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Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble"

Judith Butler is recognized as the most important gender theorist writing today. Influenced by the feminism of Beauvoir, the psychoanalytic concepts of Freud, and the post modernism of Derrida and Foucault, she developed the theory of “gender performativity.” An offshoot of social constructionism, gender performativity asserts that gender roles are not innate but learned. The word “roles” reveals the underlying metaphor that Butler uses in her analysis, that of social presentation as a kind of performance; like theatrical performances, it has several basic components–actor, audience, script, etc. Appropriating Derrida’s theory of citation, she claims that gender performances are iterative, repeated (and reinforced) daily at home, work, school, and social events. She singles out one particular role as emblematic of gender fluidity: drag queens. Often appearing at gay bars, drag queens are biological males who dress flamboyantly in female attire, simulating behaviors typically associated with famous celebrities, such as Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.  While many feminists view such behavior as demeaning to women, showcasing the worst stereotypes, Butler finds drag to be salutary, the actor satirizing the exaggerated, and sometimes contradictory, images men have of women–flamboyant, seductive, suffering, powerful. At the same time drag has an important secondary function, to demonstrate how easy it is for a biological man to appear as a woman, without many in the audience realizing it, then divest himself of those clothes and leave the bar dressed as a man.

This underscores a major contention of Butler’s, influenced in large part by her reading of Monique Wittig: not only is gender presentation a kind of performance, but so is the social presentation of sex (by “sex” I mean whether one is biologically male or female). She rejects categorically that sex is necessarily fixed and binary: “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.” (Gender Trouble, 1999, pp. 10-11) Supporting this view are the examples of intersex and transgendered people: many preoperative transexuals identify as the opposite sex and expect to be treated accordingly. That means being able to use the opposite sex’s bathrooms and, for those who are in the military, to be assigned opposite sex housing. The effect on the general population may be a growing sense of anomie, born from sexual confusion, revealed in the basic existential question:“Who am I if I am neither male nor female?”

As a result of the debate over gender and sex identification, a new academic subdiscipline has emerged--Queer Theory. Historically the word “queer” has been derogatory slang for homosexual. But it is now being embraced by many young people who refuse the binary limitations of heterosexuality or homosexuality; they even refuse the label bisexuality because they may at some point become polysexual or polyamorous or explore intimate relationships with inanimate objects (examples are the protagonists in the films Lars and the Real Girl and Her). One of the main conclusions that can be drawn from Butler’s writings, although she does not address it directly, is that binary gender roles, binary sexual orientations, and binary sex identities mar our experience of The Other: if The Other is presented as the opposite of oneself, does that presuppose adversarial encounters? In Justice as Fairness, which we read several months ago, Rawls made a case for democratic pluralism; Butler has made a similar argument, albeit more controversial, for gender.

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity has publication dates of 1990, 1999. and 2006. Except for a new introduction in the 2006 copy, it appears there have been no changes in the primary text since the first printing. Amazon.com offers the 2006 copy for $14.37 new and from $10.98 used. Much cheaper used copies, starting at $4.11, are available from bookfinder.com.

The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, interviews, lecture notes, and videos.

Wkipedia: "Judith Butler", "Gender Trouble", "Gender", "Sex and Gender Distinction", "Gender Performativity", “Feminist Views on Transgenderism and Transexualism”"Gender Studies", "Essentialism", "Social Constructionism", "Monique Wittig", “Queer Theory”, "Intersex", "Third Sex"

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Feminist Perspectives on Power", “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”, “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues”

Amy Allen. "Power Trouble: Performativity as Critical Theory." Constellations 5.4 (1998), pp. 456-471.

Geoff Bucher. "The Politics of Performativity: A Critique of Judith Butler." Parrhesia 1 (2006), pp. 112-141.

Sara Salih. “On Judith Butler and Performativity.” (Originally part of chapters 2 and 3 in Salih's Judith Butler. Routledge, 2002).

Steven K. White. “As the World Turns: Ontology and Politics in Judith Butler.” Polity 32.2 (Winter 1999), pp. 155-177.

Alison Stone. “Towards a Genealogical Feminism: A Reading of Judith Butler’s Political Thought.” Contemporary Political Theory 4 (2005), pp. 4–24.

Peter Benson. “Cross-Dressing with Jacques and Judy.” Philosophy Now (Sept/Oct 2013).

Martha Nusbaum. “The Professor of Parody.” The New Republic Online. (February 1999).

