Richard Armitage, gender trouble, and status expertise

[This is a theoretical post / building block.]

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rh206_177Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) importuned by the Sheriff (Keith Allen) in Robin Hood 2.6. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I’ve referred occasionally, particularly while discussing Guy of Gisborne, to what I’ve called Guy’s “gender trouble.” The first time I said it, no one noticed, and the second time, two very astute readers said, “What do you mean?”

I’ve been wanting to write about this idea for years, and just never felt I had the time. Recently a few things came together in my awareness of Armitage, and then I saw a Richard Armitage confession that made me think a lot, and Judi mentioned some of the questions around the gender elements of Guy’s appearance, so it seemed like a good time to start dealing with this question. My attention’s been fragmented, and I’m not sure this is going to be as well-organized as I’d like, but it’s time to starting making good on my insight about writing from the Fall if I want to get somewhere on my goals for the blog.

I’ll begin by defining what I mean (and don’t mean) by “gender trouble” and continue by talking in very general terms about how I think the concept illuminates pieces of Richard Armitage’s work — Guy of Gisborne in particular, but also almost every other major role he’s done from Paul Andrews in Between the Sheets, to the “role of his life” so far, in which gender is up for grabs: Thorin Oakenshield. I did a post on how aspects of this idea applied to John Porter in Strike Back 1.1 without, however, calling it “gender trouble.” I hope to write periodically about how I see this dynamic working itself out both in Armitage’s dramatic performances and its intersections with his performances of self.

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spooks701_035Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) expresses concern over Lucas North’s (Richard Armitage) capacity to return to work, in Spooks 7.1. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Longtime readers know that I’m a fairly strong opponent of the notion that it’s primarily biological qualities or “human nature” that affect our perception of and response to the person and work of Richard Armitage. My position on questions like this was heavily influenced by my discovery during grad school of the now-famous book, Gender Trouble (1990) by Judith Butler, professor of English at UC-Berkeley. In college, I learned that theorists had come to distinguish between “sex” (the physiological quality of being male or female) and “gender” (the cultural expression of being male or female). This division probably seems relatively uncontroversial, as simple observation of culture reveals changes in femininity and masculinity over time. Butler’s most important contribution to gender studies involved assertions against this view. Gender Trouble presented a series of essays that critiqued the vestiges of essentialist views of sex, gender, and sexuality in the theories of sex and gender then prevalent. Butler argued that sex itself is not inherent in a particular kind of a body, but culturally constructed through a series of acts over time that cause observers to associate (for example) the expression of masculinity in gender with the male physical body and the sexual desires of those two with the notion of a male kind of desire, or sexuality.

In other words, Butler’s most important contribution to gender studies was the idea that sex, gender, and sexuality are performative rather than inherent to a particular form of body. (NB: This assertion makes the concept particularly useful to examining the work of any actor.) On this view, seeing someone whom we identify as “male” is a matter not primarily of identifying the body (sex) of the person who occupies a gender, but rather of understanding the performed actions of the person in relationship to other actors and observers (including ourselves). A simplified way of putting this, on Judith Butler’s view, would be to say that a man is not so much a person who has a penis or a beard, but rather a person who performs masculinity successfully. To put it crudely — we know that Richard Armitage or one of his characters is a man not because he has the necessary (to us as viewers mostly hidden) primary or (in some cases visually prominent, as with the beard) secondary sex characteristics of a male (though he might / does), but rather because he acts like a man. And the masculine quality of a man is never something essential, but always a matter of context (personal, social, historical, cultural). This argument — that our current notions of binary sex are constituted by performances rather than physiology — is probably the most notorious claim associated with Butler’s work.

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vod1-161Harry (Richard Armitage) comes back for one last look at Geraldine (Dawn French) in Vicar of Dibley: The Handsome Stranger. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Hope everyone follows the argument that far, even if you disagree. Please note that Butler’s not claiming that there is no such thing as a body or that primary or secondary sex characteristics have no meaning — although, in a point that’s relatively less important to what I want to say about Richard Armitage, she would assert that the physiological qualities of the human body are much less binary than the scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have led us to think. Rather, on Butler’s view, the physiological quality of the body comes to have meaning through performances of gender. Her point would be that the perception and meaning of the apparent physiological qualities of sex are created by how people act and how others perceive those actions. So she’s claiming that our perception of the body is unavoidably constituted by culture and society. In order to have a particular physiological sex, Butler would say, one must act that sex out via a performance of gender. Only then, through perception, does one come to embody a particular sex.

Additionally, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, Butler went on to note that performances of sex, gender, and sexuality are not exclusively independent choices made by the person performing them. As a person becomes a man via his performance of masculinity, he does not decide himself or on his own or even necessarily consciously how to do so. Rather, in identifying himself as a man, performing masculinity, and experiencing male desire, he both acts in response to and in turn contributes to systems of social rules about masculinity. (I would call these “discourses,” but I know that raises hackles among a certain group of readers). These social rules (Foucault called them “disciplinary regimes” because they have the effect of coercing results) make a gender appear “natural” (so that we say that certain elements of performing masculinity are inherent, natural, biological, etc.) Note that an important component of this activity in our society is the performance of the other gender in the binary system, as well as the performance of gender transgressions of various kinds — so that when fans like us react to a performance as particularly “masculine,” we not only act to define that term, but in doing so, we also perform our gender (whatever that is) ourselves.

