Trans-posing the Gaze: Marissa Soroudi’s Showgirls
By Gillian Sneed
In Technologies of Gender, feminist film theorist Teresa de Lauretis contends that the goal of women artists working behind the camera should not be to “destroy male-centered vision,” but rather “to effect another (italics mine) vision: to construct other objects and subjects of vision, and to formulate the conditions of representability of another social subject.”1 Indeed, it is this other social subject that Persian American conceptual artist and photographer, Marissa Soroudi (b. 7/12/82, New York City), discloses in her newest body of work, Showgirls.
While this series of color photographic light box images of men of various body types and ethnicities posing in burlesque drag may at first read as synonymous with that brand of queered kitsch originated by outlandish photographers such as the campy duo Pierre et Gilles, or fashion photographer David LaChapelle, there is more to these images than initially meets the eye. As viewers, we may come to these awkwardly posed portraits of hairy, overweight, and disheveled-looking drag queens with preconceived and stereotyped expectations of who and what these men are. We see a heavily inked, chubby Lola with pink gardenias in her bouffant, tittering behind un upraised hand, tattooed with the words “Death Wish” (Dallas, 2008), or a deflated middle-aged man dressed en femme in Geisha garb, replete with a black wig, yellow eye shadow, and a Japanese fan (Asia, 2008), and we assume they are “skagdrags”2, “boogers”3, “closet queens”4, or even washed up hustlers peddling their wares in seedy brothel. However, as Soroudi shows us, appearances are deceiving.
In reality, these men are not drag queens at all. Indeed, Soroudi has effectively turned the tables on all expectations of both the gendered power dynamics of these images and her role as the author of the gaze that frames and dominates them. Having worked as a stripper—a profession she undertook with the zeal of an undercover detective investigating the underbelly of the sex trade—she tasked herself with probing gender performativity and the dynamics of the gaze within that context. She ultimately approached her own clients and somehow convinced them to pose in drag for her outside of the club—in her own studio, no less. The results are varied: at times her subjects appear emotionally naked, exposing a deep sense of isolation and seclusion as in Jodie (2008), a bedraggled lady-of-the-night in fishnets, clutching her face in her hand; at other times her models effectively embody their own fantasies of the women they usually ogle, as in Vivian (2008), an Asian tart who poses for the camera in a seductive frontal position, her bikini zone artfully obscured by a glamorous disco ball.
In his essay, The Medusa Effect, art critic Craig Owens’ account of performing for the camera, he argues that when a performer strikes a pose for the gaze of another, it is a strategic move aimed at appropriating power. This is because in its mimicry of the immobilization enacted on the body by the objectifying gaze, the gesture of the pose is able to incapacitate the viewer’s gaze, forcing him to capitulate his dominance.5 Yet, this proposition is complicated by photographs like Soroudi’s, which are aimed at deconstructing very notions of the gaze to begin with.
By dressing these men up as stereotypes of femininity, she complicates the masquerade of gender, as described by Judith Butler in her pioneering book, Gender Trouble, in which she makes the convincing case that gender is not a stable or intractable identity, but rather one reinforced through repeated performances, social sanctions, and taboos.6 Drag, Butler tells us, “implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself,”7 deconstructing the notion of authentic gender identity. Through these faux-drag scenarios, however, Soroudi takes this a step further, revealing more layers of the instability of gender construction. In her re-staging of the sexualized looking situation initially enacted upon her own body in the strip club, she now functions as the ravenous spectator and author of fantasies; these former voyeurs are transformed into the objects of the gaze.
Showgirls does not question, as Craig Owens does, whether through their poses for her camera, Soroudi’s artificial she-men can or cannot reclaim the scopophilic power they once possessed in the strip club. Rather, she constructs a space in which these dynamics are laid bare, revealing polymorphous identifications that enable multiple gender and sexual subject positions. In so doing, she not only destabilizes the presumed gender of the cameraperson (and by extension, the viewer), but she also deliberately reinforces a complex network of interrelationships between the subject and the “other” of desire. Ultimately, it is in this way that she accomplishes a simultaneously witty and profound response to Teresa de Lauretis’s call for new female representations of other social subjects.
1 De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, 135.
2 Slang term for cross-dressers who don’t attempt to look like convincing women.
3 Slang term for unattractive drag queens.
4 Slang for men who cross-dress in secret.
5 Craig Owens, “The Medusa Effect; or, the Spectacular Ruse,” Art in America 72.1 (1984): 104.
6 Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 2006, 137.