Visual by Karen Coelho

“Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis. The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness.”- Judith Butler

Judith Butler's 'Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity' (1990) has made an indelible impact on political philosophy, ethical theory, feminism, queer theory, and literary theory. In it, they outline their theory of gender performativity. J. L. Austin, a philosopher of language, originally articulated "performative utterances," which are speech acts that don't merely describe reality but also create it. Butler expands on Austin's work in developing their concept of gender performativity. They apply this notion of performativity not just to words but also to actions and behaviours. Butler critiques the terms gender and sex as feminists have traditionally used them. By arguing that "women" is an exclusive construct that "achieves stability and coherence only in the framework of the heterosexual matrix," they cast doubt on the validity of most feminist political thought until that point. They focused on the subversion of gendered identity categories that would reveal the falsity of established gender roles and the arbitrary nature of traditional gender, sex, and sexuality distinctions.

One of the pillars of queer theory has been the notion that identity is fluid and changeable and that gender is a performance rather than a fixed characteristic. Butler believes that gender is constituted by action and speech—by behaviour in which gendered traits and dispositions are displayed or acted out. Gendered actions are acquired performances of what we typically connect with femininity and masculinity; they are imposed on us by normative heterosexuality. Gendered behaviours are not natural- they are not intrinsic, biologically determined attributes or inherent identities. The idea of gender itself and the appearance of two distinct, biological sexes are created by this recurrent performance of gender, which is likewise performative. In 'Gender Trouble', Butler conducts a genealogy of gender ontologies to account for these acts within the constraints imposed by the many social and historical forces that police the manifestation of gender. Gender is always a doing in this sense, "though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed." They add their perspective to Nietzsche's claim in 'On the Genealogy of Morals' that "there is no 'being' behind doing, acting, becoming; 'the doer' is merely a fiction imposed on the doing—the doing itself is everything", by writing that: "there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results". Because individual subjects are created discursively, there is no fundamentally determining essence at the base of its existence. Butler contends that gender is entirely a social invention, a fiction, and as such, subject to change and challenge. They refer to Foucault's attack on the "doctrine of internalisation," the idea that people are shaped through internalising disciplinary frameworks. Foucault replaced this with "the model of inscription": as Butler describes it, this is the idea that "the law is not internalised, but incorporated, with the consequence that bodies are produced which signify that law on and through the body". Because there is no "interior" to gender ", the law" cannot be internalised but is written on the body in what Butler calls "the corporeal stylisation of gender". Butler argues that drag performances effectively expose the imitative nature of all gender identities by drawing attention to the disconnect between the performer's body and the gender represented.

Butler questions the supposedly symbiotic relation between gender and sex. This distinction between sex, which is natural and essential and gender, which is its cultural interpretation, is criticised by Butler. They contend that sex as a binary category falls under the umbrella of cultural constructs that encompass gender. Butler argues that the distinction between sex and gender is meaningless, noting that "perhaps this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gendered with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all". Biology is complicated, and bodies cannot be categorised with discrete boundaries. Chromosomes, genitalia, and hormones show a diversity that cannot fit within the binary. Butler doesn't claim that biological processes don't exist or don't have a real and tangible impact. Instead, they contend that cultural interpretation is the primary that bodies can be understood and that this interpretation yields too simplistic, binary ideas of sex. In other words, two "natural," well-defined, and significant kinds of sexes are not because of objective science, but because we live in a gendered world, the sexual differences between people are imbued with meaning and significance.

In addition to revolutionising perspectives on gender and queer identity in academia, their theory of gender performativity has also influenced and energised many forms of political activity, notably LGBT activism, worldwide. Judith Butler's theory has made it possible to question the immutability of gender roles and has opened up new possibilities for self-creation. In a recent interview, Butler said that- "what it means to be a woman does not remain the same from decade to decade. The category of woman can and does change, and we need it to be that way. Politically, securing greater freedoms for women requires we rethink the category of "women" to include those new possibilities. The historical meaning of gender can change as its norms are re-enacted, refused or recreated. So, we should not be surprised or opposed when the category of women expands to include trans women. And since we are also in the business of imagining alternate futures of masculinity, we should be prepared and even joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of "men"." Butler contends that to destroy the oppressive system of patriarchy and required heterosexuality, society as a whole must shatter the gender binary. In an interview in 2015, they said: "No matter whether one feels one's gendered and sexed reality of being firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives."



  1. Judith Butler - Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity-Taylor & Francis (2006)







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