doctor’s white lab coat, a ballroom dancer’s dress, and a waiter’s convivial smile, can be changed at will (see Figure 5). Changes in the personal front affect the audience’s interpretation and understanding of the role played by the individual and their beliefs about the “actor’s” sincerity.
The match between the setting and one’s personal front helps the audience quickly—and often accurately—understand the roles played by the actors in front of them. But each actor’s performance still must live up to the audience’s expectations, and a mismatch between expectation and execution can result in the actor being viewed as a failure. Take the example of the college professor. She could be a leading expert in her field with encyclopedic knowledge of the course topic, but if she stutters, speaks too softly, or struggles to answer questions quickly, her students may underestimate her expertise because her performance of an expert failed.
In some roles, the effort to manage an impression is largely invisible to the audience. Imagine, for example, a security guard at a concert. If everything goes well, the security guard will not have to break up any fights or physically remove anyone from the concert. If a fight does break out, a small individual trained in martial arts might be best-suited to diffusing the situation, but security personnel are often large individuals who have an imposing presence, a personal front that matches the public’s expectations. A security guard could easily keep an eye on things while sitting still but instead usually stands with arms folded sternly across the chest or walks purposefully around the perimeter to make her presence known. She may make a show of craning her neck for a better view of certain areas even if they are not difficult to see. These overt performances of a security guard’s competence are not necessary for the job, but their visibility discourages concert attendees from misbehaving.
Social actors differ in the degree to which they believe in both 1) the social role in question, and 2) their individual ability to performance that specific role. Those who Goffman called “sincere” performers are both confident in their ability to play the role and believe in the role itself. A shaman, for example, who believes wholeheartedly that she has been called to heal the members of her community is likely to both believe in the role of a shaman and in her particular ability to fulfill that role. Some begin as sincere performers but later become cynical. Religious roles sometimes fall into this category; the performer loses some degree of sincerity as the religious ceremonies are demystified.15 Others are cynical in the beginning but grow into their roles, eventually becoming sincere. This is often the case with someone new to a profession. In the beginning, she may feel like a fraud due to lack of experience and worry about being discovered. Over time, the individual’s confidence grows until the role feels natural.
Case Study: VH1’s “The Pickup Artist”
The popularity of makeover television shows in recent years suggests that there is significant interest in learning to present an idealized version of oneself to others. In 2007, VH1 produced a reality show called “The Pickup Artist” that focused on men who experienced difficulty talking to women or who repeatedly found themselves viewed by women as “just friends” rather than as potential romantic partners. At the beginning of the season, the men were dropped off at a new house in a bus that said “Destination: Manhood” on the front, suggesting that their performance of masculinity was somehow lacking. The show’s host was an author and self-proclaimed pickup artist named Mystery who had overcome challenges connecting with women and was there to share his hard-earned knowledge with others. In the initial episode, the men were filmed in a club as they approached women. Oblivious to the cues the women were sending them, all of the contestants blundered through painfully awkward social interactions in which several of the women eventually just walked away. Behind the scenes, Mystery and fellow pickup artists observed and commented on the contestants’ attire, their approaches, and their conversation strategies. After diagnosing the contestants’ “problems” interacting with women, Mystery taught them specific strategies for things like “opening a set” (initiating a conversation) and “the number close” (securing a woman’s phone number). Though presented as a competitive reality show with one contestant ultimately being named “Master Pickup Artist” and receiving $50,000 to invest in his new identity, the show also revealed the level of performance expected within front-space areas such as nightclubs and how they differed from back-space areas such as the communal house, where contestants were (presumably) able to relax without having to micromanage their presentations of self.
Performance of Gender
As you may recall from the Gender and Sexuality chapter, gender is defined by culture rather than by biology. Gender theorist Judith Butler’s term “gender performativity” references the idea that gender as a social construct is created through individual performances of gender identity. Butler’s key point, published originally in 1990 and expanded in 1993, is that an act is seen as gendered through ongoing, stylized repetitions.16 In other words, while we all make specific choices—such as how Jayden and Dakota chose to dress for their date—people doing things in patterned ways over time results in certain versions being typified as “male” or “female.” Phrases such as “act like a man” or “throw like a girl” are good examples. Socially, we define certain types of behavior as typical of men and women and culturally code that behavior as a gendered representation. Thus, specific individuals are seen as doing things in a particularly (or stereotypically) masculine or feminine way. How do you know how “men” and “women” are supposed to behave? What makes one way of sitting, standing, or talking a “feminine” one and another a “masculine” one? The answer is that definitions of masculine and feminine vary with the socio-cultural milieus, but in every case, how people commonly do things constitutes gender in everyday life.
