Judith Butler – Feminist Philosopher, Gender “Performativity”

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Judith Butler (b. 1956) is a philosopher, third-wave feminist, and reputable proponent of gender theory. She is outspoken on the topics of feminism and LGBTQ+ issues while some of her later work engages philosophical theories of violence.

Feminists of the second wave began distinguishing between sex and gender when discussing differences between men and women. They noted that sex is a biological designation and thus refers to biological differences in men and women, whereas gender refers to social differences. Butler was a part of this debate as evidenced by her 1986 paper Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Here Butler noted how the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir provided an important and fresh understanding of gender and how this inspired her own theories on the subject. In 1990 she published her most influential work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Gender Trouble is a complex text that draws from the theories of philosopher Michel Foucault as well as from the ideas of post-structuralist feminists such as Julia Kristeva. Foucault believed that social reality is constructed through language and Butler’s Gender Trouble came to emphasize linguistic structures, discourse, and acts. By “acts,” she means how social reality is created through language and gesture. Speech, for example, is an act as is non-verbal communication in the form of gestures, body appearances, and behaviours. These, Butler maintains, play an important role in the creation of gender identity. Within social contexts, they become rules and restrictions on how free a person is to act contrary to societal expectations. Butler explains the purpose of her work as follows,

“My work has always been undertaken with the aim to expand and enhance a field of possibilities… To conceive of bodies differently seems to me part of the conceptual and philosophical struggle that feminism involves, and it can relate to questions of survival” (1).

Butler refers to gender as performative, an idea she introduced in her essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (1988). Here she argues that gender is created and sustained through the constant repetition of acts and that when these acts are observed they give the appearance of a coherent and natural gender identity. As such, the notion of “performativity” suggests that gender is not something people innately are but is something that they do (i.e. perform). Butler writes that “Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed.” A person is not born with a gender that influences her to behave in a certain way; instead, she is perceived to have a gender identity because of how she talks, walks, and presents herself. Given that this involves a repeated performance of acts, gender is given the appearance of a fixed identity.

Butler maintains that the performance of gender is propelled by repeated acts that reinforce oppressive, socially constructed gender norms, especially the traditional domination of women by men and the oppression of homosexuals and transgender persons. These norms position “man” and “woman” as polar opposites with no middle ground. Butler goes further, however, and contends that this also relates to sex. She claims that sex, like gender, is socially constructed because of the language used to describe genitalia as either being male or female. On her view, our understanding of sex is bound up in notions of what it means for something to be masculine or feminine.

Butler disagrees with the idea that heterosexuality is the natural state of being. In accordance with her theory, she believes that heterosexuality is a performance that has been repeated so many times that it has become a cultural norm. Gender does not possess any underlying nature and is thus illusory. However, any deviance from this norm is punished. Homosexuals and persons whose gender performance does not match their sex do not fit into the “natural” heterosexual state of being and they will experience shame and can even be subjected to violence due to their deviance from social norms. Butler implores that,

“It is important to resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender different, who are nonconforming in their gender presentations.”

Butler calls this “hegemonic heterosexuality.” Hegemonic refers to the most dominant force in a socio-political context that is considered normal, natural, and ideal. Other theorists have worked with this idea and refer to it as heteronormativity, which speaks of a worldview within which heterosexuality has become the dominant idea and influence in how people are to view themselves, others, and their interactions with others. Such a worldview endorses the male-female gender binary.

Butler believes in the importance of challenging heteronormativity by engaging in deviant gendered behaviour that exposes the artificiality of conventional gender roles and the randomness of traditional correspondences between gender, sex, and sexuality.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Costera Meijer, Irene, and Prins, Baukje. 1998. “How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Signs 23(2):275-286. p. 277.

Butler, Judith. 1986. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.” Yale French Studies 72:35-49.

McCann. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. London: DK Publishing.

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