***ep3_153John Porter makes a crack about “conjugal visits” when Layla (Jodhi May) appears in Chikurubi Prison, in Strike Back 1.3. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Drawing in Foucault raises a third essential moment of Butler’s argument: performances of gender are a means of constituting and negotiating power between parties involved. Not all performances are successful, not all are created equal; some are deliberately parodic; but a successful performance of gender is one that offers its performers a means of taking or losing or mediating power as the performer desires.

Summary of this section, then:

When I write, in the analysis of a scene, that an Armitage character finds himself in gender trouble or creates gender trouble, I am arguing that something in Armitage’s performance of gender in that particular setting makes the traditional or expected gender/power axis unstable.

I would also argue that Armitage’s games with, or even at times outright subversion of, gender performances constitute a striking feature of his acting style, which brings me to my next point, but.

How could it be otherwise? Two caveats.

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ns4-325Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) kisses Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) in episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Before I get there. First. Longtime readers of the Armitage blogosphere may remember a few posts that RAFrenzy wrote in response to Strike Back and Spooks 9 about Richard Armitage as alpha or beta male in various roles he played (particularly here and here). I’m not so much disagreeing with her as taking a different, more contextual, performance-oriented route to approaching my discussion of Armitage and gender. The main similarity in her argument to mine is the congruence that we can observe varieties of ways to appear male and that Armitage’s work mixes these varieties up in interesting ways. However, I wouldn’t have chosen that schematic for explaining Armitage’s work. First, in its original articulation, the alpha / beta distinction is essentialist in its reliance on dynamics of animal behavior. Second, I haven’t found it very useful for explaining human interactions, mostly because the exercise of gender power is so much more subtle than simply whether someone is acting aggressively or less aggressively. In my perception, power, its expression, and its exercise are more complicated than simply dominance and submission, leadership or hanging back, silence or articulation. Alpha / beta discussions assume the very standards that I’m trying to critique here — and that I think Richard Armitage’s performances often subvert. I want to decide from within the scene just exactly how Armitage’s work assess and attacks, overtakes, or undermines the gender dynamics, not start from a previous assumption about what exactly constitutes dominance (and whether Armitage’s performance achieves that standard). Finally, the circulation of gender performances and power are not unidirectional; they do not result solely from the choices of a performer, but also emerge in the responses provoked in him and which he provokes in others. I’m hoping that gender trouble will provide a more diffuse, less rigid framework for looking at Armitage’s work than comparisons to biologistic schemata.

And second: It’s really important to me to emphasize the contextual quality of the arguments I will be making. Although I think certain patterns in Armitage’s manipulation of or responses to gender / power in his dramatic work can be observed, I am not talking about Armitage’s own personal notions of gender or sexuality, about which I have the necessary information to say exactly nothing, and I will keep it that way. I know that some people will misunderstand what I’m saying here on purpose in order to serve their own ends, so let me say clearly: I AM TALKING ONLY ABOUT ARMITAGE’S PERFORMANCES OF SEX, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY HERE. When I say, “Armitage performs sex / gender / sexuality in the following way,” I am not saying “Armitage’s sex / gender / sexuality is as follows.” To assert “Armitage performs desire” is not the same as asserting “Armitage desires.” I have a lot of information about the first and none about the second. I hope everyone keeps this difference in mind as they read these posts.

So, to summarize what I’ve been trying to say so far: Armitage’s acting draws interest, I will argue, via its gender performances.

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ep2_235Lucas North (Richard Armitage) the moment after kissing Sarah for the first time in Spooks 7.2. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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What I want to add as a second but equally important point is also verges on something I’ve talked about before; that is, Armitage’s use of power and status negotiations between characters in his acting. Understanding Armitage’s work from the perspective of performances of gender enhances our capacity to evaluate them as performances that are inherently and always about power and negotiating power. Even more than the creation of gender trouble in Armitage’s acting, the theme of status negotiation may be the most striking feature of his work. Armitage is what one calls, as I’ve mentioned before, a status expert. At the time I broached that topic, there was some suspicion of what I was saying, apparently, but I think it’s perhaps clearer now that the matter of power plays a role in his own thinking, in light of his own remarks about his status vis-a-vis Gandalf (and how Ian McKellen gave Armitage his status) and what he’s said about the nature of Thorin’s leadership in some of the press about The Hobbit.

Armitage uses both conscious and unconscious moves, along with an employment of some of his more marked physical characteristics, to negotiate power. I’m thinking about things like the variable permeability of physical boundaries that he signals with his body; hand, chin, lip, mouth, eye, and head position playing counterintuitively against the status he gains by being tall; particular gestures that we see often enough from him that they appear to belong to a repertoire (though Thorin Oakenshield has significantly complicated an assessment of such tendencies). I’m also thinking of characteristic styles of speaking, particular vocal timbres and pitches that signal particular emotional responses; and the way that all of the above are used to create responses that in turn provoke.

I had originally planned to talk about some examples of this second point, but I am going to leave it for now and hopefully move on to examples as soon as I can.

