James J. Aimers

Intersectionality, Performance, and Performativity

While gender may be tied to biological sex, this is not a universal feature of identity…, nor do biological sex or a concept of gender always act as core aspects in the production of personhood … research has trended toward approaches that examine the intersection of sex and gender with other aspects of social identity … such as age, status, class, and race” (Ghisleni, et al., 2016, p. 771).

The diversity of gender in the ancient world has drawn attention to our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender hierarchy, that is, the ranking of men above women. McCafferty and McCafferty (1988) offered gender complementarity (sometimes called gender parallelism, see Joyce 2013) as an alternative to gender hierarchy in Mesoamerica. However, both gender hierarchy and complementarity have been critiqued as binaries that downplay variability and difference: “…while these models have most certainly been useful in structuring our analyses, I argue that they rely on binary understandings of the relationship between biological sex and gender and tend to obscure variability in ways we should not ignore” (Stockett, 2005, pp. 568 ).

Part of the variability to which Stockett refers is captured by the concepts of intersectionality and positionality that are characteristic of third-wave feminism and queer approaches to gender, sex, and sexuality (Blackmore, 2011, p. 77; Voss, 2009). Both are related to the idea that people have multiple aspects to their identity (e.g. race, ethnicity, class) that they emphasize or downplay in different contexts (Blackmore, 2011, p. 77). Many societies take pains to gender individuals with objects, tasks, and food, yet we repeatedly see that gender is not as important in the very young and the very old, and that gender is often most strongly marked when people are of reproductive age (Gilchrist, 2007). Similar criticisms can be made about the (often implicit) assumption that sexuality was as important in the creation of identity in the past as it is now. Drawing on Schmidt’s (2004) work, Fuglesvedt (2014, p. 66) suggests that we consider a scale of intensity for societal interest in sex, gender, and sexuality. In these terms, many contemporary people live in societies with unusually “high-intensity” attitudes to gender/sex and sexuality.

For the Maya, Stockett (2005, pp. 571-572) stated that “the data suggest not only that Maya gender ideologies may not have been founded on a belief that binary biological sexes translate into binary gendered identities, but also that other aspects of social identity such as age or class may have played a more prominent part in determining gender roles.” Using ethnographic and colonial sources, Milbrath (1995, p. 46) suggests that the aging moon may have changed gender over the course of the month—did a similar model apply to aging people? Milbrath notes that lunar and related deities (e.g., the pulque god) are typically bisexual and multi-gendered. Similarly, Klein (2001, p. 195) has described Maya and Aztec Carnival-like gender blending around the ends of temporal cycles.

Archivo:Goddess O Ixchel.jpg

A ceramic painting from the classical period of Maya moon goddess, Ixchel, with a rabbit. 

As noted above, in Butler’s writing even the sexed body is performed rather than existing as a pre-given: “The body, in a performative approach, gains legibility through cultural interaction rather than as an ontologically prior reality” (Ghisleni, et al., 2016, p. 770). Gender and sexuality can be compared to style in that they are ways of doing as much as ways of being, an ongoing performance rather than inborn, static states. “The repeated stylizations of the body—everyday acts and gestures—are themselves performatives, producing the gendered identity of which they are thought to be the expressions.”(Alberti, 2013, p. 95) (see also Joyce 2000).

Intersectional Approaches to Ancient Identity: Some Examples

The deconstruction of received (often binary) categorizations, a focus on individuals and variation over groups and norms, and Butler’s concept of performativity have led to more contextual, localized, diachronic approaches. Meskell and others have called for more contextual, intersectional, ground-up studies in some cases focused on individuals, not groups, thus “effectively deconstructing gender as an ontological category” (Gilchrist 1999:73). In this view,

… prehistoric identities do not rely on the notion of a core, stable self that remains unchanged throughout the life-course … Instead, identity is context-dependent and enacted or “embodied” in ways that capture the “lived experiences” of past peoples”(Alberti, 2013, p. 94).

