Feminist Theorist Thursdays: Judith Butler

Image by Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0.

What does it mean to say that gender is performed? In her 1988 essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Judith Butler — philosopher, gender theorist, and professor at UC Berkeley — proposed the theory that gender is behavior, rather than a biological fact.

Butler received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University. Since then she has taught at various universities including Johns Hopkins and Columbia. She is currently a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at UC Berkeley.

Butler has also been socially active throughout her career. She served on the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (now called Outright International) and has voiced support for Black Lives Matter, the Occupy movement, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. She recently spoke at UCLA about the role of resistance under the Trump regime.

Butler’s best known work is her theory of gender performativity. After first introducing the theory in her previously-mentioned essay, she further developed it in her 1990 book “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.”

Gender performativity means that gender is something we do, not something we are. In an interview, Butler called gender “an impersonation.” She doesn’t mean that gender is a choice or is voluntary, though it may be for some people; rather, one’s gender identity is built by imitating and repeating gender norms that one observes.

Gender roles are imposed on us in many ways. One of the ways that Butler emphasizes in “Gender Trouble” is language. Language creates reality and enforces conventions. Language is one way of performing socially constructed conventions, thus making them “real.” For example, Butler describes how gender roles are defined through language from the beginning; the biological sex of the babies is often celebrated as the baby’s gender. When parents tell friends and family, “It’s a boy/girl,” they are perpetuating the gender binary and its absolutism.

However, Butler herself admits that “Gender Trouble” is somewhat dated. It doesn’t consider trans experiences as well as it could and its acknowledgement of gender non-conforming experiences is lacking.

Despite its limitations, Butler’s work has been incredibly influential. “Gender Trouble” and her theory of performativity “changed the way we conceptualize gender.” Though her writing is academic, her ideas are pop culture. Outside the world of academia, we see her influence in the popularization of previously academic terms like performativity and heteronormativity. She popularized the idea of gender as a social construct, “confounding the very binarism of sex,” as she writes in “Gender Trouble,” “and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness.”

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