Bodily Knowledge and Performativity

This essay was written in 2012 for the paper Media, Subjectivity and Identity (MDIA 407).

Pierre Bourdieu states, We learn bodily. The social order inscribes itself in bodies through this permanent confrontation…with the environment” (Bourdieu 141). As the body enters a social context, it gains bodily knowledge. It takes the world into itself and internalises its rules and structures. By doing so, the body becomes recognisable as a subject because the world that it embodies is played out at the level of the bodily hexis. The bodily hexis is the deployment of the body and “bodily dispositions” such as mannerisms and dress (Webb et al 27). It helps the body become recognisable as a subject by performing in a way that is commensurate with an identity. Judith Butler argues, “In my view, performativity is… about bodily acts” (Butler 198). The dispositions of the body are linked to a series of performances associated with certain identities. Identities allow subjects to be intelligible in the socio-cultural and one establishes an identity by adhering to a certain framework of acts or behaviour. However this very identity is in fact constituted by the repetition of these bodily acts. This essay will be exploring the relation between bodily knowledge and performativity through an analysis of Mark Waters’ Mean Girls and scene from Randal Kleiser’s Grease. It will argue that bodily knowledge, bodily hexis and performativity exist as a continuum that helps subjects to become recognisable by conforming to and naturalising identity categories.

Secondary school is one context through which this occurs. In high school, there are certain rules of conduct (both written and unwritten) that must be adhered to. There are performances that must be met when interacting with members of the academic institution (such as teachers) and also when interacting with peers. These are two different regimes of power existing in a single context.  They often have very different expectations in terms of bodily knowledge and bodily hexis therefore the subject must learn to respond and perform accordingly to each one’s requirements or risk unfortunate consequences.  In Mean Girls, Cady Heron has moved to the United States from Africa. By spending her previous academic years in home school on a different continent, she has a different habitus than the average American teenager. Pierre Bourdieu defines the habitus as, “the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations…[which produces] practices” (Bourdieu qtd in Webb et al 36). It is said to be “inscribed in…bodies by past experiences” (Bourdieu 138). Growing up in a different context, her values and dispositions are unlike those of her classmates in North Shore High School therefore she does not have the appropriate literacy to perform bodily as expected by this new academic cultural field.

On her first day of school, Cady is scolded several times by her teachers for misperforming her identity as student. She was scolded for moving out of her assigned seat and attempting to go to the bathroom without first acquiring permission. Her habitus has conditioned her to be independent and of equal status with adults. This makes it difficult for her to comprehend that in this field, she is in a subordinate role than her teachers. She doesn’t realise that the power belongs to the teacher and her actions are at their will. Because she did not have this bodily knowledge, she could not deploy her body as an obedient student. Cady remarks, “I had never lived in a world where adults didn’t trust me”.  By implying that this context is a different world than the one she knows, Cady is indicating that she is not embodying the world that she is in. Bourdieu states that people feel “at home in the world because the world is also in [them]” (Bourdieu 143). Cady feels like an outsider because she has not incorporated the practices of this world into herself. Despite being simply confused by the system, her bodily hexis indicates that she is a disobedient student. Her acts were read as that of an insolent teenager and became performative. To the teachers, Cady is a disobedient student that needs to be reprimanded.

Deploying the wrong bodily hexis because of a lack of bodily knowledge also affects how the individual is received in the wider social group. Cady is notably attractive and her classmates even describe her as a ‘regulation hottie’, meaning her attractiveness should be well received by her peers, making socializing an easy feat. However, despite her looks she dresses in an unfeminine manner. Her untailored jeans and loose jacket is unisex and very different from the miniskirts and pink cardigans that other attractive girls in her school wear. Cady is also passionate about academics, even signing up as the only girl in ‘Mathletes’, an extra-curricular activity that was described by several of her classmates as ‘social suicide’.  Because of this, Cady becomes unrecogniseable. Her disposition did not explicitly signal “female” to her classmates. She does not comprehend what bodily acts are expected by this environment therefore her bodily hexis is inconsistent with her appearance. Her gender-neutral disposition leads her to be rejected and forced to her to eat lunch in the bathroom alone.

Bourdieu states, “The world is comprehensible…because the body…has the capacity…to be impressed and durably modified by it” (Bourdieu 135). Once Cady spent enough time in school, she was able to incorporate its rules and values into her body. The behaviors of the most popular girls in school (‘The Plastics’) become the iterative templates from which Cady learns how to perform as a teenage girl. From their example, she learns how to walk, dress and speak, orienting her body in a gendered performance which finally made her recognisable to her peers.  Butler believes gender is “is something one is compelled to do in order to be constituted as a recognisable human subject” (Brady and Schirato 24 – 25). This was exactly the case for Cady. She needed to perform her gender in order for her classmates to acknowledge and respect her. Butler argues that every girl is “compelled to ‘cite’ the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject” (Butler qtd in Brady and Schirato 48). In order to assume and maintain her identity as an attractive girl, Cady needed to continuously deploy her body as feminine. Being attractive was not enough. Her bodily hexis needed to adhere to norms of femininity.

