Anyone who has ever taken a course in Women’s Studies or Gender Studies or Fuck Heteronormativity 101 is probably familiar with philosopher Judith Butler’s mega game-changer, Gender Trouble. In this book, Butler hypothesizes that gender is performative, always in flux, and simply an illusion masquerading as “identity.” There is no stability in gender, hence the “trouble” we might find ourselves in when recognizing (and complicating) such a performance. This “trouble” is not to be interpreted as a pejorative, but rather a call for upsetting the status quo, an advocating for the chaotic, unreliable nature of gender. Salute your strap-ons. Or, better yet, watch Marie Losier’s documentary on industrial music pioneer and avant-garde performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) and her partner, Lady Jaye. Although slightly messy and meandering, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is a thoughtful, beautiful portrait of two gender-bending weirdos in love with themselves and each other.
Genesis met Lady Jaye inside a New York City dungeon back when she still identified as “he” and took way too much ecstasy in clubs across the city every night. Lady Jaye was a dominatrix and performance artist who believed that bodies were merely “flesh suitcases” and encouraged Genesis to explore the fluidity in her appearance and sexuality. Both partners became aware of their desire to transcend gender in a way that wasn’t simply about becoming a “man” or a “woman” trapped in the wrong body, but to become a third entity that they termed the “pandrogyne.” Rejecting the idea of gender and the “fictitious self,” they embraced more of a hermaphroditic, positive type of androgyne. This belief manifested itself physically, as Genesis and Lady Jaye underwent multiple sessions of plastic surgery and body modifications to appear as the same person: breast implants, nose jobs, lip jobs, beauty mark tattoos — you name it, they shared it.
In the film, Genesis likens the surgical process to William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method, where sections of linear text were cut apart to recreate a new text, a different sort of automatic writing in which the author, according to Burroughs, “cuts into the present in order for the future to leak out.” A third mind is created, so to speak, and Genesis and Lady Jaye ostensibly adopted this process to create their pandrogyne project. Despite my support and admiration for what the couple tried to do, I found myself taking issue with the commodification of Burroughs’ method. If Genesis really wanted to form a living, breathing “cut-up,” her breasts would be implanted on her kneecaps, her dick (still intact, by the way) would be sewn onto her neck, and maybe her hands and feet would switch places. A true representation of the cut-up would render someone immobile, maybe mouthless, maybe dead. Burroughs has always played an important part in Genesis’ art and life, and I can respect her efforts to take his visions to the next level, but maybe leave him out of pandrogeny?
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is advertised as a film about pandrogeny and plastic surgery, but most of the documentary is spent on Genesis’ career, particularly her attempts to keep producing music in an environment where Lady Gaga is seen as “shocking.” This is unfortunate, because her theories on gender, “angelic bodies,” and the malleability of flesh are much more fascinating to hear and see than the film’s countless clips of Throbbing Gristle concert footage. The storyline tends to drag, with Genesis sitting at her keyboard playing a note of noise while looking at the camera as if to say, “See? You’re watching a genius!” This, like Genesis, gets old. However, anyone who wants to sit back and roll their eyes at Genesis and label her artistic/sexual efforts with Lady Jaye as “antics” or “desperate cries for attention” can eat their words when the film takes a sudden turn with Lady Jaye’s surprising death in 2007. She had a seizure in the bathroom one morning and never woke up. Following the announcement of Jaye’s death, Losier films Genesis sitting alone in a white room, the camera angled below her face and torso so the light hits all the wrinkles, all the sad, botched flesh. We watch her grimace in way that is more real than any manifesto, any surgical belief, any song ever written, and we realize that these two people had the kind of love most of us will never know in this life.