Gender Diaries: Maceo Paisley
As the world continues to push against gender constructs, the conversation around how people are identifying themselves is constantly evolving. Each week, Milk will feature a guest editor writing about their specific relationship with gender and, often, where it intersects with fashion. This week, we feature Maceo Paisley, multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and cultural producer, with featured images from his new short film, ‘I Am Dynamite’.
More and more, the current social zeitgeist is constantly reiterating how fragile masculinity is and that it relies almost solely on dominance. This idea made me curious about how fragile masculinity really is. If masculinity is so fragile, how come no one has broken it yet? And what would that take?
If there is one thing that epitomizes manhood for me, it is the two piece suit. Every day, my father would wake up, put on a suit and go to work. The suit is a man’s modern day armour. It even has shoulder pads and is fashioned to be a uniform for conducting business. And what is business if not the modern day battleground? Fashion, its visual vocabulary and rule set has shaped manhood and womanhood for that matter. The world of fashion provides far more options to women and, within these options, a greater range of acceptable modes of expression in terms of presenting as masculine or feminine within the construct of being a woman. My mother was not big on heels, but she did wear red lipstick. Something about it made her feel complete and, I think, a little powerful. But why? I wondered if I could harness the power my mother exuded through her feminine performative armour the same way that I was able, and encouraged harness the power of my father’s business suit. But there is no space or vernacular for the performance of manhood that included lipstick. If I wanted to retain masculine presentation and wear lipstick, I would have to author that vernacular myself. So I took to the local drug store to find my shade of red and I decided to see if I could work this hue into my own altered definition of manhood.
Gender expression is informed by the gestures and language availed to us within the gender binary. Presumably it is meant to help us communicate our sex and sexual orientation in the world but ultimately suffocates our ability to be self determined. In my social research, I found that manhood, for all its social power, was only retained within the confines of a narrow range of socially deemed “masculine” expressions and performances. I’m not here for it, but I still submit to it.
We all do it: don a social mask or performance when we walk out the door and into the world. The degree to which we change has a lot to do with our confidence in our survivability and safety without the performance. The more supported you are by the status quo, the less you are aware of the performance and the basis of social privilege is rooted in the degree to which you are aware of your distance from the center of protection and power, but I digress.
I, too, put on a mask everyday but my work as an artist affords me the luxury to explore new ways of being within the context of creative expression. I appropriate the shield of protection that art provides in order to discover a new social presentation for myself, one that untangles me from the rigid confines of conventional masculinity. I often feel trapped by the container not only of white-normativity, but of hetero-normativity, and also an african-american normativity that oscillates between respectability and dissent. Art gives me the space and freedom to present in a way that might be deemed “too feminine” for the outside world. I thought not to limit my expression, but simply respond to my environment and intuition in a way that most honored the sensations that these concepts evoked in me. I don’t always identify as male, or female, not as a suit, or as lipstick, but as a force of change itself. My personality has elements of aggression, and also fear. I hold within me hesitation and a desire for permission and yet a deep sensation of connectedness to so much around me.
Within this exploration of social performance, my perception and identification with race can not be ignored. I wonder: Does my soul know I am black? Straight? Male? or are these just words used to describe a phenomena that needs only to be named in order for society to function as it has been designed? So, while I push against my own psychological barriers to find my brand of authentic and free expression in the process of making space to explore who I am, I have to challenge the status quo and surrender to disrupt some of that social power. Liberty, it seems, it not without some cost.
Lipstick on a black man could be read as minstrel, it could be read as homosexual, but within this obfuscation of black masculinity there is room for exploration, and an opportunity to claim social agency. All of this social pressure and friction are confining and yet, somewhere there is hope. I think back to the suits that my father wore and how he never wore them the way they came home from the store. It was imperative that he customized his suit to fit his own body, the way he moved, and the way he wanted to be seen. It is not necessary or useful for me to completely abandon the construct of manhood, I just need it not to feel so constricting. To alleviate some of that feeling of suffocation, I both literally and figuratively took shears to the construct of manhood, and my own clothes, self-tailoring them to fit the way I moved and wanted to be seen. The result was still something immediately recognizable as “man,” but upon closer inspection possesses inconsistencies within the confines of conventional masculinity. Through the inconsistencies, I gain agency to make my manhood more flexibly, less fragile, and in doing so I expand the space of my manhood to be more self-determined. “Dynamite” emerges, it is the product of a realization of my potential to be a self-determinant individual, expressing both confidence and vulnerability in tandem through the visual lingua of masculinity. Dynamite is performance art and poetry, that tells the story of giving myself permission to perform in a way which disrupts the social apparatuses that otherwise hold this authority over me.
Art is something that changes the world to allow itself to exist. Dynamite is something that changes the environment to make space for what’s next,to quote the work “it stirs up emotion, it causes chain reactions”. By pressing against the confines of masculinity, we see that it is not easily broken because it does not prove to be fragile, but flexible. I began this journey a man, defined in the narrowest sense of the word “man” and, along the way, my artistic practice allowed me to become something else; a catalyst through which perhaps we might collectively create space for and expand the concept and performance of manhood and gender itself for myself and others. I am Dynamite.
Click the link to view the work.
Images courtesy of Maceo Paisley
Stay tuned to Milk for more Gender Diaries and see our previous installments here.