In nir 1929 painting The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images) René Magritte invites us to fundamentally question the reliability of our understanding of reality. The painting features an archetypal depiction of a smoking pipe. However, directly below the pipe appears text which, in French, disclaims “This is not a pipe.”
Clearly the depiction of the pipe is not a pipe. But the contradiction implores us to consider how we are betrayed not only by the image, but also by our mental models of reality.
By what means do we arrive at the calculation which awards truth to the verbal statement rather than the image? We compare the painting of the pipe to our memories of experienced pipes, to thoughts about pipes, to Sherlock Holmes, to the mental schema of a pipe. This schema is no more real than the painting. In fact, even when smoking a pipe, one never fully grasps its reality directly. Only our ideas about reality can be known. And our ideas about reality are inevitably wrong.
Gender is such an idea about reality—an especially pernicious idea about reality. Gender betrays us far more than the image of the pipe because, unlike the painting, gender is deliberately misleading. To fail our trust as much as gender, the image of the pipe would need to be painted hot pink and doused with a heavy layer of glitter and feminine deodorant spray. For example, the following image might depict the treachery of gender.
That’s right. This is not a shoe. Moreover it’s not even an image of a shoe. Wikipedia defines a shoe as “an item of footwear intended to protect and comfort the human foot while doing various activities.” The image may be of an ornament, a sex toy, a torture implement, or a glass cutting device intended for use on ceilings, but certainly not a shoe.
Similarly, I am not a man.
About the Author
My name is Nickie McKinley. I’m a thirty-one year old person with XY chromosomes (I assume), an elongated genital tubercle, and a predominantly androgenic hormonal mix, but also a strongly repressed self-identification with the social categorization of people commonly known as females. Many people in a similar situation these days would take estrogen and start living “as a woman.” The idea of doing that feels even more inauthentic than presenting myself as a man. Instead, I’m trying to socially transition to a liminal gender status—that is occupying a position at the (illusory) boundary between the sexes. Some would call that “genderqueer” but calling it liminality more specifically describes what I want to achieve, and highlights gender as a caste system and the difficulty encountered by anyone attempting to question the cultural hegemony and the legitimacy of the castes. This blog is partly an account of and aid to my social transition, and partly a discussion of relevant issues in feminist, queer, and transgender theory and activism.
I separated from my wife last year and live in Portland, Oregon with my six-year old child, and when I’m not biting the polish off my nails fretting over gender, I enjoy playing music and the ancient Chinese game of go (围棋). Unfortunately my favorite photo is a shameless bathroom selife but I’m so happy to finally have my makeup out on the counter and a bow in my curls, having just had them cut for the first time since growing out my “Ivy League,” and think I look super hot! I dunno if I’m gonna get any readers or not (this is my first blog), but if you’re here, I’d love to get your comments! Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.