Our ideas of gender roles have shifted dramatically in recent years. For example, it is becoming more common to hear of men staying home with children and women being the breadwinners. Although this shift has occurred, our ideas of what is acceptable in terms of representing these new roles have not kept pace. Items such as a dress are subject to gender polarization. For people of the LGTBQ community who practice “doing gender”, they are challenging the natural attitude, which often leads to violence. For some, exercising bodily autonomy in this way is much easier, leaving them virtually unscathed.
In Catherine Gund’s film, Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb Vs. Gravity, the life and work of Elizabeth Streb is documented. She and her group of STREB dancers crash, fly and get injured, challenging the emphasized feminity of dance and social norms about gender and representation. Their success so extreme it literally has them dangling hundreds of feet in the air for a six day event at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Streb tells her story of growing up in the 1960’s: being adopted into a middle class family, spending a great deal of time with her father – even accompanying him to construction jobs at a very young age. Out of these experiences she developed her interest, “Pop Action”, a term she coined to describe getting beyond personal protection to find a new level of strength, thus, increasing possibilities. An interest in dance also evolved, which was seemingly odd, given her gender socialization.
At first glance, Streb appears to be “doing gender”. Her short hair-cut, boxy, oversized blazers, dress shirts and belt buckles all possess a very over-emphasized masculine quality. It suggests to the audience that she has chosen to represent herself as male when thinking of the gender binary. She tells her story as she prepares for a dinner party for all of her close friends. The appearance of her chopping, cooking and stressing over a seating plan is in sharp contrast to her over-emphasized masculine attire. One quickly comes to the realization that she is not “doing gender” in terms of the gender binary, but, rather, the gender spectrum. She is strategically “cherry-picking” her clothing, mannerisms and responsibilities within her gay partnership to represent herself as she feels on the inside: genderless or equal.
As she waits for her guests to arrive, she shows pictures of herself from the past. The images are of a stereotypical dancer from the 1980’s in a leotard, seemingly embracing femininity. As one observes the sharp contrast between the two images, one cannot help but wonder when Streb made the transition to the current image she now possesses and why. She paints a picture of struggle while trying to “make it” in New York, both in the dance industry and as a member of the LGBT community. She strategically identifies privilege within a relationship with a photographer in the dance industry: in this relationship, she developed an ally and eventually solidarity that helped to advance her career in dance. In the evening, she congregated illegally with other members of the LGBT community. Given that she went through the second and third waves of feminism while living in New York, it becomes apparent that the way she chooses to represent herself, as well as her work in the dance industry, was heavily influenced by these movements. Gender equality is her focus.
As the focus shifts from her to her dancers, the influence of the second and third waves of feminism becomes even more apparent. When watching the dancers on stage, one observes that there is no difference between the male and female dancers in terms of size or dress. Everyone appears equal. While male dancers do play an important role, the focus is predominantly on the female dancer, with little to no focus on race. The film highlights the female dancers as challenging the emphasized femininity of the dance industry with their size. This is where the influence of the feminist movements is most heavily felt in Streb’s work, in my opinion. She does not just try to bring women in line with men through appearance: it appears that she is erasing gender altogether, creating an image of equality. The size and amount of muscle that Streb’s dancers possess would be seen as unacceptable in most other dance companies.
Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympic Games and we see these same dancers dangling hundreds of feet in the air from an enormous Ferris wheel. Streb says that it was in that moment that she realized “It’s not what they were doing that mattered, but where”. This was the most profound moment in the film for me. The cables that the dancers hung from constrained their movement, allowing only for a very simplistic form of dance. The dance itself was not particularly special; it was the fact that it was done in the sky that made this a truly magical moment that will forever be entrenched in the history of dance. I realized in that moment that Streb waited to “do gender” in the way in which she had chosen until had achieved the social status required to support such a venture. In my opinion, I think that Streb is now using her privilege to act as an ally for those who are subjected to violence for exercising bodily agency in a way that challenges social norms. For me, this was an poignant reminder that we have a long way to go in terms of equality and exercising bodily agency. More importantly, the film was a message of hope, knowing we are making progress towards this.