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Gender Trouble: Judith Butler Explained

Updated on January 30, 2017
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia loves learning languages and travelling, and is interested in a range of social issues.

'Gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences.’

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

Gender (In)Equality Today

The quote I put at the beginning summarizes well the social importance of Judith Butler’s work; a failure to adhere to gender norms is punished by society. It is true that we have moved a great deal in terms of LGBT+ rights since 1990 when Butler’s Gender Trouble was published; many countries have taken amazing steps towards gender equality. The Netherlands, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay all allow same-sex marriage, as well as parts of Denmark, Mexico, the New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Same-sex marriage, however, is only legal in a handful of countries in the world, with no Asian country and only one African country on the list. Sadly, some countries move in the opposite direction – Uganda, for example has introduced a law that allows to incarcerate homosexuals for life. And before you get too cocky about our Western civilization know that: homophobia in Uganda is actually a colonial legacy with the British planting the seed, and American missionaries nurturing and protecting it.

Gender Trouble

Gender Trouble is a famous scholarly work by Judith Butler, who proposes in it the theory of gender performativity. According to her, gender is an act that we put on in social situations in order to mark our femininity or masculinity.

What Is the Body

Butler, with the help of Mary Douglas and Julia Kristeva, throws topsy-turvy a conventional materialistic understanding of the body. It’s not a piece of flesh, she says, it is a social construct. Society dictates the right usage of the body and forbids the wrong. For example, heterosexual marital sex is a socially sanctioned activity in Catholic countries, whereas homosexual sex is utterly out of the question in, let’s say, Uganda. In this way the invisible eye of society looks you into the pants, so to speak. Engaging in transgressive behavior with regards to your body is not without consequences – it can provoke so called “normative violence” to ensure that everybody plays by the same rules. It can take different forms, from insulting and bullying at school, to beating up in the street, up to torture and murder. It’s a bit like prison, we are in this all together, but some inmates have taken upon themselves to police other inmates and ensure they observe all prison regulations.

Julia Kristeva

Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst and feminist born in 1941. She is famous of developing the concept of the abject and how we define ourselves through it.

The Abject and Social Exclusion

Julia Kristeva, who is one point of departure for Butler’s ideas, is interested in the abject. The abject is something repulsing and created by an act of expulsion – excrement for example. Kristeva argues that the abject is indispensable for defining boundaries. We can only know that we are ourselves by knowing what isn’t us. The excrement I just got rid of was me not so long ago (it was inside my body), but as soon as it crosses the boundary it’s alien, more than that, it’s disgusting, impure. In this way a border and the distinction between the inner and the outer is established. According to Kristeva, we can create a uniform “I”, myself as distinct from anything and anyone else, only by establishing and maintaining this border.

Some scholars have adapted this model to describe the workings of society; society can only identify itself through the act of expelling people that do not conform to its rules. Think about the homeless, for instance. We say that they are on “the margins of society”, the spatial metaphor in this expression illustrates well Kristeva’s point. As they are not legitimate subject of capitalism (at least in the case of Western society), they are not part of the network of people with “proper”, socially sanctioned jobs, they inhabit the border of that society. A similar case is with LGBT+ people. Although in some parts of the world we have transformed the norms as to include LGBT+ people, they still often occupy a similar place in society, they are regarded as abject.

Gender as a Social Construct, Gender Performance

Butler’s brilliancy lies in recognizing the social constructedness of gender with all its consequences. In Simone de Beauvoir’s words: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Right from the beginning you are conditioned to become a woman or man. You play with toys that prepare you to discharge the social role that is assigned to you on the basis of your anatomy.

The most essential question to ask is: what is gender? Butler answers quite simply: it’s a performance. It’s a set of practices we learn by repetition. It may be easier to conceptualize it as a theatrical performance. You’ve got the script and you are expected to stick to it. Of course it’s up to you how specifically you are going to perform certain gestures, in what exactly pitch of voice you’re going to utter the lines. However, you say what is on the page, you take hints as to the mood, and so on. The problem is that we’ve held the script forever and are no longer aware that are just actors on the social scene. So we think that every gesture, every word stem from an interior “I” – we’ve created essentialism.