In many ways, the notion that gender is created and replicated through patterned behavior is an expansion of Marcel Mauss’ classic idea that the very movements of our bodies are culturally learned and performed.17 Walking and swimming may seem to be natural body movements, but those movements differ in individual cultures and one must learn to walk or swim according to the norms of the culture. We also learn to perform gender. If you showed up to the first day of class and all of the men in the class who had facial hair wore sundresses, you would notice and be surprised or confused. Why? Because, as Butler pointed out, gender is constructed through patterns of activity, and a bearded man in a sundress deviates from the expected pattern of male attire. While this is a particularly obvious example, the mechanism is the same for much more subtle expectations regarding everything from how you walk and talk to your taste in clothing and your hobbies. In Western contexts, for instance, athletic prowess is typically coded as masculine. But as Iris Marion Young noted, it is impossible to throw like a girl without learning what that means.18 The phrase is not meant to refer to the skills of pitcher Mo’ne Davis who, at thirteen years old, became the first female Little League player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August 2014.19 Young’s point, by extension, is twofold: 1) “girls” only throw differently from “boys” insofar as they are taught to throw differently; and 2) what counts as throwing like a girl or a boy is a learned evaluation. Taking the idea a step further, several scholars looked at performance of gender in a variety of sports, including women’s bodybuilding, figure skating, and competitive ballroom dancing. In each case, some aspect of femininity is over-performed through blatant makeup and costuming to compensate for the overt physicality of the sport, which is at odds with stereotypical views of femininity.20
As anthropologist Margaret Mead first publicized more than 80 years ago, what counts as culturally appropriate conduct for men and women is quite different across cultural settings.21 More broadly, Serena Nanda provided an updated survey of cross-cultural gender diversity.22 Two issues are particularly important: 1) the Western concept of binary gender is far from universal (or accurate); and 2) all behaviors are performed within—and hence contingent upon—specific contexts. For example, Nanda’s work in India documents the ability to perform a third gender.23 Similarly, Gilbert Herdt’s work among the Sambia in Papua New Guinea counters the idea of sexual orientation as fixed (e.g., heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual) and provides a counter-example in which personal sexuality varies for boys and men by stage of life.24 Perhaps the most compelling case for performance of gender is the Brazilian Travesti, transgendered male prostitutes who, despite having female names, clothing, language, and even bodies achieved through silicone injections and female hormones, identify themselves as men.25 These cases demonstrate that sexuality is different from gender and that gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality are performed in daily life and at moments of heightened importance such as pride parades.
Case Study: Small Town Beauty Pageants
Oh to be the Milan Melon Queen, the Reynoldsburg Tomato Queen, or even the Circleville Pumpkin Queen, these are the dreams that childhood are made of!
Beauty pageants provide communities with opportunities to articulate the norms of appropriate femininity for the contestants and spectators. Pageant contestants are judged on their ability to perform specific markers of conventional femininity. In local pageants associated with community festivals (i.e., winners do not progress to larger regional and national competitions), contestants are expected to “perform . . . a local or small town version” of this ideal according to performance-studies scholar Heather Williams.26 In these settings, success is predicated on demonstrating one’s poise and confidence as a representative of the community.27 Those competing in regional, state, and national competitions like Miss America often spend years being groomed for competition and developing a stage presence meant to transcend small town ideals of femininity. A striking difference between the national pageants and many local ones is the swimsuit competition in the national pageants. Perhaps local organizers are reticent to objectify young women from their own communities or because of small town conservatism. Anthropologist Robert Lavenda points out that a town may not be seeking to crown the most beautiful contestant and instead seeks the one who will best represent the community and its values.28 Judges evaluate contestants not on their physical attractiveness per se but on how well their “presentation of self” aligns with the community’s views of who they are.
Lavenda identified several characteristics shared by contestants. Though the competitions are generally open to women age 17 to 21, the majority who competed had just finished high school, making them all part of the same cohort leaving childhood and entering adulthood. All had been extremely active in extracurricular activities and were pursuing post-secondary education. Furthermore, because they needed sponsors to compete, the local business community had vetted all in some way. While contestants at the national level have private coaches and train independently for competitions, contestants in local pageants often work together for weeks or months before the festival, learning how to dress, walk on stage, and do hair and makeup. The result is a homogenized presentation of self that fits with the community’s expectations, and the ideal contestant represents “a golden mean of accomplishment that appears accessible to all respectable girls of her class in her town and other similar small towns.”29 If the winner chosen does not represent those qualities or behaves counter to the prevailing values of the community, the audience often becomes upset, sometimes alleging corruption in the judging.30 While the competition is ostensibly about the contestants and their ability to perform a certain ideal of femininity, it also demonstrates “the ability of small towns to produce young women who are bright, attractive, ambitious, and belong—or expect to belong—to a particular social category.”31 At least during the competition, unsuccessful performances of the feminine ideal are pushed out of sight and mind.32 This, the community tries to show, is what our women are like.