These bodily acts then become performative. It is not an expression of some core identity but a performance that “produces the illusion of such a core…” (Jagger 21). Cady’s bodily acts therefore do not only make her comprehensible to her peers but she is simultaneously reconstituting what it means to be a teenage girl. She is strengthening the authority of the same template that she once failed to meet.  Her bodily acts help to confirm this framework as natural when in fact it is a cultural construct perpetuated by the “stylized repetition” of bodily acts (Jagger 27). How Cady is acting is not natural to her. She learned how to deploy her body from incorporating the world into herself. Her bodily hexis therefore became performative: Cady would not have this identity had in not been for her bodily acts which perform the societal norms of femininity.

Bodily dispositions are performances which both organise and justify identity. Walking, dressing and speaking a certain way is not natural but is dictated by what is required by the social setting. As one becomes familiar with context, bodily knowledge is established allowing the individual to adjust their bodily hexis automatically to the situation with the appropriate performance. In secondary school, this can become a problem because there are two different worlds to embody. The performances required by peers is almost never the same as that required by authority figures. Misperforming can lead to serious consequences from either or even both regimes of power. In Grease, Sonny is bragging to his gang, the ‘T-Birds’, about how this year, he wasn’t going to let Principal McGee dictate his life. He struts down the hallway loudly proclaiming to the boys, “I don’t take no crap from nobody!” His bodily knowledge plays out at the level of bodily hexis.  He is part of a tough gang in school and while he is with his fellow members, he must embody their values. It can be seen in the leather jacket that he wears which has a traditional rebellious connotation. It can also be seen in his swaggering walk down the corridor and loud, insubordinate comments when speaking about an authority figure. When he walks into the principal, he automatically switches from the bodily hexis of a gang member to that of an obedient, subordinate student, immediately greeting her by saying, “Hello M’am”, stuttering his words as he speaks. Bodily knowledge is unconscious and automatic and when he entered the context of speaking with the principal, Sonny became like a soldier, incorporating the rules of the institution within himself. He deploys the expected characteristics of a good student and performs at the will of the authority figure without question.

Sonny was faced with a dilemma. He was caught between two worlds and he has the bodily knowledge to react to both situations. However he cannot fulfill both requirements at once, necessitating an unconscious internal calculation as to which bodily hexis to inhabit. On one hand, his twelve years at school has taught him that the principal has authority over his freedom and over his ability to remain a student at the institution. This requires a performance of obedience and respect. However, his position in the ’T-Birds’ requires a masculine and anti-authority bodily hexis and failure to perform may lead to rejection. As he talks to her, he responds to her authority by continuously answering her questions with “Yes M’am” and lowering his voice to a hushed speaking volume. However, because the principal already heard his comments from earlier he misperforms and he is punished with detention. Additionally, his gang saw his bodily act as an obedient student and he becomes subjected to their ridicule. In order to reestablish himself as masculine, Sonny deflects the ridicule to another student, Eugene. Eugene’s bodily hexis is distinctly more unmasculine compared to Sonny because he is awkward, gangly and wears glasses. Sonny tries to prove his masculinity by bullying Eugene, teasing him and taking his possessions. He deploys his body as that of a high school thug in order to perform as a masculine gang member. Butler argues,

“Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport are fabrications, manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (Butler qtd in Jagger 27)

The way Sonny acts towards Eugene is meant to indicate a core masculine identity that is commensurate with his affiliation with the “T-Birds”. He acts as a delinquent in order to reclaim this identity. However his actions are a learned behavior. Although it is linked to the masculine identity, bullying Eugene in fact constitutes the masculine identity. It may be seen as a norm for his peers to terrorise unmasculine individuals but it is a performative act. It is a “sustained social performance” which reiterates the norms of masculinity in the socio-cultural. Sonny behaves in this manner to be recognised by his peers as masculine but it is not inherently natural. What is seen as an effect of natural masculine behavior from a gang member is in fact a performative act. Being with his peers reminds Sonny of the masculine values and dispositions expected of him by the context. This is then reflected in his bodily hexis and he acts out these learned characteristics of masculinity. This performance of gender becomes performative as it leads to the confirming and naturalizing of ‘toughness’ as a norm of authentic masculinity.

Bodily knowledge, bodily hexis and performativity exist as a continuum. In Mean Girls, Cady becomes accepted into her high school by embodying the values of the new context. She uses her bodily knowledge to inhabit a certain bodily hexis which allows her to perform as an attractive teenage girl. In Grease, Sonny uses his bodily knowledge in order to reestablish his masculinity by deploying his body as a threatening school bully. In both of these examples, the characters’ acts become performative. They do not only indicate a certain identity by forming their bodies in this manner but they are naturalising learned performances as being inherent to this core identity. Although the acts are mere social performances to help them become recognised in the socio-cultural, both Cady and Sonny therefore contribute to the perpetuation of socially established meanings about gender identities.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Brady, Anita and Tony Schirato. Understanding Judith Butler. Crows Nest: Sage, 2010.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Grease. Dir. Randal Kleiser. Perf. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. 1978.

Jagger, G. Judith Butler. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Lindsay Lohan. 2004.

Webb, Jen, Tony Schirato and Geoff Danaher. Understanding Bourdieu. Crows Nest: Sage Publications, 2002.


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