And I want to add one last point — Armitage’s performances of gender and power are executed in ways that may be likely to appeal to particular segments of a female audience. Now there’s a cliffhanger assertion.

More soon.

~ by Servetus on July 29, 2013.

101 Responses to “Richard Armitage, gender trouble, and status expertise”

  1. “I know that some people will misunderstand what I’m saying here on purpose in order to serve their own ends…” Question:

    When you state this, do you mean it as a general assertion of human behavior in the inevitable statistical sense of the number of possible reactions, or are you specifically thinking about one or more people you have chosen no to name in order not to fuel the fire? What catches my attention is the use of the words “on purpose”. I ask because – if you did not have anyone specific in mind when you wrote that – then it makes it sound like you believe that those who say they disagree with you or simply do not understand what you are saying or where you are coming from. are pretending to do so in order to rile you up. The whole sentence stuck me as strange. If your reasons are private and none of my business, please accept my apologies. Thank you.

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    • Whenever I break into a controversial topic, someone misstates my actual position despite my ability to point out with textual evidence that what I said neither states nor implies their misstatement. This has happened to me at least five times now. And no amount of me pointing out to those readers that I didn’t say what they said I said, nor is it a necessary conclusion of what I said, has stopped attacks on me. I love thoughtful discussion. But I’m no longer naive. I know this blog has readers who are not of good will. Not understanding and disagreement with a claim are very different things than saying, “Servetus, you are saying X” when I am not in fact doing that and the text of my assertions is visible for all to see.

      You might extrapolate from what I would say here something that is a possible extrapolation, but which I am not saying. It’s fine to extrapolate — your thoughts are your own and not mine — but readers need to take responsibility for those thoughts as their own extrapolations and not tage them as assertions of mine.

      Since I think the issue that I’m talking about it is pretty clear from the examples given in that paragraph, I don’t think I need to say any more. If it turns out that I do need to say a lot more, I’ll continue to write on the topic as it interests me, but I’ll simply close comments. The level of time and energy suck pointing out other people’s cognitive errors is no longer affordable in my world.

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    • Another reason for pretending not to understand this discussion may be to further someone else’s agenda having to do with sexuality … – which is expressly not the topic. Such a professed lack of understanding could drive the discussion in a different direction, on purpose. Something the writer anticipates.
      I’m only guessing.

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      • it might be said that I occasionally write via aporias. There are topics I never discuss but I also never say what they are.

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  2. I don’t understand how the first element, the physiological fact of being male ( or female), can be performative – unless the term “physiological qualities” means something different from physiological. What is the definition of the noun “sex” if not the fact that one has the equipment and chromosomes , i.e. the biological characteristics, of either male or female –

    Aside from that, which I know you will explain, can this be boiled down to “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck,” it will be perceived as a duck, and if it is perceived as a duck, than it is a duck?

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    • On the first point — it’s a point that’s akin to the argument that scholars of race have been making for several generations now (scholars of race got there first) — not that physiological differences don’t exist (they may. I’m not a strong poststructuralist, so I’d even go so far as to say they possibly do) but that our perceptions also create them. There are many physiological differences in humans that we do not invest with meaning. It is at first the choice to invest the physiological characteristic with meaning (skin color and other features in the case of racism; secondary sex characteristics in the case of sexism) that creates the notion of (in our culture) binary sex as a characteristic. The means of making that investment, Butler would say, is performative (rather than essential).

      I’m not sure to what the pronoun in the second paragraph (this / it) refers. But I’m trying pretty hard here following Butler not to create another ontological category. I’m talking only about perceptions of gender as a means of power negotiations.

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      • The “it” meant the specific individual being perceived, i.e it’s up to the duck to act like and look like how we think a duck should act, and then we’ll recognize it as a duck. But Ok, anyway- you answered my question based on the first paragraph.

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        • ah, I see. yes, I am saying that for the purposes of gender the perception and conditioning of the performance serves as the reality. This is a point that works really well with regarding to talking about acting. I’m less convinced of its applicability to things like (say) childbirth. I do happen to think people have bodies.

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      • You would be surprised knowing sex is a matter of quantity and not quality even in genetic. We all have the same “possibility” then something (depending you are XX or XY) develops or not. Even physiological sexuality is not a Yes/No thing. Everything is more blurred than we can think.

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        • This was an issue that Butler had been interested in when she wrote her early works — the assignment of gender to gender-ambiguous bodies and the gender “misidentification” of people with a particular chromosome combination that would indicate one gender as a member of the other gender, which is apparently fairly frequent (something like 10% of the population). The tendency in the twentieth century, too, was to constitute chromosome combinations like (say) XXY as “errors” rather than as legitimate sexes in their own right, due to cultural constitutions of gender.

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  3. Very interesting post. I will read your next ones on the subject with great pleasure and interest (I also have to read the ones you linked here). I’d say I agree with you about gender perception and the difference betwen sex and gender. I like your cliffhanger final assertion. Waiting for more 😉

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    • That question (why Armitage and women?) was the one that finally pushed me out of the closet on this question — I don’t know how this is going to go or how regular this will be but I will be doing my best.

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  4. Fascinating. Looking forward to the next part immensely. Am particularly interested in this as I soak up most everything I can find on gender politics and self-identification in the Middle East and South-East Asia (particularly the latter — India’s hijras ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijra_(South_Asia) are an example) and am very interested in this topic here in our own culture as well. I’ll look forward to more. 😀 Hooray!

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    • That’s a nice example of what Butler would see as instance of potential gender troubling as it demonstrates her point about the cultural creation of physiological sex (in this case the physiological quality of male is a category that doesn’t really apply). Butler would also call lesbianism a different gender.

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      • Yes. While we were in India in December, I actually saw the hijra in action, along with some of the different status variations of the phenomenon. We also saw a version of it in Bali, but not from an informed perspective.

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  5. Okay, I’m following, interesting stuff, learning new words (biologistic schemata). But did that last line mean you’re really going to tell us? Why women of a “particular segment” cough (age?) and Armitage? Or am I still just water wings in the shallow end.

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    • And something even more diabolical raises it’s head in my world…is he doing it, knowing exactly what he’s doing? I mean, fully understanding his appeal to a “particular segment”? Because then I feel, manipulated, cheated, not sure? Or is is back to our old friends, biology, society, training…it’s is so late at night for me to still be typing….

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      • I think it’s part of the success of his performance that we can’t really tell. All performances are to some extent intentional and manipulative. They also always have unconscious elements.

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    • yeah, I’m going to hypothesize about that.

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  6. Tip-toeing around your stake, Servetus… I admire your courage and wait eagerly for part two; though I’ll probably find myself in disagreement as I often do, these posts are always stimulating. Thank you.

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    • Disagreement is fine. Just given stuff in the fandom I need to make clear what I’m not discussing 🙂

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  7. Completely fascinating. You are stretching my brain, and I love it! Please continue as you are able to do so. I really feel you are onto something essential with regard to the perrenial question: Why Richard?

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  8. I am hanging on your every word. The reason being I have been confused by the wide range of comments concerning the different perceptions of Thorin’s “actions” in the Hobbit. Is he flirting with Bilbo in one scene? Does he truly feel his manhood is being questioned when Gandalf takes over the company? I only saw him at first as man conflicted by his past…I had to go back and rewatch it to look for those scenes. Then there’s the FANART. What a wide range that is! At least now I think someone is ‘splainin’ it to me. I am not ready yet to get into the whole Mr. Thornton thing yet. Thanks, Serv. xoxox

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    • YES. FANTASTIC comment here. One of the recent things that helped to push me over to speaking about this was the confusion among fans on so many levels about Thorin’s gender / sexuality. It’s an interesting problem — do dwarves have gender? And the fact that fan response to that question (on the level of Thorin confessions, fanfic, discussions about honor, etc.) is so multivalent means that Thorin is a prime example of gender trouble.

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  9. This is really fascinating and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and the readers’ reactions. While RA may or may not be familiar with Butler, I suspect he gives much thought to these types of issues when creating a character’s biography.
    For example, why insist on remaining nude during Lucas’ torture scenes when the director offered to allow him to wear some clothing? Was it because of the stark contrast between traditional hallmarks of physical masculinity which exude strength, power and control compared with the degradation, humiliation and utter powerlessness caused by what was happening, and the recognition of a person being considered vulnerable when unclothed (at least according to some cultural standards)? I don’t join CarlyQ’s fear that he works within blurred gender roles to ensnare a female audience of any type–I think it’s simply an actor making choices so that the character makes sense to him and becomes more alive. For example, his recent comment that he would have asked Tolkien if Thorin had a love of his life, and his surmising there would likely have been a princess, was not, I believe, a moment of “Gee, let’s see how many of these ladies will say ‘awwww, isn’t that adorable'” but really a question a thinking actor would have. Thorin as heir to the throne would certainly have had a match, even with the scarcity of dwarf females, because of his status, whether he wanted one or not. Power and wealth would have made him an attractive choice and the necessity to continue the line of Durin would have played a part as well. But it is much more complicated–was it a political match or a love match or both? If he “lost” her along with the throne, was she killed during the attack (prompting even more personal sorrow) did she reject him because he no longer had status and had failed to protect his people, or even her own family (increasing Thorin’s humiliation and shame) or (what I believe) did his shame and need to take back Erebor cause him to jettison someone who was personally meaningful to foster the welfare of his people (highlighting his nobility)? There are hundreds of clues as to Thorin’s character which would have been filled in if Tolkien stated whether or not Thorin had a partner or possible partner and what his feelings toward her and interactions with her were like. RA is an intelligent enough actor to have considered the possibilities to form his character. Does he smile at Kili simply because he is fond of his nephew or is he also wistfully envisioning a son he didn’t have? Would he be a less bitter man-even with having lost his throne-if he had regular interactions with a partner? How would Thorin’s exhibited masculinity be different depending on the answer to the question RA would have liked Tolkien to answer?

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    • I think it’s unlikely that Armitage has read Butler. Although it’s a kind of academic bestseller (and came out before he went to drama school), it’s not the kind of book that anyone would pick up casually unless they were incredibly interested in central questions of feminism and I don’t read him as that. Establishing a chain of causality doesn’t require me to postulate him having read it, however — Butler is describing general forces operating in our world. He wouldn’t have to be explicitly aware of them to have them operate within his thinking. What I’m saying is that we pick up indices of the issue of gender trouble in his work because gender trouble is a feature of our world. We can use Butler to help us understand it because she describes that phenomenon. I’m mostly going to leave Butler behind after this — but I needed her to establish that gender is performative rather than essential.

