Scarleteen, a sexuality and relationships website for teens and emerging adults, defines gender as “a web of characteristics that are seen or presented as distinguishing between male and female.” Note: this does not mean either male or female, although it can. This web of characteristics can be assigned, or chosen, or built. The characteristics might involve sex—which may or may not involve genitals—also social roles, feelings, behaviors, presentation, or appearance. The characteristics can change. They can be round and loud as an O. They can be a binary, a field, an arrow or an error. They might affect sexuality, but they are not the same as sexuality. Gender can shimmer. It is constructed, and it is social.
When we’re trying to talk about gender, it’s important to try and say what it is first. We can fail better forever.
Because gender is a social construct, it is in conversation with—against, besides—the society that builds it. And since white colonialism, which is connected to late-stage capitalism, kind of barfed all over everything (is still barfing: huge chunks, many shades and textures), gender must negotiate not only with our own cultures—singular, plural, still-becoming—but with the gender system that whiteness has imposed on us all. Remember: rejection is a kind of negotiation. So is hiding out. Last year one of my students wanted to come out to our class every day. It was fucking exhausting for everyone involved and also, fucking brilliant. I learn so much from them.
Obviously (when you see me) I am a white person, and less obviously I have felt safe in my body, so for me, recognizing GENDER AS SOCIAL CONSTRUCT most often means shutting up and holding space. It means asking more questions instead of diving into surface similarities. When I’m producing an event, it means paying attention: to bus lines and police presence, and especially at closing time.
My point here is not to talk at you until everyone in this room (across these screens) forgets that we have bodies and stories and music, but to say that I am not that interested in discussions of gender that don’t include multiple lenses, allow for change, and negotiate with white colonialism. I’m not interested because I love my body and I love my friends, and that took work. It takes work. It requires pauses, which are not abandonment.
And understanding gender leads to understanding desire, which is really the entire point. What do you want. What do we. When do we want it.
In 2001, Wynne Greenwood wrote an essay that she published on the internet. “I’ve been working with Tracy + the Plastics,” she said, which sounds like someone she met at the art show, only Tracy + the Plastics is “a band I started with myself – and myself – and myself. I play the parts of Nikki (keyboards), Cola (drumbeats), and Tracy (singer). Live, Nikki and Cola are included as images in a projected landscape that backs me up and fills me in.” From the beginning I loved how Wynne wasn’t just Tracy, she was Tracy and Nikki and Cola. And Tracy was live, but Nikki and Cola were prerecorded, and when Tracy stepped off the stage, she was just Wynne. And no one existed in a void – the landscape backs everyone up and fills them in. Here’s a picture of Tracy and Cola. They’re both looking at you:
Because I think it’s important that there is a vulnerable body, somewhere, in a conversation about gender: in 2001, I saw Tracy + the Plastics for the first time with my best friend Rob. He is still my best friend. I don’t have pictures, but my journal says I wore my green glitter sweater and rode the bus home in the rain, just like I did last night—at that time, I certainly wanted to start a band with three myselves. The one who wrote in apple-perfect cursive and obsessively shaved her chin, she’d do sound. The one who got dizzy from cold and staying up too late to watch gross art movies on VHS, she’d sing. Mairead would sell t-shirts, because otherwise how are we going to pay for gas?
This isn’t that radical of an idea—we are all multiple selves, and we dream of being multiple selves—but Tracy + the Plastics made it happen concretely, in one room. When I saw them, I didn’t want to be their friends or see them twelve more times (though of course I wanted that too)—I wanted to start my own band for my own selves. This is different than wanting to be Jo Fateman, or to wear ruffled button-downs like Carrie Brownstein, or to learn to fight because of the way Mia Zapata died.
In this same essay from 2001, Greenwood wrote that “when an individual in a marginalized group”—in this case, that could be lesbians, it could be electroclash—“when an individual in a marginalized group talks to a recorded image of themselves, it empowers the individual to open the door to the understanding and celebration that [this] can be deliberate.” (Footnote: Yes, some lesbians are TERFs, but as @daemonumx wrote on Instagram, “there is nothing inherently wrong with calling your sexuality exactly what it is.”) Frequently, Cola would say she did something to “look more real.” I think this is a really important question: how do you look more real? And how do you make that deliberate? X came out to our class every day. I have lots of tattoos, for example. And I don’t have to explain them to anyone else.
“This,” writes Wynne, “is an interaction with a fragmented self… a cohesive identity that’s constructed from different, often conflicting, parts of society, culture, and life that we relate to.”
“Popular culture,” she says, “has no whole identity to offer its audience other than the one that represents the ruling class.” Again: white colonialism barfing all over everything. A museum with Kurt Cobain’s dingy yellow sweater and Dorothy Gale’s blue-checked dress. Wynne, who is not Tracy, often says that “we can come out.” The “we” here is important, and so is the “can.” It’s a process. “We can rearrange our world how we want it.”
