Quick hit: And the Oscar for best performance of gender goes to…

As you’re probably aware, the 84th annual Academy Awards are being handed out this weekend. Jill Dolan, a professor of English and Theater, culture blogger and all-around bad ass public intellectual, has a fascinating post about the performance of gender in this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated movies. From Albert Nobbs to Margaret Thatcher, this year’s nominated movies present us with a range of highly skilled performances not just of characters, but of gender.

Close’s performance of Albert’s masculinity in Nobbs is different from Janet McTeer’s as Hubert Page, the housepainter whom Albert learns is also a woman living as a man. Page’s masculinity is terse, marked by his solitary work. Page takes up space differently than Albert, moving through his world with larger gestures and freer movements. Part of the film’s genius, in fact, is how it showcases these two very different women’s performances of masculinity.

Consider the more extreme feminine end of the gender continuum, on which I would place Michelle Williams’ portrait of the iconic 1950s movie star in My Week with Marilyn. Williams has described how she painstakingly learned and rehearsed Monroe’s signature walk. Her movements were dictated by her tight dresses and provoked by an hourglass figure that seems unnatural to most women in the 21st century (except, perhaps, Christina Hendricks, whose signature shape lets her play another 1950s woman in the television series, Mad Men). Williams couldn’t perform as Monroe just because they share female biology; she had to learn how to perform the star’s distinct femininity.

Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, the fierce computer hacker in director David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular Stieg Larsson book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, falls at the middle of the gender continuum, where masculinity and femininity blur. Mara’s makeup and costume hides Lisbeth’s body under facial piercings, ripped t-shirts and baggy cargo pants. And in shots of her riding her motorcycle, Lisbeth wears a helmet with a shield that completely obscures her face — she could be a man or woman, of any age or race, for that matter.

Go read the whole thing. It’s an expert and insightful discussion of popular culture, and an example of how to write about complex ideas like “the performance of gender” for a wider audience. And if you don’t already read Dolan’s blog The Feminist Spectator, you are missing out.

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