      I think you’re absolutely correct in what you say about Armitage’s remarks about Thorin’s “lost love.” If he thinks about Thorin as an entity, one of his primary questions is who are Thorin’s most important relationships going to be with. And I agree that the fact that he wants to fulfill some sort of realism in certain settings that in turn involves toplessness is also an index of his thinking imaginatively about what realism involves. (Realism is also an aesthetic effect; we could call its form verisimilitude. We could talk about that, too, but it’s a more conventional effect of all acting at the moment. Realistic/naturalistic performances are currently in style.) What that assertion (Armitage is thinking about how to make something look real) points out to me is that gender trouble (gender / sex / power negotiations) are a feature of our world, whether Armitage addresses them explicitly or not.

      Now: it is also observable –we have seen it– that a statement about Thorin’s lost love is going to provoke, has provoked, certain reactions in an audience listening to that remark. That is *also* a gender performance (on both sides — Armitage’s statement, audience responses). But it is a separate gender performance than the question of how who Thorin might have loved affects Armitage’s performance of Thorin.

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  10. I’m looking forward to future posts on this subject, to see how you apply this to specific characters. right now what you’ve said is just floating around in my brain, waiting for examples to apply it to in order for me to get a real grasp on what you’re saying 🙂

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    • yeah. The concept itself took enough space to explain that I thought I should stay away from examples. Although the illustrations may give you something to think about. But the days when I can write 10k word posts are probably over at least temporarily.

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  11. What a fascinating post, especially your cliff-hanger! If you’re going where I think you’re going, I look forward immensely to further posts on this subject. I don’t know if it is a deliberately malicious manipulative method of acting designed to appeal to a certain “type”. I think it more likely that he saw the response to N&S and purposely honed those mannerisms/methods in order to keep up the success. I cannot imagine how such a response as he won with N&S would not inform his further work. It seems to me that he is obsessed with his work, and having cottoned on to what succeeds, he would be a fool not to capitalize on it. And a fool he is not, I think.

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    • This! I agree! (but I think is manipulative…)

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    • I don’t think there’s a real strong line between doing something deliberately and doing something unconsciously, except in our heads (do I feel manipulated?) I would say that on some level if we feel manipulated, that’s the sign of a unsuccessful performance. Performances are supposed to hide their traces so they appear “natural.” For myself, I don’t ever feel manipulated by Armitage himself, certainly not when I am watching his work, perhaps occasionally when I am watching him. I often feel manipulated in the last year or so, however, by the Hobbit marketing machine. If we want to talk about maliciousness — I think it’s hard to charge an actor with maliciousness (and I know you are not, but what you say gets to the question of intentionality). An actor just wants you to believe him in a role, to find his work convincing. Presumably the viewer wants that as well. If that succeeds, is that malicious? Is some harm intended? Yes, the actor gains from having succeeded, but that was his goal all along. It would only be malicious if the actor sought to gain something from the interaction that was not actually real. But everything about acting is illusion — the point of acting is that you believe something that is not real while watching it.

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      • Yeah, in acting, both the actor and the audience are willing participants in the deception. As an audience member you know it’s a story, but you’ve agreed to believe it for the purpose of your own gratification. Intentional, yes. Deliberate, yes. But how can it be malicious? I don’t think that’s possible.

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  12. I wonder if all handsome actors are analyzed as deeply as this young man has been. Maybe he is just a really cool guy.

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    • Nothing I said precludes him being “a really cool guy,” Janet. But this is an analytical blog, so I’m going to analyze. In the end, I will never know what Richard Armitage is really like. My data don’t support that. What I’m looking at here is his performance — I am evaluating his work and its effect on me.

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  13. Oh, what an interesting and thought-provoking post! I like the way you (or maybe it’s Butler) distinguish between sex and gender — that’s very helpful to me.
    Yes, it seems to me that gender roles are socially and culturally dictated, like when people say that if a guy does a certain thing, he’ll “lose his Man Card,” as if being a man is not just a biological fact, but something that can be diminished or lost by one’s thoughts or actions. And I felt like women didn’t have this same problem, because (thanks in large part to feminism) women today are able to do many things once considered unfeminine and still be womanly. Not entirely, but mostly.
    And with respect to Richard Armitage’s performances, I’ve always believed that the reason he has garnered such a devoted female fandom was because in his roles he shows us a man who thinks and acts the way women think men think and act. He communicates the thoughts and feelings of his character in a way that makes complete sense to me. Still, I couldn’t figure out why it should be that other talented actors didn’t produce performances that resonated in me on such a profound level — they should have, because the attitudes and emotions these others expressed were also universally understandable. But they were being expressed by someone who was different from me in some indefinable way (sorry, I don’t know if that makes sense. I mean that I would have to think to myself, “If I were him, I would feel that way,” and not “Yes, I feel that way too”).
    Until you expressed this idea of negotiating power and status in relationships, I couldn’t figure out why he had such an effect on me, but I think that may be a big part of it.
    I’m looking forward to more on this subject. Thanks, Servetus.