Tracy + the Plastics are plural, and fragmented, on purpose. A photograph doesn’t capture a show. Audiences who haven’t pushed buttons on a VCR might stutter-step. Wynne recreating Tracy in front of the original recordings becomes a nostalgia exercise. Even the concert archive on Wynne’s website references this:
November 2000: all the shows where i’d make the video the day of the show, like when cola first talked and was wearing the same outfit as tracy and said “anybody can do what you’re doing.”
May 23, 2001: houston, tx at the oven with japanic – CANCELLED because i got a bad feeling about it, and found out later that someone got stabbed outside the show.
March question mark, 2003: indiana @ that college, we went to the RV convention and had good breakfast the next day.
Now, I love fixed charts just as much as the next guy, but in a conversation about gender I want us to look at epiphenomenal time too. This is how the daze of tour works: I remember egg sandwiches better than days of the week. And I don’t remember the exact day I first saw Tracy with Rob, but I know I wore that sweater when I was binding, and I don’t bind anymore but those days stay with me, especially—for example—when I was listening to X come out every day. Notably, remembering this means simply I saw them better—I didn’t pity them, and I didn’t feel any older than they were, or are, and I didn’t say anything aloud because it wasn’t my stage. If we can rearrange our world how we want it, we must also be able to rearrange our world.
Also in 2001, Tracy + the Plastics would perform “This Is For Forever,” a conversation between Nikki and Cola overheard by Tracy, and other people in the room. Nikki would ask Cola why Cola puts socks down her pants all the time. Nikki wants to know if “it’s to look like a dick or is it to look like a third dimension?” (I think this is a question about gender, not sexuality, but in conversation it doesn’t always matter.) Both Tracy and Cola get mad at Nikki for asking. I got mad too. I went home and looked at my sock drawer very carefully. Tracy wants to know why there’s only two options. Cola says it’s just really fucked up to ask why someone packs. Eventually, all Cola says is that it’s to make her “look more real.”
At shows, eventually this conversation would swan-neck into sounds that were also songs on one of Tracy + the Plastics’ CDs. (In 2001, Muscler’s Guide to Videonics came out on Chainsaw Records, and so did “Oh Maria,” a track on a Mr. Lady compilation.) Admittedly this web—are we eavesdropping? dancing? is everyone okay?—was “too much” for some people. Tracy + the Plastics work this way onstage and in the archive, and often Tracy would say “This is boring,” or “This is confusing,” and try to end the show. Lots of people left the shows. Lots of people think entertainment should be paid for, not engaged with otherwise. And I understand, but you know what: often, this is also how gender works. You engage, or you move on. It’s okay.
We harm people when we want fixed answers, or when we want them from ourselves. Even over time, this is true. And I’m okay with pain. My binder hurt, but I wore it until it didn’t feel like me anymore. If it still felt like me, I would still be wearing it, or else I would have found something similar that felt even more like me. Sometimes, especially in the summers, that person still comes through. This is how I know gender is a social construct, in conversation with the society that builds it. This is how I know that a show where everyone is fully in their bodies, without pauses, with peace and clarity, is a utopian ideal. I haven’t been to a show like that. But I want to, badly.
Tracy + the Plastics came from a choose-your-own murder mystery that Wynne was writing in the late 1990s. The Plastics—Tracy, Niki, Cola, and Honeyface—were a group of girls who ran a pawnshop and replaced parts of themselves with whatever was on the counters, for example: a red toothpaste cap for a tooth. (For me, this loops into the work of Shannon Perry, a Seattle artist who used to black out part of her mouth. Shannon made the only color tattoo I have. “Parts forever,” sings Tracy. And ever.)
The Plastics “create their own reality,” said Wynne, “and make you believe it too. Also, they are company in a way, like entertainment for me. They’re happy, dialogue, and devil’s advocates. It can be kind of liberating because I can question myself and remember that it’s all really just me.”
Ultimately, this is the best and truest way I know, so far, to define gender, which is something I want to do because I don’t understand it yet: take what you have, and wear it how you want, when and if you can. Use it to look more real. Not to seem, not to feel. To look. To perform. To exist. Sometimes it’s in your head, and no place else. (See again: the scented, prismatic barf of white colonialism and late-stage capitalism.) “She had a fine line,” sings Tracy. “We fell in front of it / to make it fine.” It isn’t quick, it isn’t easy or even sequential, but we can rearrange our world how we want it. “This,” Tracy also sings, “is for forever: the only time I believed it.”
This essay was written for the 2018 Pop Conference, and draws largely from the Stacy… Kelly catalog edited by Johanna Burton and Stephanie Snyder (Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery and the New Museum: New York, 2015). THANK YOU: Sara Jaffe, Michaelangelo Matos, Chrissy Shively, and Andi Harriman.