This is a post about a concept that helps me make sense of the world I work in. Part of my reason to write it is because I find that when feminist ideas are used in the digital, government and digital government communities work in, they are frequently used to explore and understand matters of gender only. For me, feminist, queer and anti-racist ideas can help us explore and understand much more. I would also like to modify the citational practices of digital government, which as an intellectual project rests almost exclusively on a canon written by white men.
When a person who is not a business executive dresses and acts so much like an executive, that people think they are an executive, and in some sense they become an executive.
To the best of my knowledge, ‘realness’ and the related concept ‘executive realness’ come from ball culture in the US in the 1980s and 1990s. Some drag performers explain what ‘realness’ means to them in the documentary Paris is Burning:
‘to be able to blend, that’s what realness is’
‘it’s not a take-off or a satire, no, it’s actually being able to be this’
The concept of ‘executive realness’ thus means being able to be an executive through your actions and presentation, even if you are not employed as an executive. Note that is means ‘being’, not just ‘pretending to be’. You can see a tiny bit of an example at 0:12 in the video. There are examples of executive realness elsewhere in Paris is Burning, but I can’t find clips of those sections online.
Note that the term is probably not fixed in definition, rather becoming fixed through the documentary (see bell hooks’ critique below).
The term has also been used in RuPaul’s Drag Race, which brings styles and language of drag balls to the genre of the TV talent show.
Paris is Burning has been analysed by feminist scholars including bell hooks in her essay ‘Is Paris Burning?’ and Judith Butler in ‘Stories that Matter’. In my mis-remembering, it is a text used in Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’ in relation to the theory of gender performativity but this is not the case. I note that here because Gender Trouble and Paris is Burning, and so executive realness, are things I always think of together. I make a Butlerian interpretation of the concept because I stress the idea of someone ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ executive through their actions, not just the idea of pretending so well you pass. If the idea of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ something rather than ‘pretending to be’ something through your actions is unfamiliar, Butler is a good place to start.
At the most superficial level, the concept points out that in the workplace, we are all acting within certain modes of behaviour. Or deliberately acting outside them, but probably not too much outside, else we are likely to have to leave the workplace.
The concept points out that executive-ness is unevenly distributed across bodies. In the context in which I live and work it is most frequently found on/in white, heterosexual, middle class, cis male bodies. It is naturalised in these bodies, so it doesn’t seem like acting or adopting and performing a set of behaviours, it just seems ‘real’.
Or, some people get to act in ways that accrue socio-economic privilege, in large part because of their existing socio-economic privilege, while others don’t.
The concept also shows, though, that these behaviours can easily be adopted by people who don’t usual exhibit them. If you can pass as an executive in a drag ball, then you could pass in an office. To stretch this again, there is no intrinsic greater value or talent in a person who gets to be an executive every day, than one who gets to pass as an executive in a drag ball. The only difference is that one owns the body on which executive-ness is most often found and moves in the socio-economic circles that make doing executive-ness everyday possible.
Or, don’t think you’re in your position just because of your talent and hard work.
To use the concept in a more cheeky and personal way, when I dress smartly at work or perform boss-like tasks, I sometimes conceptualise myself as doing executive realness. As a white, middle class cis woman, I can pass as an executive pretty easily. There are small penalties for adopting these behaviours, for example receiving negative comments about being overly confident in my abilities, being called blunt, or being called masculine, or excessively careerist, which to the best of my understanding are not negative comments that men who are broadly equivalent to me receive. These are minor penalties, however, because I occupy a body which can pass as executive relatively easily, from which I accrue substantial socio-economic privileges.
Finally, and most importantly, the concept reminds me to value and respect the perspectives of people who do not adopt or fulfil the expectations of executive realness, either because their bodies are not those on which executive behaviours are naturalised, or because they do not choose to or cannot adopt these styles. It reminds me that there are people who do not appear at all in the work I do, where I frequently work entirely with people exhibiting executive behaviours. These ideas are often discussed in the workplace and in the technology sector in the language of ‘diversity’. I’m going to write more about ‘diversity’ and what it means to me separately.
I’m using the concept of executive realness a long way from its home. I am taking it from US to UK context and across boundaries of gender, race, class and sexuality, in which I am the more privileged party. bell hooks criticised the film Paris is Burning and its critical reception for presenting the particular culture of drag balls through the lens of a middle class, educated, white woman, as if it was an unmediated truth and ‘as though [Jennie Livingstone, the director] somehow did this marginalized black gay subculture a favor by bringing their experiences to a wider public’ (hooks cited in Butler, Bodies That Matter, Routledge, 1993, p92). I don’t think I’m doing them a favour by writing this post. I think the subjects of Paris is Burning did me a favour by creating a concept that illuminates how executive authority is created. (Edit: the language of ‘favours’ suggests that the creators of the concept did it to benefit me, which they didn’t – they did it for themselves and I pinched it). I hope I am using their concept respectfully, but do so expecting to be critiqued if I am not, in which case I will change or discontinue my use of it.