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    • Leaving aside questions about what feminism has achieved (too big a topic for me), I think it’s an important question about why so many women identify *with* Armitage either as opposed to or even as they find him attractive on gender terms — and his performances of power through gender get at that question.

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      • Yes! Women identify with him, as well as finding him attractive. I see that in the fanfic depictions of his characters.

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        • I think women identify with him because what he brings to characters is the universe of complex emotions common to all humans. How that is filtered though (or perhaps filtered by) gender is fascinating and the interpretation of the actor’s work need not be limited to the gender identification chosen by the actor. There is no reason to think men aren’t capable of responding similarly, although due to societal constraints, many men would not feel comfortable discussing or identifying with certain common aspects of the human condition, such as vulnerability based on something other than lack of political, financial or physical power or deep desire unconnected to money, power or sex (the act). Although, oddly enough, how many great pieces of literature and art, created by men, have explored these very things? This is why I think traditional American gender stereotypes (and I limit this to the US as it is the only place I’ve lived) does a disservice to men–they are culturally conditioned not to explore “non-masculine” emotions or perceptions. But that’s a whole other topic!

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          • Note that I am not saying “gender is the only way to express emotion” or “gender is the only way Armitage expresses emotion.” I am saying “gender is a prominent way in which Armitage does that.”

            All actors strive to portray emotions. All audiences interpret particular strategies for expressing emotions within the cultural frameworks that condition their responses. What makes a particular actor unique are the means to which he resorts for doing that. What I will argue here is that Armitage often does that by subtle creations of gender trouble.

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            • Sorry, Servetus. I suppose I was unclear–I meant the emotions which his performance evokes from the viewer and was not entirely focusing on just how RA expresses himself. Long day here and words are not my best friend at the moment. LOL.

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  14. Lots of food for thought here. I’m looking forward to further posts on this subject.

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  15. Wow, to say this post is thought-provoking would be an understatement. Having discovered Thorin fan fic, I was wondering why character ran the gamut of sexual preferences. Watching the movie I did not feel any sexual ambiguity from the characters. it just wasn’t on my radar. I even asked my son who used to write and read a lot of Manga why there is so much m/m parings for this movie. Was it because Thorin gave BIlbo a big hug on the carrock? He said that happens all the time in fan fic and the carrock scene didn’t have anything to do with it. But would this choice of hugging create gender trouble and would it not be the director’s choice? I guess what I would like to explore is how much gender trouble comes from Richard. the writers or director since film is such a collaborative medium. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I apologize in advance if I am off base. I am still unclear on what gender trouble is exactly. Is it sending a subtle message of gender ambiguity? Is it something old movie stars like John Wayne didn’t explore and now actors feel freer to do? Like all good writers, you raise many more questions than you answer. Well done, even if your post went way over my head.

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    • I have to sit here by Kathy Jones for a bit! Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who didn’t realize there was such a question about Thorin. I don’t regularly read other blogs, or get on Tumblr, though I have read some Hobbit fanfic that I saw on Legenda. I was aware of Bagginshield and Durincest but not that there was so much discussion about that among fans.
      I’m curious to hear what you think about how much of it is up to PJ and other directors/writers, what feeling or question are they trying to raise with these moments. Or is it only Mr. Armitage in that scene that would bring on that discussion. Ex. If another actor were portraying Thorin and hugging Bilbo, would there still be so much discussion? What about a Fili/Bilbo hug or a Kili/Bilbo hug.
      Thanks Kathy, for reading my mind.

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      • I’m confused too ladies 😉 that’s why I said it will be floating around in my brain until the future posts with examples. I would expect this kind of discussion about Guy, but not Thorin. Thorin seems very “manly” to me, so the thought that there is “gender trouble” in relation to him has thrown me off. and personally, that word “trouble” is prickling under my skin, it makes me feel defensive for some reason.

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        • I’m totally with you on Guy! That poor man suffered more creepy attention from the sheriff ….I’ll never get over the look on his face at the arrow slap to the backside… 0_0
          Now that we’ve mentioned Guy I’m thinking about how “sleek” Mr. Armitage has been in most of his pre-hobbit work and also how graceful he seems to naturally be and I wonder if that contributes to the trouble?

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        • She means that word in the same sense as that song, “Wade in the Water” … “for the Lord’s gonna trouble the water.” It means something like “stir up,” “roil,” or in its figurative sense, to say something troubles one means that one is occupied with it. I picked the concept on purpose in place of the more common “gender confusion” because I don’t think anyone, Armitage, characters or fellow actors, is actually confused about gender.

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          • thank you for that clarification 🙂 that word kept throwing up walls for me when I tried to wrap my head around this. I was looking at it as “gender confusion” 😉

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          • yes, i needed that clarification too. I was reading this post and was a little perturbed as to why what you were describing was considered “trouble” (i.e. something negative, something needing to be rectified).

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        • To add a bit, this is also part of why I put that long caveat in there. There are some people who are going to claim that what I’m saying is that Armitage is somehow not masculine. I’m not claiming that. I’m saying that his performances make traditional hierarchical gender axes less stable in productive ways.

