Sometimes people play roles. A simple case of this is an actor in a play. The director assigns them a role and then may give them input on how to play the role: what clothes to wear, what mannerisms to use, what accent to speak, etc. Something similar happens on Halloween, Purim, or when going to a costume party. You often wear certain clothes, or carry certain props in order to communicate your identity to the people who see you.
There are some costumes that seem to come up over and over again. People often dress up as the president, Marilyn Monroe, or a famous athlete. If you pick one of these “standard” costumes, you know that there are certain things you do, say, wear, hold to show that you are Marilyn Monroe, etc.
Most of us assume that we can distinguish between the “real” person and their performance. No one would mistake the actor who plays Hamlet for a real prince of Denmark, or a person dressed as the president for Barack Obama. But on some level, we all play roles all the time. When someone, before entering a stressful situation, encourages him or herself to “just act confident,” that person is implying that there are certain ways that a confident person acts, certain things that a confident person does. Maybe it has to do with where you put your hands, or with making eye contact, or a certain posture. The point is that the shy person wants to project confidence and he or she does this by performing in a particular way.
What is the difference between peoples “true” selves and the roles they present in everyday life? At what point does one become a confident person simply because one has been playing a confident person for so long? Is there a “true” self that exists “under” or “behind” the performed self?
The idea that the world is a stage and all of us are acting all the time provides a powerful lens through which to analyze society. I will end with a brief example. Someone might ask, “what does it feel like to be a man or a woman?” The implicit assumption of that statement is that what determines one's gender is an internal and subjective experience. I don't know what my gender feels like. When try to investigate this, I close my eyes and “observe how I feel.” There is nothing that pops up that I would describe as “the feeling of being a man” or “the feeling of being a woman.” Maybe when you close your eyes, you have a different experience. Try it.
In the end, we project our gender to the world much in the same way that an actor projects his or her character on the stage. By speaking Hamlet's lines, by holding Yorick's skull (or at least a skull that is performing as Yorick's skull) in one's hand, one can begin to feel like Hamlet. What it means to play the role of a man is very different on the street than it is in a gym locker room. For one, playing the role of a man on the street does not require having a penis, while playing a man in a locker room often does (for more on this see Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity). In many contexts, performing as a woman may simply come down to dressing a certain way and talking a certain way. Considering what one would do, say, hold etc. in order to perform the role of being a woman goes a long way to telling us what it means to be a woman.
Check out the video below to see a collection of how Bugs Bunny performs the role of a woman. What does this video show about what it means to be a woman (obviously some things have changed since this cartoon was made)?