Exploring Identity and Attraction: Why Bette and Tina Chose Each Other

In my last Pop Theory, I contended that, on the level of politics (and, implicitly, ethics), it’s important for our community to affirm sexuality as a choice — that we have a right, as citizens of a democracy, to choose how we live, including how we define ourselves (our identity), how we f–k, who we f–k, etc., etc., as long as those actions do not intentionally produce bodily harm to other bodies.

In this post, I want to think more about the expression of desire through physical and verbal actions and the identities that we choose to appropriate to give structure to our own sense of “self” and, furthermore, to communicate that self with others (for social, community building purposes, usually). Specifically, I want to argue that there is no inherent, absolute correlation between our (internal/libidinal) desires and our (external/cultural) identity.

Even though they all inform each other, we need treat as distinct (pre-personal) desires, (willed/determined) actions and (self-appropriated) identities. In doing so, I hope to make the idea of choice (of one’s sexuality) a more palatable idea for those of you who are still just a little more than skeptical (or, who outright think I’m cracked).

Okey dokey?

Desires are pre-personal forces (or impersonal, meaning they have no “identity”) that are continuously proliferating and continuously moving within and through (human) bodies. Desires can be harnessed (for action) and can be psychologized (as we commonly understand them; as articulated thought). What I want to emphasize is the difference between desire and action in terms of the body: desires are internal, actions are external to a body. Desires are uncontrollable forces; actions are controllable acts or movements (verbal or physical).

Oftentimes there is a slippage between desire and action as they are conveyed in the media. Indeed, I think “drama” depends on this slippage — dramatic tension is frequently produced as the difference between the audience’s awareness of a character’s (internal) desire and her (externalized) lack of action or inability to act. The audience connects to the character because desire is only readable through action, through subtle gestures or bodily movements.

Capturing this dramatic tension between women-loving-women is part of reason why The L Word was so delicious, as well as why we were all “shivering with anticipation” for TiBette to get back together. This clip narratives the progression from desire, which is clearly perceptible (and palpable!), to action.

Sigh. TiBette.

Er — what was I saying? Oh, yes, distinguishing between desire and action helps us understand how agency (via control, via self-accountability) is the difference between the two.

Bodies express forces through actions. This idea of bodily expression is how Elizabeth Grosz — the most brilliant feminist philosopher ever (why, yes, I am biased; she is my mentor) — describes “sexuality,” which:

…is the expression of freedom without necessarily constraining itself to options already laid out. Gayness (or straightness) is not produced from causes, whether physiological, genetic, neurological, or sociological; nor is it the consequence of a free choice among equally appealing given alternatives. It is the enactment of a freedom that can refuse to constrain sexuality and sexual partners to any given function, purpose, or activity, that makes sexuality an open invention, even as it carries the burden of biological, cultural, and individual construction (from becoming undone, emphasis added).

To think of sexuality as “the expression of freedom” is novel, affirmative, liberating and empowering. (It is, as a commenter of my last post observed, very “Age of Aquarius.”) Yet, Grosz is quick to note, while we are not pre-programmed or demanded to act a certain way, sexuality is not “the consequence of a free choice among equally appealing given alternatives” — and I can’t stress this corollary enough. Here is where experience and knowledge come into play, variously in terms of “predispositions,” “inclinations,” “preferences,” even “discriminations,” or, in the lesbian dating world, glaring “red flags of The Crazy.”

In other words, just because you like women doesn’t mean that you find all women equally appealing — am I right?

Grosz explains that sexuality as an “expression of freedom” is very much delimited by a particular body’s context, i.e., its surrounding and what other bodies it interacts with:

I cannot see how an understanding of sexuality, sexual pleasure, desire, and identity can be developed which doesn’t discern, as part of its very operations, the relative values of and attraction to the particularities of male and female bodies, organs, and activities. The body of the lover in any sexual relation is never a matter of indifference, and even in the case of intersexed bodies, as relatively rare as they are — that is, in the case of bodies that are not clearly classifiable as male or female — the form, nature, and capacities of the body are crucial elements of sexual attraction.

Context influences one’s attractions: The bodies we see and the materiality and (gendered) presentations of those bodies partially determine our attractions and, consequently, our actions. Grosz, a pre-eminent philosopher of the body, reminds us of the body’s importance in terms of sexuality. Bodies are never a “matter of indifference” in a sexual relation. (I gather that once “indifference” emerges, the relation either ends or “lesbian bed death” ensues.)

The other’s body — the body of attraction — is significant to our understanding of sexual identity; indeed, it functions as the fundamental determinant of sexual identity within culture. If a female-sexed body is attracted to another female-sexed body, then what is established is a homosexual relation and, subsequently, a homosexual identity (“lesbian”). Here is another reason why sexual identity is cultural: it abides a kind of logic of the third. Two female-sexed bodies can be in a relation without having an identity (or feeling compelled to give name to that relation). What gives that identity is a third body who observes that relation. (Ah, Judith Butler! Your idea of “recognition” with regard to identity rears its ugly head, once again!) It is the very cultural need to define every damn thing.

The converse of that, as we all know, is that, while someone may call us a “dyke,” we each have the power to shirk or accept that appellation. Personally, I love “dyke” but kind of cringe when it’s derogatorily hurled at me. This is another power I have: to create my identity, including my sexual identity.

So, while the forces that labor within me run the gamut of their existence outside the domain of my physical and mental agency, I do have the power over my actions and my identity (or identities, if I so choose and as consistent with my changing body as it matures throughout its life).

Understanding what I am in control of provides me with the fortitude to declare that, yes, my sexuality — as it is expressed through my actions and communicated or made visible through my identity — is my choice.


Editor’s Note: This piece was first published on AE under a different headline in 2011.