Let me put it this way, gender seems to be a lonely queen that dwells in the body, steering it according to her mysterious, but natural impulses. However, Butler implies that, in fact, this queen is all over the body, it is in gestures, smiles, voice. It is actually a web of meanings on the surface of the body in which we are entangled. Gender is a performance with its specific meaning, nothing more, nothing less. The impression of interior gender is the product of what exists on the surface of the body as performance. It is not to say our subjective feelings are false, we do feel like a man or a woman, but feel this way because we are conditioned to think it by repeating gestures that carry social meanings of femininity and masculinity. In other words, an interior gender is social, not natural. What difference does it make, you may ask. Well, colossal. Because the realization that no-one is “natural” or “normal”, that everyone acts a part, just some parts are acted by a larger number of people is the first step to avoiding normative violence. Society could learn to accept an “effeminate man” or a “masculine woman”, or any other people that don’t conform to traditional gender roles.

Femininity and masculinity are thus created continually in time, by gestures which carry certain meanings. These gestures and meanings are restricted to some extent by the past, but also evolve; there is a history of variations of what it means to be a man or a woman. On the basis of this performance idealized concepts of femininity and masculinity are created, ideals which most of us strive to fulfill (mostly unconsciously) but no-one can really achieve them. We make mistakes, and if these mistakes become too glaring, normative violence kicks in. Women that don’t put on make-up are stared at contemptuously. Men that manifest feelings in too conspicuous a way are called cry-babies. But perhaps transgender people are most exposed to normative violence, especially if it is conspicuous that their gender performance doesn’t agree with their anatomy. Whereas gays and lesbians have gained a degree of acceptance in some cultures, I think it is still inconvenient for many people to meet a transgender person in the street. Maybe because there is something uncanny about him/her; man or woman, but not quite. There is similarity, but something is certainly off, something we cannot exactly pinpoint, but this little something keeps bugging and mocking us. Maybe it makes us so uneasy because it challenges the idea that the equation sex = gender = gender performance is natural. Channeling all the doubts, fear and anger into violence against a transgender person isn’t conducive to any constructive thinking about gender, indeed, thinking about the transgender as “diseased” is just another mechanism of dressing gender in natural clothes.

Transgender Pride Flag
Transgender Pride Flag

Transgender Is Subversive

The reason I mention transgender people, rather than, like Butler did, drag, is that they often suffer double exclusion. Social, it goes without saying. But also academic to some extent. In the wake of Butler’s publication and in the process of Gender Trouble’s cannonization, drag has been remembered as a positively subversive behavior, as the position to question the dominant binary gender system. Although it wasn’t Butler’s intention, drag has become the epitome of subversive gender behavior at the cost of other gender beings. Transsexuals have been sometimes scorned for their hankering for essentialism, for their desire to become proper men/women. It’s been viewed as being on the side of the “essentialist mainstream”. In contrast, drag has been considered as trying to achieve something opposite: showing that there is no gender essentialism. Some feminists accused transgender women of acting in the service of patriarchy, as transgender women more often assume stereotypical women positions: being submissive, longing to be housewives and so on. But we need to be very careful here. For one thing, the medical establishment contributes greatly to this state of affairs; to achieve sex change surgery transsexuals must prove beyond doubt that they can perform like the opposite gender. So they are strongly prompted to assume stereotypical positions in order to achieve the longed-for end; sex change surgery. For another thing, we must remember that transgender people learn to act in a specific way from scratch. Excess in acting compensates for the lack of practice in the years before coming out (at least not before an audience, for cross-dressing is usually a private matter). Like all of us, they are in search of the right modality of gender for them, and acting with excess may manifest anxiety that they won’t be recognized as the opposite gender. The learning process that accompany a sex change speaks of gender as a social construct, something that can be “acquired” by practice.


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