Because “we enact exclusionary practices on our data through the analytical categories we deploy to make the past known to us” (Ghisleni et al 2016, p. 777), many scholars now advocate intersectional approaches that allow for variation along more than one or two axes. Here are some New World examples:

Gender, sexuality, age, and occupation

In a study of the early historical Chumash of California, Hollimon (1997, p. 183) argued that undertakers were either men who engaged in homosexual acts or post-menopausal women. They were categorized together because their sexual activity did “not result in conception and birth.” In this case, occupation, age, and reproductive potential intersected with gender and sexual behavior in a classification system that differs greatly from familiar contemporary ones.

Sexuality, ethnicity, and status

As Vance (1984, p. 17) notes, like gender, “sexuality may be thought about, experienced and acted on differently according to age, class, ethnicity, physical ability, sexual orientation and preference, religion, and region.” Recognition of this is apparent in Nagels’ (2003) concept of “ethnosexual conflict” used by Voss (2008a, p. 196) in a study of Spanish colonialism “to refer to the clash between incompatible cultural beliefs and practices related to sexuality.” Sigal (2003, p. 104) cites evidence that in precontact Aztec society there was an institutionalized availability of “passives” (the Xochichua mentioned above) for elite men. Sigal (2003: 108) has also drawn broad comparisons between Greek and Maya pederasty in the training of elite boys.

The discourse [“language of Zuyua”] showed that nobles were allowed to engage in inter­generational erotic games that stressed the power of the elder noble over the younger.” (Sigal 2003:109)

Phallic pottery vessel, Moche culture (Peru) ca. AD 150- 800.

Religion, status, and sexuality

The Moche of Peru (ca. 100-700 AD) produced a huge number of sexually explicit pottery vessels that were often placed in high-status burials. Weismantel (2004), Gero (2004) and Bourget (2006) linked the sexual imagery not to sexual identity but to politics and power, including dependent relationships with dead ancestors (see also Voss, 2008b, p. 322). Horswell (2003) has described “the religious use of male same-sex sexuality” (p. 43) in the Andes, and others have done the same for Mesoamerica. For example, among the Aztecs, the effeminate “xochihuas provided warriors with a variety of services, including sex. At other times, the xochihuas, some of whom were housed in the temples, were available for sexual favors and other chores to priests and other members of the high nobility” (Sigal, 2007, p. 23). Sigal (2005) asserts that “sodomy in the period immediately preceding the [Aztec] conquest was related to the gods, sacrifice, and ritual, and closely associated with disease and woe ” (p. 577). Sigal (2003) notes that the ancient Maya “forcibly sodomized their gods in order to masculinize themselves and gain power from the gods ” (p. 123). Indeed, Sigal (2000) concluded that concepts like the “transsexual penis” and “floating phallus” are “almost incomprehensible to a Western imagination. For the Maya, sexual desire and fantasy went beyond the field delineated by Freud and the sexologists. Sexual behavior did not exist as a discernible category of sexuality but rather as an element of ritual” (p. 249).

Moche effigy vessel depicting sexual intercourse.

Gender, sexuality, and colonialism

Gender and status were intimately linked in both indigenous and colonial Latin America. Some indigenous cultures (e.g. the Maya and Aztecs) shared with the Spanish the idea that people conquered in war were gendered feminine, and sodomy was a metaphor for conquest: “Elites among the Maya considered passivity in males feminine and viewed the vanquished warrior as symbolically if not actually passive” (Sigal, 2002, p. 25). Nevertheless, many authors have argued that the intersection of gender, sexuality, and status intensified during the Spanish invasion and subsequent colonial period, leading to the increased oppression of women and “others” of all sorts.

The Spaniard Balboa reportedly punished indigenous men accused of sodomy and/or cross-dressing by having them killed by dogs (Isthmus of Panama). illustration from Grand voyages (1596) by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598).

Europeans in the New World sought to eliminate—often brutally—expressions of gender and sexuality that did not correspond with their Inquisition-era ideas. This infamous print depicts Balboa, a Spanish explorer, conquistador, and governor as he “throws some Indians, who had committed the terrible sin of sodomy, to the dogs to be torn apart”. Indeed, one of the insidious legacies of colonialism is the widespread idea that indigenous cultures have always been conservative and restrictive around issues of gender, sex, and sexuality when in many cases that conservatism was imposed on them during colonization. Archaeologists and our colleagues in cultural anthropology and history are showing instead that the many Pre-Columbian cultures of the New World held diverse ideas about these issues, and that this evidence must be understood on its own terms, not on ours.