Social Drama as Performance
Goffman used a theatrical metaphor to analyze how individuals change their presentations of self based on the scenic backdrop—front stage versus backstage. Anthropologist Victor Turner was more interested in the cast of characters and how their actions, especially during times of conflict, mirrored the rise and fall of action in a play.33 As already noted, everyday life is comprised of a series of performances, but some moments stand out as more dramatic or theatrical than others. When a social interaction goes sufficiently awry, tensions arise, and the social actors involved may want to make sure that others understand precisely how expected social roles were breached. Turner calls these situations “metatheater,” and they are most clearly seen in and described as social dramas: “units of aharmonic or disharmonic social process, arising in conflict situations.”34
A social drama consists of four phases: breach, crisis, redress or remedial procedures, and either reintegration or recognition and legitimation of an irreparable schism.35 A breach occurs when an individual or subgroup within a society breaks a norm or rule that is sufficiently important to maintenance of social relations. Following the breach, other members of the community may be drawn into the conflict as people begin to take sides. This is the crisis phase of the social drama. Such crises often reignite tensions that have been dormant within the society.
The redressive or remedial procedures used can take a number of forms. It is a reflexive period in which community members take stock of who they are, their communal values, and how they arrived at the conflict. The procedures used during this phase may be private, such as an elder offering sage advice to the parties centrally involved in the conflict. Other procedures are public, such as protests in the town square, formal speeches, and public trials. The Salem witch trials are an example of a public means of redress. This phase can also include payment of reparations or some form of sacrifice.
The final phase takes one of two forms. If the redressive actions were successful, the community will reintegrate and move beyond the schism (at least until another breach occurs). If the redressive actions were not successful, the community will fracture along the lines identified during the crisis phase. In smaller societies characterized by a high degree of mobility, individuals may physically move away from one another. In other groups, the two camps may erect barriers to prevent interactions. Social dramas are important events in communities and can be source material for other kinds of performances such as narrative retellings and commemorative songs and plays, all of which further legitimize the outcome of the social drama.36
Case Study: Establishing a New Capoeira Group
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines music, dance, and acrobatics with improvisational sparring. The traditional bearers of capoeira kept it alive despite persecution from the colonial Portuguese government and the Brazilian government until the mid-1930s. Even after that date, it was mostly associated with marginalized segments of the population. However, in the 1970s, several Brazilian capoeiristas began demonstrating and teaching their art abroad. This sparked international interest in capoeira and demand for teachers in nations such as the United States continues. In many cases, the teachers are apprentices to more established mestres (masters) in Brazil and maintain ongoing relationships with them.
While the teachers may continue to operate satellite groups under the primary mestre’s direction for years, tensions can erupt between a mestre in Brazil and the teachers abroad. This is precisely what happened with a group referred to here as Grupo Cultural Brasileiro (GCP). The mestre of GCP authorized one of his top students to begin teaching capoeira classes in a midwestern U.S. state. Eventually, demand for the classes grew, allowing the teacher to operate classes in two towns in the state, and two of his students were given the opportunity to start classes in new locations. All of the satellite groups were affiliated with the GCP; individuals wore shirts with the GCP logo and the mestre periodically visited the United States to give classes to the American students. Unbeknownst to most members of the group, the teacher and mestre had a falling out after one of the visits. The mestre had asked his teacher for a small sum of money (approximately $2,000) to pay for some repairs on the primary training facility in Brazil. The teacher agreed that it was a worthwhile expenditure but insisted that they had to discuss it with the U.S.-based board of directors before he could send the funds. Feeling that his authority was being slighted, the mestre demanded that certain individuals who he viewed as obstacles be removed from the board, and when the teacher explained that this was not possible according to the group’s bylaws, the mestre demanded that the group stop wearing the GCP logo. This disagreement constituted a breach under Turner’s model.
Several weeks later, an emergency board meeting was called to determine the proper course of action. In response, the mestre called the teacher’s protégés who were already teaching on their own and essentially asked them to take sides. The students were made aware of this crisis when, at one of their weekly classes, they were told to turn their t-shirts inside out so the logo would not show, and thereafter, they were not permitted to wear the shirts.
To resolve the conflict, the board, teacher, and mestre considered mediation, and the mestre and teacher spent considerable time talking about to various members of the community. These efforts at remediation failed, resulting in a schism. The students in the Midwest convened with the teacher, discussed the group’s values, and chose a new name and symbol to represent the group in the capoeira community at large. Now, nearly ten years later, the two groups continue to operate independently.