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          • You know I find him terribly feminine myself so…NOT….where was I.. oh yes, but the innate grace and the vigorous wax/shave regimen make him more gender ambiguous as Guy or Porter or Lucas? N’est pas? I mean, to me, Thorin is the least gender ‘troubled’ character I think I’ve seen him play.
            I’m sure you’re going to clear all this up….err, please?

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            • I was just thinking how much more fun this conversation would be, on a beach, in Greece, with some wine and Mr. Armitage moderating. (and giving me the odd definition here or there to words that are beyond my current vocab)

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            • I think it depends on how you interpret a character who doesn’t have a human gender. Some people are more inclined to accept that silence and not think about it, while others read the silence on gender in a different way, by filling in certain blanks in the story.

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              • that’s a really interesting perspective. I fit the former category, and have always been baffled by the latter type of people.
                i just assumed that all the unconventional pairings of Thorin with this character or Thorin with that character were because fandom … is fandom. Fandom is just nutty. But this casts it in a different light… that maybe fanfic writers (and fan art illustrators) are just experimenting with the concept of gender. Maybe their conceptions of gender and sexuality are just more open-minded than mine…

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                • If you wanted to ask questions about gender (or if gender were more fluid that it is represented as being), fantasy would be the best place to accomplish that. LOTR is a *very* male world (PJ’s attempts to add a female character to it notwithstanding).

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            • I’m there with you about Thorin and seeing no “gender trouble” performance . He seems all male Dwarf to me. Ha!

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        • Those are all great questions, Kathy Jones. It’s true that fanfic, manga, etc. are more open to all kinds of gender trouble (I read a fanfic yesterday where a pregnant Kili, who’d been impregnated by Fili, was observed by a proud Thorin to be giving birth to cats with Bilbo as midwife). Some genres demand greater or lesser avoidance in adherence to gender convention.

          Part of talking something about as gender trouble is gets away from saying, “this is happening because the actor / director did x”. It points out that gender readings and acts come from all over the place.

          One consequence of gender trouble can be sending a message about ambiguous gender. That’s not the only one, though.

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        • homoeroticism is one permutation of gender trouble, as is drag.

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      • You are welcome.

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  16. Não sei o porque de toda essa análise e discussões, só sei que, para mim, RA reune em si mesmo as caracteristicas e a beleza dos 3 homens mais lindos e machos que conheço: Hugh Jackman, Gerard Buttler e James MacVoy.
    Em poucas palavras, RA é para mim o resumo de tudo oque vem a minha mente quando penso na palavra HOMEM !! Beijos! Obrigada por postar…

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    • Thanks for the comment and welcome. My response would be: why do you identify those particular features / actors as masculine? That’s the kind of question that Butler seeks to answer.

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  17. Well, , I’m going to reveal myself as an intellectual lightweight here, but I just don’t understand the connection with gender performance and power negotiations. I have not read Butler or Foucault. Are you saying that the performance of masculine gender is to appear dominant, and the performance of feminine gender is to appear to be submissive? So that when Armitage uses “feminine” attributes in his performance WHILE he is also performing those of a “masculine” nature, that = gender trouble? Sorry for being dense!

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    • No. I’m saying something pretty different. I’m saying that the performance of gender and power contingent on particular situations in which we see it expressed. Masculine is *not* the same as dominant; feminine is *not* the same as submissive. Gender trouble results from any situation in which gender and power relations begin to appear unstable because of the actions of the participants.

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      • OK. I’m going to back out of this because I really don’t undertand. The performance of gender and power is contingent on particular situations in which we see it expressed. Maybe I’ll understand when you give examples in a later post. Sorry! :-/ Don’t pay any attention to me.

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        • We can’t give a definition to gender or power until we see them. They do not have essential definitions outside of a particular setting in which we identify them. Their definitions depend on their context. (This is why we cannot say masculine=dominant for every case.)

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  18. Here’s another example of gender trouble that appeared recently:

    http://jezebel.com/5946643/reddit-users-attempt-to-shame-sikh-woman-get-righteously-schooled

    A woman appears in public as a matter of course with a lot of facial hair and someone is so disturbed that he takes a picture of it and posts it on reddit.

    Power iterations:

    — woman appears at herself, without bothering to shave / depilate in order to conform to western conventions of femininity. She thus has both prominent breasts and noticeable facial hair and apparently no shame. [Asserts power by not altering her body]
    — observer so troubled by this that he not only takes a picture, but also posts it for discussion, apparently with object that women with facial hair should be discursively disciplined. Why? What is the threat of a woman with facial hair? [Asserts power by attempt to discipline woman for not altering her body]
    — observers of picture begin to discuss the incident, thus interacting with gender norms, both reinforcing those norms [ick, it’s gross for a woman to have facial hair, she should shave it off] and questioning them.
    — story makes it back to woman, who writes a rather kind post explaining why she doesn’t shave [both asserts power — I have a reason for not shaving — but also accepts the boundaries of the discussion, as her comments imply that she accepts the judgment of some observers that she is not beautiful]
    — discursive disciplining goes on in the comments, with some people arguing that she is misrepresenting her religion, her position is not innerly consistent, while others argue that she has high self-esteem, etc.