Ken Plummer. “Critical Humanism and Queer Theory: Living with the Tensions.” In The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. Ed. Yvonna Lincoln and Norman Denzin. 3rd Edition (2005).

Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir. "The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender." In Feminist Metaphysics: Explorations in the Ontology of Sex, Gender and the Self. Ed. Charlotte Witt. Springer, 2011, pp. 47-66.

Sally Young. "Is Judith Butler's Approach to Gender Politics an Improvement on Previous Forms of Feminism?" (student essay written for Communications course, University of Leeds, UK)

Anna Gullickson. "Sex and Gender Through an Analytic Eye: Butler on Freud and Gender Identity" (2000) (author is honors student at Illinois Wesleyan University).

Dr. Michael Eldred. "Metaphysics of Feminism: A Critical Note on Judith Butler's Gender Trouble." (author is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in Philosophy)

Anonymous. "Judith Butler/Gender Trouble: Drag Queens and Gender Performance." The Cultural Studies Reader (2 July 2011).

Noa-Ben Asher. "The Necessity of Sex Change: A Struggle for Intersex and Transsex Liberties." Harvard Journal of Law & Gender 29 (2006), pp. 51-98.

Riki Wilchins. "Op-ed: Transgender Dinosaurs, Part Deux: The Revenge of Judith Butler." Advocate (5 March 2013).

John Monteith. "Op-ed: Am I Making Myself Perfectly Queer?" Advocate (27 November 2013).

Selected Reviews of Gender Trouble from amazon.com.

Interviews

Irene Costera Meijer and Baukje Prins. “How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23.2 (1998), pp. 275-286.

Regina Michalik. "The Desire for Philosophy." Lola Press 2 (May 2001).

Margaret Soenser Breen et al. "There Is a Person Here: An Interview with Judith Butler." International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies 6.1/2 (2001).

Fina Birulés. "Judith Butler--Gender is Extramoral." Barcelona Metropolis. (Summer, June – September 2008).

Liz Kotz. "The Body Your Want." Artforum (November 1992), pp. 82-89.

Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal. Extracts from "Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler" (1993)

Lecture Notes

"Judith Butler's Gender Trouble" by Professor Mary Klages, Dept. of English, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Modules on Butler: "On Gender and Sex", "On Performativity" by Professor Dino Franco Felluga, Dept. of English, Purdue University.

Videos

Judith Butler Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. (she appears to be speaking to different groups in France)

Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender

Judith Butler and Michael Roth: A Conversation at Wesleyan University

Key Thinkers: Kate MacNeill on Judith Butler

Queer Theory and Gender Performativity by Professor Paul Fry, Dept. of English, Yale University

Drag Performances: Jim Bailey as Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland; Charles Pierce as Bette Davis; Drag Queen Show at Atlanta Gay Bar

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  • Lynn

    As I began reading Butler, I immediately thought of a couple pieces that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last year regarding the social construction of race and the history of “race science.” Thinking of the similarities to the race was so helpful to me in understanding Butler’s genealogy of the social construction of sex & gender & sexual desire. Here are links to Coates’ posts if anyone’s interested:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/the-dark-art-of-racecraft/275783/
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/

    January 20, 2014

    • Alex R.

      Good points Lynn. I'm glad that they brought up Emerson, to show how prevalent race "science" was even among the anti-slave movement intellectuals (can't think of the name of that movement all of the sudden). A lot of the Anerican pragmatists believed these things about race. It probably even seemed "common sense" to them at that time- as it does to some today. Interestingly, switching to the subject of gender/sex, I was listening to MLK and post-assassination civil rights speeches yesterday for MLK's bday, and I noticed how he and other civil rights leaders said MEN and MANHOOD (manly pride, etc) when talking about civil rights. They were reading through the races that deserved equal rights and I kept expecting them to say "and also women, who are discriminated against" but it didn't come up once. It was very interesting, thinking of the assumptions held then on gender/sex, and I was grateful for the various women's movements and how Butler has also challenged me.

      2 · January 21, 2014

    • Alex R.

      I think the main point in your articles were, though, how we often think something is cutting edge that would be debunked if we just read some history. I think both people fighting race discrimination, anti-Arab/Muslim movements or anti-semitism have to fight these new permutations of old beliefs constantly. I think that's why history is so important and also the value of dialogue projects like what joAnne pointed out in her post. Much of my change in views on race or gender/sex even in my short lifetime have been because of exposure to and dialogue/living with "the Other". But education and reading has helped a lot as well.

