What do you mean when you say "gender"?

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picture from "Forbidden Fruit" performance by ilDance (picture by Israel Aloni, ©ilDance)

1 - Me

I am an independent choreographer and the artistic director of ilDance. I was born and raised in Israel, and moved to Gothenburg, Sweden at the age of 18. Over the years, I have been in and out of Sweden but have always referred to Gothenburg as a point of reference: my company is based in here, and I feel that this place witnessed the greatest part of my artistic evolution. However, I work internationally and structure my identity and opinions around my multidimensional encounters with individuals, society, cultures and phenomena.

I identify as gender fluid. Although visually I match the description of a man, mentally and spiritually I am female. I feel female, I connect to female energy. Internally, I am a mother. The major part of my identity and therefore, my artistic voice, is female. Gender is the element in my identity which gives me relative perspective on my surroundings while it is also the source for my personal and creative voice. I find comfort in my gender’s ever changing characteristics and I am very relieved by the knowledge that my gender identity, like my mind and body, is responding to my environment and the flow of time. 

The equilibrium between the male and female within me constantly shifts. Generally, I am more connected to my female self. However, I do not feel the need to adapt my physical self to a social dictation of gender visualization. I am not a man, that is clear. One may instinctively think that I must then be a woman by default. However, I am not a woman. I am female. I am aware of my “masculine look”. I let my facial hair grow, but not as a social-political statement or choice to belong to one group or the other (man/woman). It is purely for my wellbeing, as shaving my face triggers a painful rash on my face.

Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

“Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.”

It is important to remember that "man" is a social construct and has nothing to do with gender. So is "woman". It seems that ancient cultures had a more accepting approach to non-binary gender existence. Divine entities, mythological characters, mystical tales and legends describe a range of combinations between the two basic ingredients of a gendered entity - male and female. The two are often referred to as components rather than absolute forms. Today, however, we are in desperate need to change the comprehension, significance and impact of social gender on the structure and functionality of our society.

2 - Gender language and diversity

Humankind is diverse by nature. Aside from gender, other biological attributions - intolerances, allergies, habits, weaknesses and strengths - mark people as different from one another. It is only the human mind that is mono-dimensional. Indeed, the natural multiplicity of our kind is suffocated by systems of covenants, money-oriented societies, instant success-seeking culture and the strive for functionality. Promoting and inspiring diversity and equality in our societies cannot and should not be interpreted as homogenizing the humankind. Real diversity is not about similarities and adaptations. On the contrary, it is the celebration of difference and otherness. I believe that diverse communities could be realised if the masses promote the uniqueness of its members.

Humans tend to ignore the sheer fact that we are animals. The human intellect, which we are so proud of, is what I believe to be the biggest contributor to our destruction. Biological facts are often overshadowed by the humans’ quest to find meaning. We constantly construct intangible and abstract concepts such as nation, brand, wealth, god, law, woman and man. Then we give them immense meaning and power. We come from nature, we are nature. Social and cultural rules and laws are simply fiction. We, humans, invented them. We also have the power and ability to dismantle them. 

Perhaps the most necessary progress to be made is to describe a clear distinction between biological gender, social gender, political gender and mental gender. Those are all aspects of humans which are influenced by the presence of female and male attributions but generally, each of them plays a very different role in the emancipation and demonstration of one’s self. Naturally, the multidimensional correspondence between these gender identities is inevitable.

Israel Aloni performing "Twee" (picture by Helena Knuuti, ©ilDance)

3 - Problems with the gender debate in the performing arts

As an artist with a nonconventional gender identity, I am often confronted with uncomfortable reality checks – my work is often spoken about as the work of a male artist. This is, of course, by people who have never bothered to ask or didn’t let the work speak for itself. They probably based their opinion on the facial hair evident in my headshot for the program.

The gender of an individual does not and will never determine their ability to succeed at their job. Therefore, a candidate’s physical-biological characteristics should not be the most valuable criteria of their consideration for a job. I believe that we should, instead, highlight skills, qualities, visions, passion, integrity, intelligence and hard work as the leading criteria needed to evaluate someone’s relevance for a job - none of which are gender related. The need to box people into compartments and subgenera (male choreographer/female choreographer - as if these were automatically different art forms), directly contradicts art’s essence.

Despite the many discussions, conferences, symposia, organizations, demonstrations and social engagements surrounding the topic, many are not precisely concerned with gender issues. They often emerge from the public hunger for social justice and equality. The common agenda advocates for women’s rights, their presence in leadership positions, pay gaps, and sexual harassment and abuse of women in our sector. All of these issues are alarming and must receive the necessary attention until a significant change occurs. However, I would not consider any of these to be gender-related issues. They are all social, political, economic and cultural issues. 

The way we treat women in our society is ridiculous and should not be tolerated any longer. However, there are many social groups that are mistreated and abused on regular basis. For example, gay men are attacked, molested, abused and murdered on a regular basis within the “protective” borders of their manhood. Studies have shown that gay men are paid less (8% - 32%) than heterosexual men for doing the same job whilst lesbian women are paid more (10% - 20%) than heterosexual women.

What is the sector really interested in? Why do the discussions about gender only involve men and women? Are these social debates? Have we been so caught up in the fictional reality that our bright human intellect created, that we can no longer identify when we slipped off track?