    What we have here is the case of a person standing in a line somewhere, reading. Gender trouble occurs because of the enforcement of gender norms — for a woman in the US, standing in line somewhere with a beard is transgressive.

    Note that while gender trouble always in some way challenges power norms, in some cases it ends up reaffirming them (especially if the trouble is able to be suppressed or disciplined) and in some cases it ends up destroying them.

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  19. I am glad am I late to this one. At first I was not sure what to say, but I have it now. I think it is culture, what ones culture deems ok. Culture can be be as what ones family has as there culture, or country etc. Last springs class comes back to mind for me on this one. It seems I really learned a lot in that class ( back to collage soon again). I also think that people think that there normal is the right normal. Is there such a thing as normal? What is right for one may not be for someone else.

    I must get ready for lots of hugs and kisses in less than two weeks. Mr. 70’s family’s culture is big on this and after 24 years with him I guess I am used to it. My poor teen sons, they live it.

    Looking forward to what you have to say next.

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    • hugging and kissing you!

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      • Thanks! Now just need to work on the polka, oh I forgot I don’t dance, well in public or around Mr. 70. I am sure someone will want to dance too. His family aunts, uncles and cousins are such fun.

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  20. I am massively intrigued by this prologue, Servetus. I am not quite sure I know where you are gonna go with this, but it’s probably going to set off an avalanche… 79 comments on this post alone (and I have not read through them, apologies). Gender preception and construction is something that I am hugely interested in. In fact, had I not decided on a degree in photography, I would’ve applied for an MA in gender studies. I must look into Butler – I don’t think I came across her work when I did my first degree a hundred years ago…
    (PS: Half way through *ooof*, just taking a break before “Endspurt”… Should be out later today.)

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  21. Very much looking forward to the next instalment, Serv. As with many of your analytical posts, I spent quite some time down the rabbit hole chasing previous links so I could fully grasp your meaning- most intriguing!

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  22. thank you for posting the link to the story about the woman with facial hair. it made my day. I have re-read this post three or four times. the word that is bothering me is “trouble.” I can’t get my head around it, it seems like the wrong word. I want it to be gender bending or elastic, not gender trouble. Maybe I am missing the entire point?

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    • see the comments above in response to questions about “trouble.” Another reason to use “trouble” here is because of the matter of questioning the hierarchies. In a lot of the scenes that are most intriguing to me, the power problem caused by gender play is as significant as the gender play itself.

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  23. Interesting concepts–they harken back to some women and gender studies doc classes I took a few years ago.

    As to whether or not the gender performance theory/concept is controversial, I can’t say–then there is Erving Goffman’s theory about one’s own impression management as performance. But that’s another essay. Ha!. Each of us has a lens (or two, or three) through which we view the world and form our opinions about how to understand our world. I’m not so objectivist to think that anyone’s opinion is fact. So no reason to get one’s nitey in a knot about it. Ha! Rather, reading other people’s opinions, provides a stimulus for further reflection.

    So, thanks for continually making us think with your insightful essays.

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    • what’s controversial is the assertion that physiological sex is constructed by gender. I agree with Butler but I can see why people would disagree.

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  24. I’ve been looking forward to this analysis and it’s going to take me awhile to digest all you’ve written, but I’m wondering if I’m on the right track: the gist of the theory is our sex is based on our genitalia; however we perform a gender based on what’s accepted/expected from our culture?

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    • kind of.

      the 80s feminist would have said sex (male / female) =physiognomy; gender=cultural standards about being male or female (masculine / feminine). Butler would have said that sex is also performed, that there’s no difference between sex and gender. The aspect of the claim that performance constitutes a sex is less important to me than the bigger issue, which is that we determine someone else’s sex or gender primarily based on his / her performance of same.

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  25. […] interesting. Thus this scripting — whether I like it or not — makes the show ripe for a gender trouble analysis. In particular, the Paul / Alona relationship is conceived along these lines. Alona is performing […]

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  26. […] and reassurance works so well in Sparkhouse (and it could be read as a subtle permutation of gender trouble, to some extent) is that it comes, not from an obvious place of strength, but from a clear place of […]

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  27. […] But the Cinemax interview raised a question for me that’s germane to Armitage’s broader appeal to female audiences, a matter that’s come up here and there over the years. Why is it that Armitage’s fan base is so heavily skewed toward women? Why does a certain kind of woman fall for Armitage? Many answers can be offered to that question and this post doesn’t seek to mention, let alone plumb, them all. Obviously, his pronounced talent and physical beauty both play a role in his appeal. I could also list his breakthrough in North & South as a costume drama hero with all sorts of traditional appeal to female readers; his tendency to play heroes or very sympathetic anti-heroes; and so on. I have other answers I’ll explore more fully as I keep writing, one of which relates to the regular involvement of his characters in status games and gender trouble. […]

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  28. […] having babies, but of building and perpetuating things), even though both modern and premodern men display the characteristic desires of men that signal and thus perform their masculinity to onlooker…. To make a much-too-bald distinction, the male gaze exists in both cases, but the pre-modern male […]

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  29. […] thing most on my mind after last night is the way Armitage genders Proctor, as it seems like a significant portion of the way in which he creates the […]

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