      1 · January 21, 2014

  • JoAnne

    Here is a link to the Corcoran site to learn about the "black male" exhibit:
    http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/question-bridge-black-males

    2 · January 19, 2014

    • Alex R.

      Really cool. Thanks for posting that.

      1 · January 19, 2014

  • JoAnne

    The book was okay, the discussion was GREAT.

    January 19, 2014

  • Scott

    Judith Butler's critics frequently complain that her post modernist writing style impedes understanding. If you want to take a break from "Gender Trouble," I recommend you read an interview she gave entitled “Judith Butler–Gender is Extramoral” (I link to it in our Butler resources). Here she discusses, quite eloquently, her indebtedness to Foucault and Levinas: the former helped her connect gender theory to political action; the latter, through his theme of suffering and The Other, provided an ethical context for gender non-conformity. When I finished reading the interview I had a better appreciation of Butler’s personal values and how they influence her philosophical arguments.

    1 · January 11, 2014

    • Lisa

      Thanks for the suggestion, Scott.

      January 19, 2014

  • JoAnne

    Thanks, Scott, for stimulating such lively conversations. This morning, online, I was checking out exhibits at the Corcoran and found a collection of photos-with-voices exploring the question, "What does it mean to be a black male?" Here the emphasis is on race rather than gender but it suggests a possible gender-project.

    2 · January 19, 2014

  • Alex R.

    Great conversation. I feel like I understand Butler and have an introduction to Queer Theory and elements of feminist theory. I need a lot more.

    2 · January 19, 2014

  • Caro

    So sorry to hear about your accident, Scott. I hope you feel better soon.

    1 · January 18, 2014

  • Lisa

    I really wanted to attend this discussion, since it is on a topic of infinite interest to me, written by someone who really put fields such as Queer Theory on the map. Nevertheless, I enrolled in several weekend only classes that each last from 9 to 4 on Saturdays this semester. These classes will permit me to become a certified instructor for English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). I'm extremely disappointed since I really wanted to discuss this book and its concepts. Oh well.

    January 16, 2014

  • Cristina

    Sorry, I won't be able to make it. Something came up. Maybe next time.

    January 16, 2014

  • Lisa

    I have several paragraphs worth of material that I am trying to post in reference to my conversation with Dr. Miller today here on Meetup.com, but the website will only let me post 1000 characters at a time, which is deeply limiting my ability to communicate as I wish. If any of you want me to email a copy, please let me know.

    December 20, 2013

  • Lisa

    I contacted Jennifer Miller, a former prof. of Queer Studies at George Mason University to ask her about Butler's theories on sexual orientation. According to her "Butler never argues that sexuality is a choice," and also stated that "many people misread Gender Trouble. Check out Butler's Intro to Bodies that Matter. She tries to clarify her argument by reasserting that identity (gender or sexual) is not something people choose to construct."

    December 20, 2013

  • Scott

    As tempted as I am to get into the debate, I will reserve most of my comments for our meeting. I will, however, pose a rhetorical question: if sexual orientation is genetic, why don't all identical male twins have the same orientation? And conversely, if sexual orientation is entirely socially constructed, why do identical twins more frequently share a homosexual orientation than fraternal twins, who share a higher rate than non-twin brothers? The Wikipedia article "Biology and Sexual Orientation" provides useful data, none of which is conclusive.

    1 · December 14, 2013

    • Lisa

      I agree with you Lois-and the ideas of women has housekeepers and men as the financial providers to their children is NOT based in biology, but is something culturally constructed, that still, unfortunately causes many people even in developed societies to feel that women should not work outside the home.

      December 20, 2013

  • Lisa

    Also, I wanted to thank Scott, or whoever else posting this helpful links, and also say that I am extremely excited to be reading and discussing this fascinating and seminal, albeit dense read about gender, post-structuralism, and queer theory.

    December 14, 2013

  • Lisa

    I had an ignorant question, especially since I want to fully embrace queer theory, but I am not sure if Queer Theorists believe that much like gender, which I also firmly believe to be culturally constructed, and not a biological phenomanom, also believe that sexual orientation is not innate, either. Personally, I feel that for the vast majority of LGBT individuals, sexual orientation is something most of us have felt from a very young age, and thus not something most of us have chosen to be.

    December 14, 2013

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