Gender is yet another word that is regularly misused, and I believe we should no longer tolerate its abuse. When we headline social justice campaigns with the deceiving title of "gender equality", we create a misconception that gender issues are being addressed, when they are not. If every promotion and action of “gender equality in performing arts” deals with social and economical misbehaves of our governments and societies, who takes care of the mistreat of gender in those same social and professional circles? If one speaks about gender, one must first acknowledge the infinite demonstrations of gender that exist in nature. Due to the limitations of our languages, we continuously refer to men and women as the only possible options. So even those who do try to make a change fall into the same patterns and traps that they are attempting to change. In turn, we only defeat our purpose by utilising the social definitions of man and woman to discuss gender equality. 

So what are the right questions to ask? What are the changes we ought to demand from our environment and, just as urgently, from ourselves? Of course, a lot of harm has already been done. The contemporary performing arts field simply demonstrates the same destructive tendencies that it challenged itself to change. Nevertheless, we can cease using “gender” as a scapegoat for all injustice and inequalities. 

picture from "Godlike" performance by ilDance (picture by Arale the Sizzling Shutter, ©ilDance)

4 - Humble suggestions for the performing arts field

Theoretically, artists are encouraged to express a significantly personal voice in their work. However, art nowadays is evaluated with the same binary, discriminating, conventional and restricting approaches that dominate our society and are designed by social-political traditions. How personal and particular can an artwork be in such a narrow-minded environment? Much of the art claiming to refer to gender ends up tackling the imperfection of our social structures rather than attending to the actual alarming gender issues of our time.

The contemporary performing arts are not immune to the social-political difficulties that infect the world. At times as tormenting as ours, we can no longer concentrate our arguments on the genitalia of the individual who conceives an idea. We must, instead, concentrate our efforts on the voice and identity of the artwork itself. We ought to make radical changes in the way we behave, the way we talk and the way we think about identity. We ought to offer elementary freedom for individuals to own their identity.

Can our reality evolve to a place where gender, as well as skin color, place of birth and mother tongue are not the basis on which artists are evaluated and promoted? 
Do we, the artists and facilitators, believe that art is truly beyond social politics? and holds the power to portray a reality where all gender identities, like all races, are equal? 

A hopeful thought is that this described reality is created and conducted by humans. If we choose to make a noticeable change, we can adopt new approaches and tactics with which we would operate in our close environment and potentially resonate further into larger contexts. Only then, we could potentially commence a new era. A different world.

Art has the precious power to inspire its audience. We, who work in the arts, have many opportunities to inspire our societies to structure new orders as well as stimulate the human intelligence and neurologic potential. But how do we implement this approach into the work that we do? We attempt to create a new reality while we continue to utilize the same old language and tools that led us to the difficult state that we are in to begin with. This is, needless to say, doomed to fail. 

We, the artists, constantly dance a hybrid duet with the environments in which we conceive our work and those in which we share it. We are requested to explain our art through language. We are asked to write grant applications, marketing materials and official statements about our work. We are expected to give interviews and public talks before and after performances. But trying to find a valuable and critical, yet genuine and individual voice is nearly an impossible task if one has to operate within the existing structure and available cultural resources.  Which vocabulary and language do we use in these encounters? The same old set of words that have been used for many years in failed attempts to incite change? 

During creative processes we seek alternative methods when a task stops serving its purpose and can no longer evolve. If the words we are using do not serve the purpose any longer, we need new words. Don’t we diminish the value of our art by confining it to the same tags, tags, tags and tags that “them”, the politicians, the stakeholders, the funders, the presenters, the programmers and critics force upon us? We, the artists, are creative individuals. We need to create new references, new resources, new contexts, new dimensions and a new language.

picture from "Forbidden Fruit" performance by ilDance (picture by Arale the Sizzling Shutter, ©ilDance)

5 - From now on

Categorising individuals as either “men” or “women”, only devalues the versatility and diversification of gender. I believe that the real discrimination is against the female form. The female that is in all humans and all other species. Is it time to have more women choreographers in our field or is it rather time to have more gender-aware art works?

If we only look after men and women artists, who takes care of those who sit elsewhere on the social-gender spectrum? Is it someone else’s job to guard the rights and voices of those who do not fit the narrow-mindedness of our black and white, right and wrong, man and woman world?

Identity is at stake here. Respect is due to the primary origin of gender from male and female sources. I respect the primary origin of gender from male and female sources. Furthermore, I believe that we are all made of both. Each and every one of us is a unique compilation of these two ingredients and this unique combination gives us our actual identity. As with human fingerprints or the stripes of a zebra, everybody has their own, but no one is the same.

It is time we let go of the words that have been describing the world to us and initiate a bidirectional process. One direction strips our collective consciousness from the rigid frames and binding structures that have shaped our history in a very biased fashion. The other leads us to create a new language. We must initiate original discussions, not the same old topics and titles that are just as discriminating as the ones they are opposing. If we go on using only the existing words, we might get very creative with the formulation of our sentences but I believe we are doomed to circle around familiar territories. Creating a new language is a good start for a longer and deeper process. Words are the frames to our thoughts. They form our intellect and describe the reams of our imagination when we try to communicate our minds and emotions. 

An inspiring expression, which I often refer to when pondering over the reality and context of gender, is a recording of Anohni (previously known as Antony from Antony and the Johnsons) speaking at one of her concerts about the feminization of the world. It is called “future feminism”.

I wish we would understand that female qualities are not only to be found in women. I also wish that we would refrain from blurring out the differences between people and stop advocating, potentially unwarily, for homogenization. I long for an active shift which promotes equality, that is celebrating our differences and the unique combination of female and male that is in each one of us.

Israel Aloni
Israel Aloni is an Artistic Director, independent choreographer, guest performer and a dance educator with an extensive and international experience. Aloni has been a member of IETM since 2013. 

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