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Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler, discusses sex, gender, and sexuality, and is considered a foundational text for third wave feminism and contemporary queer theory. Butler is primarily concerned with breaking down the culturally-determined continuities and supposed coherences between the sex, gender, and sexuality binaries. She does this through a lengthy comparative discussion of the works of Beauvoir, Irigaray, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Lacan, Monica Wittig, Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, among others.
At the core of this work is a critique of the feminist movement’s definition of “woman” as a unitary and stable subject around which to organize politically. Butler problematizes the notion of a universal womanhood from the beginning of her book, saying that to define such a category as “woman” is impossible, as the identity of “woman” intersects with other identities such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, “regional modalities,” and even the so-called “identity” of class. She posits that the construction of the category “woman,” as a coherent and stable subject, is a regulation and reification of gender relations— which goes contrary to the supposed aims of feminism, and therefore confines feminism to the “heterosexual matrix.”From the outset Butler further claims, following Foucault, that the “juridical structures of language and politics constitute the contemporary field of power,” and cannot be escaped. This point is key, as it allows her to both dismiss many feminists who have formulated a practical way forward for ending the oppression of women, and to justify her narrow, individualistic alternative approach to overcoming the problems she claims to have discovered in feminism. Butler cursorily dismisses the projects of Marxists and materialist/socialist feminists which have traced the emergence of gender hierarchies with the advent of class society. She claims that such projects are inevitably based on “problematic normative ideals” about what it means to be a woman and what constitutes patriarchal oppression. She also contends that these projects are unable to formulate an unbiased picture of a pre-patriarchal society, since they are colored with present and future political interests. She fails to consider that there are contemporary hunter-gatherer societies in which a veritable gender hierarchy does not exist, despite their having a sexual division of labor. She reiterates the post-structuralist problematization of attempts to distinguish between culture and nature, stating that what constitutes nature is always culturally-determined. Having dismissed many feminists who have at various points identified concrete paths towards ending gender oppression and hyper-exploitative gender roles, Butler states that her task is to critique the categories of identity that language and power engender, naturalize, and immobilize. By tracing a “feminist genealogy” of the category “woman,” which means to outline the “political operations that produce and conceal what qualifies as the juridical subject of feminism,” Butler believes she will be able to dismantle the stable notion of gender that historically undergirded feminist politics in favor of a feminism that holds a more “variable construction of identity” as its political foundation— and perhaps as a goal in itself.
Butler critiques the categories of sex and gender, which feminism has historically distinguished as fixed biological attributes (sex) versus cultural norms (gender). Butler points out that this distinction implies that gender does not inherently follow from sex, and that there is no reason for genders to be limited to the two binary genders corresponding to the supposed two sexes. Following a post-structuralist framework which rejects any attempt to distinguish nature and culture, Butler problematizes the sex binary itself, suggesting that it is “as culturally constructed as gender,” and that the concept has been naturalized by being cast in the “prediscursive domain.” Gender ideology, she states, has always framed scientific inquiries into sex determination, such as Page’s study searching for a “master gene” which determines sex. Butler believes that bodies that fall outside the sex binary, such as intersex people, prove the arbitrary construction of sexual categories which have been naturalized through discourse, even though this population of people make up at most 1.7% of the population (some put the number below 0.02%). For Butler, “the strange, the incoherent, that which falls ‘outside,’ gives us a way of understanding the take-for-granted world of sexual categorization as a constructed one, indeed, as one that might well be constructed differently.”
Perhaps the most central and influential idea in Butler’s book is that of gender as “performance”— that gender is not a stable, transhistorical category consisting of a set of attributes, but is rather something that somebody “does.” Furthermore, there is no true “gender identity” behind the performance of gender— gender is performed rather than expressed. This idea is based on a broader notion in post-structuralism which maintains that discourse creates reality, and that we cannot know a true reality outside of discourse. For Butler, normative gender performances are “compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence.” Butler points to the persistence and proliferation of nonconforming gender identities as proof of the limits of society’s schema for understanding the coherence within a dual set of sex, sexuality, and gender— the gender binary.
