Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. – Review – book review
Don Kulick. Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xii, 270pp., 20 halftones, index.US$50.00 (Hc.), ISBN 0-226-46099-1; US$18.00 (Pb.), ISBN 0-226-46100-9.
Don Kulick’s ethnography on the lives of ‘travestis’–Brazilian males who adopt female names, clothing styles, hairstyles, cosmetic practices, and linguistic pronouns, ingest female hormones and inject industrial silicone into their bodies to give them a specific female shape yet do not self-identify as women (p.5)–is an engagingly written analysis that will surely inject new life into what has become a rather stagnant debate on third gender categories in cross-cultural research. However, Travesti…. does much more than this: it is a text that would well serve anyone–researchers, student or teacher–who is interested in understanding the relationship between gender, sexuality and the body, especially in relation to Judith Butler’s work on performativity and gender.
Judith Butler is the theoretical anchor piece for Kulick’s analysis of ‘travestis’ and their understandings of gender: Butler (and others) have challenged the definition of gender as the socio-cultural elaboration of biological sex by arguing that sex is itself a gendered notion, dependent on culturally generated notions of difference for its meaning (pp.11, 230-231). Kulick follows Butler’s proposal that we think of gender as a reiterative and citational practice, produced through and in relation to regulatory norms of sex, such that we should therefore think about gender without necessarily tethering it to specific organs and anatomies. This approach will help us understand the ‘travestis’ quite different ontology of gender: because ‘travestis’ do not believe they can ever become women (despite their transformative efforts) and baulk at the idea of a sex-change operation, Kulick argues that they demonstrate a gender system based on different criteria than Western sex/gender systems. For the ‘travestis’, th e critical factor in determining gender identity is sexuality; more specifically, the act of penetration in sexual practices determines one’s gender: If one only penetrates, one is a man; if one gets penetrated, one is not a man (p. 227-228). Thus the gendered world of the ‘travestis’ has two categories, men and not men. Women, homosexuals and ‘travestis’ are placed in the latter category.
This analysis is elaborated in the last chapter of the book, an organisational strategy which works well as Kulick draws on some of the detailed information in previous chapters (these chapters focus on the process of becoming a ‘travesti’, ‘travestis’ relationships with their ‘macho’ boyfriends, and their work as prostitutes) in order to illustrate his points. However, I found that the extremely rich and detailed conversations and observations in the earlier chapters provides some information that begins to trouble Kulick’s ‘men/not men’ gender model, particularly when he claims that it can help us to understand the ‘particular configurations of sexuality, gender and sex that undergird and give meaning to Brazilian notions of ‘man’ and ‘woman” (p. 9). My main problem with this model lies in the erasure of the category of ‘woman’ as a structuring principle in the ‘travestis’ lives. The hormones and silicone injections, language use, clothes, and boyfriends indicate to me that indeed there is a gendered categ ory of ‘real women’ amongst ‘travestis’ (ie. pp. 92-95) that is thought of as different from them (despite the fact that they are both penetrated). Furthermore, I am not convinced that this gender model can be extrapolated to Brazil as a whole. I suspect that for some Brazilians, women do exist (and are not defined solely by their sexual practices); also, recent ethnographic research indicates that national (or even pan-regional ie. latino) gender/sex categories may be oversimplifying a post-colonial landscape that is much more complex when the deep, historical divisions of class and race are factored into the analysis. Are the ‘travestis’ gendered perceptions of themselves influenced by their racial identifications, socio-economic backgrounds and/or regional location?
However, as I have said, most of my criticisms of Kulick’s theoretical premises are generated from the information contained in the rest of the book, a fact which adds to its strength as a study tool. Overall, Travesti… masterfully achieves what ethnographies are supposed to do: it provides a narrative that elucidates the rich, sometimes humorous, and often troubling lives of a group of people and the particular challenges they face in their day-to-day living, and it explicates these lives by employing a theoretical model that contributes in an original way to understanding both the similarities and differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as ‘men’ and ‘women.
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