Rich, complex, difficult, and groundbreaking are just a few of the words that are usually associated with Judith Butler’s works. Despite the fact that her texts are often described as “tedious” and “overwrought,” reading Butler is well worth the effort, and I’m often amazed at the way she is able to wrestle with difficult ideas. Furthermore, I’m delighted by how she is able to add layers of complexity to the already complex domain of (gendered) identity politics. Gender Trouble, originally published in 1990, is not only considered to be one of the seminal texts of queer theory, but it brought into light many aspects of gender that we take for granted today (particularly the notion of gender performativity).
Can a person “possess” a gender? Can a person “be” a gender? Or, can a person “act out” a gender? Even though many people may not be familiar with the concept of gender performativity, it is a phenomenon that is pervasive and somewhat obvious within contemporary society. The picture above shows pop sensation Lady Gaga assuming the role of her male alter ego, Jo Calderone, in Gaga’s attempt to blur the lines that are dichotomously imposed in society’s approaches towards gender and sex. Maleness and masculinity, in this case, are being performed through Lady Gaga’s actions and choices, rather than being a trait that pre-exists within the individual. Gender and sex, from Butler’s perspective, can be approached in a similar fashion to makeup in the sense of being a construction rather than an essential part of one’s being. However, keeping this metaphor of makeup in mind, it is important to realize that our surroundings and environment control (to some extent) the cosmetic options that are available to us. Gender is not ontological, but rather, it comes to existence through actions: “gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the dead” (25, emphasis mine).
Early on in Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to the notion of drag performances in order to illustrate how they disrupt the “very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” (x). Since drag entails the performance of a gender that is supposedly opposite to one’s “true” gender, it pushes one to question the extent to which certain traits that are considered masculine or feminine are true, essential, and indivisible from the self. Rather than viewing drag as an imitation, Butler approaches it as an action that defines the parameters, boundaries, and practices that create the notion of gender in the first place. An important concept to keep in mind when approaching Butler’s notions of gender is the word style, which not only includes obvious factors such as clothing, but also includes other details such as composure, constitution, presentation, and above all, discourse. Butler thus defines gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (33).
Although performativity is the concept in Gender Trouble that tends to resonate among scholars of queer theory, performativity is simply a heuristic Butler uses to achieve her main goal. Tantalizingly, she questions whether the intent to have a feminist politics based on a common identity that binds all women is practical and useful, especially when considering that it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to find a common factor that all women share (unless, of course, we resort to biological notions of gender essentialism). This notion holds particularly true when intersecting gender with other domains of identity, including race, socio-economic status, culture, among others. As Butler eloquently puts it:
If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. (3)
Feminist politics generally approach the concept of “women” and gender in universal terms, thriving on the assumption that there is a cross-cultural and cross-geographical quality or factor that ties a large group of people together. Butler rightfully points out that this feminist construction, even when designed with an emancipatory ideal in mind, can still be interpreted as damaging because it is not only designed to include and exclude certain individuals, but it fails to recognize and respect idiosyncratic differences. In simple terms, by establishing a factor as universal, one runs the risk of excluding all those who don’t fit within this particular model. This is why Butler suggests that “Without the compulsory expectation that feminists actions must be instituted from some stable, unified, and agreed upon identity, those actions might well get a quicker starts and seem more congenial to a number of ‘women’ for whom the meaning of the category is permanently moot” (15). Note that even with my use of the term women, there is an underlying assumption that I am able to label an entire community of individuals based on an unstable, and perhaps ephemeral, trait–this is precisely something that Butler tries to challenge, but I ultimately question whether or not this is entirely possible or useful. After all, isn’t the notion of unity and community building crucial to a pragmatic rather than an academic approach to feminism? This is something I have to contemplate a bit more.
Butler ultimately connects the notion of performativity to feminist politics by questioning the “phantasmic” construction of the “we” that is nearly always invoked in matters of feminism. Despite the capability of “we” to connect people, it achieves this connection through exclusion while simultaneously denying the complexity of the issues at hand. When it comes to identity politics, many tend to assume that the identity exists prior to a political response. However, Butler asserts that “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” (142). We are what we do. There is no such thing as a “self” that exists before one is immersed into a culture, and there is no such thing as a self being corrupted or metamorphosed by its surroundings (how can something be corrupted if it doesn’t exist a priori?). “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (145).
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.