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.
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)
"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.
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