One might assume that Butler’s text contains a practical element for charting the future of feminist politics. For Butler, the repetitive performativity of gender allows an opening for individuals to resist gender/sex/sexuality norms. She gives one (1) example of how this can happen: drag. Butler believes that drag performances have the power to denaturalize sex and gender through performances that “dramatize the cultural mechanism of the fabricated unity” of the gender/sex binaries. For Butler, drag parodies the notion of an original gender, which is in fact a fiction— gender is a repetitive act that is “open to splittings, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic exhibitions of ‘the natural’ that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmic status.” She briefly considers the objection some feminists have had to drag’s tendency to reproduce perverted and misogynistic stereotypes about women, but she says that “although the gender meanings taken up in these parodic styles are clearly part of hegemonic, misogynist culture, they are nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized through their parodic recontextualization.” This makes drag not only acceptable, but revolutionary.
And nothing more can really be done, for Butler, because in attempting to “establish a point of view outside of constructed identities” one would end up forgetting their cultural situatedness, and end up deploying “precisely the imperialist strategies that feminism ought to criticize.” Feminists can only aim to enact daily individual acts of resistance in which they subvert normative gender/sex/sexuality practices.
Butler’s work aims for the destruction of gender norms, which she claims “would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity, and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists,” “man” and “woman.” If her aim is to destabilize the cultural constructs of a coherent gender/sex/sexuality binary, opting for a gender ideology in which all kinds of gender/sex/sexuality attributes and acts can intermingle and coexist, it is interesting that she has since fully thrown her support behind a cultural movement that seems to hold very different views on gender identity and sexuality— and that this cultural movement often claims to have come out of the ideas of queer theory which Butler was instrumental in developing. In many respects, the contemporary trans rights movement insists on a rigid gender binary, i.e. one’s sex assigned at birth must match their gender identity, and if they don’t, they must undergo an expensive (read: profitable) and dangerous surgery to make them match. Furthermore, contemporary queer ideology holds that there is absolutely such a thing as “gender expression,” implying that there is a true “gender identity” behind one’s performance of gender— a concept that was rejected by Butler in Gender Trouble. Butler herself has eagerly backpedaled on several fundamental points from Gender Trouble, revealing herself to be somewhat of a charlatan desperate to maintain her position as a queer feminist icon in 2021. She can hardly define the concepts of “performativity” or “queer theory” in her January 2021 interview with Owen Jones (I won't link this... take my word for it or look it up). Those who continue to hold her up as an icon have likely never read her book, have not critically considered how many of the ideas in this text fundamentally contradict their own, or have simply misunderstood it on account of its cumbersome language.
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I'll leave the reader with two questions:
Butler’s goal is to destabilize the cultural constructs of a coherent gender/sex/sexuality binary, opting for a gender ideology in which all kinds of gender/sex/sexuality attributes and acts can intermingle and coexist. This seems to contradict contemporary queer conceptions of gender in which the gender binary is sometimes embraced. In Gender Trouble, Butler also rejects the idea that gender can be “expressed,” as this implies that there is a true “gender identity” behind one’s performance of gender. Contrary to this, contemporary queer conceptions of gender very much believe in the concept of “gender expression.” Today’s queer cultural movement often claims to come out of the ideas of queer theory, which Butler was instrumental in developing. And since writing Gender Trouble, Butler has fully embraced contemporary popular ideas about gender expression and the gender binary, contrary to the positions she takes in the book. Can the positions she takes in the book be reconciled with the positions she has taken in 2021? If these two concepts (a rejection of both the gender binary and the concept of “gender expression”) are so central to her book, what do these facts say about the validity of her argument and the internal consistency of queer theory?
Marxists have identified the origin of gender oppression as resulting from the advent of class society. Contemporary anthropological studies have provided support for this theory. Butler dismisses projects that trace the emergence of gender hierarchy in Gender Trouble, claiming that such projects are inevitably based on “problematic normative ideals” about what it means to be a woman and what constitutes patriarchal oppression. She also contends that these projects are unable to formulate an unbiased picture of a pre-patriarchal society, since they are colored with present and future political interests. She is able to make these claims because for her, what constitutes nature is always culturally-determined, and because she maintains, following Foucault, that the “juridical structures of language and politics constitute the contemporary field of power,” and cannot be escaped. To what extent does taking such a position limit her political and theoretical horizons with regard to dismantling gender oppression?
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