The Religion & Culture Web Forum
"The Mythology of Self-Imitation in Passing: Race, Gender, and Politics"
University of Chicago
This month, Professor Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago Divinity School examines the layers of meaning in cases of individuals who, while passing as something they do not believe themselves to be, pretend to be what they in fact are.
In both real life and the mythology that extends from ancient India to the contemporary Anglophone world, people have had various reasons to pass in various ways—to pretend to belong to a race, gender, or political group other than the one that they regard as their own. In many instances, after this first masquerade has taken place, a secondary charade overlays the first so that the person seems—but only seems—to be what he or she was at the start, self-imitating. There are black people who pretend to be white people pretending to be black: the protagonist of Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and the writer Anatole Broyard. There are men who pretend to be women pretending to be men: the eighteen century Chevalier d'Eon and the castrato (or, perhaps, woman) who bamboozled Casanova. And there are actors who pretend to be politicians pretending to be actors: Reagan and Schwarzenegger.
These stories, for all their Machiavellian labyrinths, have much to tell us about our basic ideas about authenticity, identity, and the relationship between public and private selves. They are myths as I define them in the broadest sense: stories that are not necessarily connected with a particular religion but that have the force of religious beliefs, that endure in the cultural imagination as religious texts do, and that deal with deeply held beliefs that religions, too, often traffic in. Such myths are often invoked by people in real-life situations that duplicate the situations they have heard about in myths. There are myths associated both with self-imitation in general and with the more particular form of passing as what you are. In this article I would like to explore some of the implications of self-imitation in racial passing, gender passing, and political passing.
Early in December, invited responses to Professor Doniger's essay will be offered by Celia Brickman, Martha Selby of the University of Texas at Austin, and Catharine Stimpson of New York University. Responses may be found in the archived discussion board for this Forum (pdf).
The commentary will run through the month of December, after which it will continue to be accessible through the Web Forum archive.
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