Gender: The Unspeakable Visible

by: , May 14, 2019

This documentary deals with gendered bodies and their collective and individual performances in social spaces. We went looking for bodies permeated by cultural dimensions that make and unmake themselves.

We want to emphasise how we are performative bodies, subjected to rituals of celebration or domination whose representations and expressions explode secretly and violently in hybrid spaces between the public and the private where we expose our intimacy.

What would be the most secretive and at the same time the most expositive observation we could make, besides the one that our bodies, being ours, do not belong only to us?

We’d like to believe that each moment, we can dispose of our bodies or use them whichever way we want; that they belong to us, freely and without limits. However, such a perception of mastery over our physicality is an idealistic conception.

Throughout history, social expectations, living standards, available opportunities, as well as interactions between human minds and bodies have determined, by and large, what we do with our bodies. The environment and the society with its power hierarchies incessantly create the ‘collective body’ dictated by the features and values of each group or community.

Thus, any person is influenced by something foreign to her, which ironically may appear to be her own will. Through living and intervening with other members of society, the individual is no longer the master of herself and instead subscribes to playing her role. As an actor, she will not cease to perform a script, which allows her to be recognised by the other, in a game of appearances of ordinary life and collective rituals. Hence, one can speak of ‘gender’ as ‘a matter of culture: it refers to the social classification into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ (Oakley 1985: 5).

As much as we are actors and participate in social life, our bodies become signs. And, as much as we perceive them as our own, they are no more than a strategic system composed mainly of images and practices, in which ‘the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing … We’re undone by each other’ (Butler 2014: 23).

According to Donna Haraway, ‘‘race and sex, like individuals, are artifacts sustained or undermined by the discursive nexus of knowledge and power’ (1989: 211). The disconnection of our body from our ‘self’ has deepened with the invention of race, since, it has created and consolidated the ‘conception of humanity … according to which the world’s population was differentiated in two groups: superior and inferior, rational and irrational, primitive and civilised, traditional and modern’ (Lugones 2007: 192).

An examination of the reality that surrounds our bodies becomes the necessary challenge and the goal for cultural criticism that builds on the condemnation of pettiness and any interests which it serves, be it those of intolerance and xenophobia. Such sentiments involve strong and intense violence based in indifference or even repulsion for the ‘other’ in denial of empathy that is essential to a more harmonious social life.

With the awareness that social rules always emerge from a space of power that conditions bodies as its foundation, Cultural Studies has, with depth and perseverance, devoted much of its work to the assertion that our bodies are and are not ours, and yet must, nonetheless, claim a situated autonomy. As barbaric as the lived and felt reality might be, the signs that flow from it carry the possibility of a necessary cultural transformation.

It is within this challenging and complex theoretical framework that the GECE – The Gender and Performance Studies Group from the Center for Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Aveiro produced the documentary Gender: The Unspeakable Visible.

Use the HD button to adjust the video’s quality.


Butler, Judith.(2004), ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, in Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, pp. 19-49.

Haraway, Donna (1989), ‘The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Determinations of Self in Immune System Discourse’, in Differences, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 30-43.

Lugones, María (2007), ‘Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System’, in Hypatia, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter 2007), pp.186-209.

Oakley, Ann (1985), Sex, Gender and Society, London: Temple Smith.

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey