It is difficult to find a book that is both so central to gender studies and that causes so much gritting of teeth. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, first published in 1990, is still barely understood and still strikes us as way ahead of our own time.
But Butler is pretty much inaccessible to people without a background in gender studies. And also to many of us with such a background. Which is a damn shame, because she will break your mind apart. Yes, a nice experience.
I hope to pull out some basic ideas of Butler that make her so radical. The preface to the original edition and the preface to the 1999 reprinting give a nice summary, even if she doesn’t “dumb down” her notoriously convoluted prose.
This is Gayle Rubin’s contribution, especially in her seminal piece “The Traffic in Women” – that “normative sexuality fortifies normative gender.” So, Butler extrapolates: “one is a woman, according to this framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual frame and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of place in gender.”
What Butler criticises in most mainstream feminism, and even a lot of academic feminism, is that a concept of “gender hierarchy” cannot explain the complexities of gender’s relationship to power. It doesn’t explain the production of gender. We have to ask: “To what extent does gender hierarchy serve a more or less compulsory heterosexuality, and how often are gender norms policed precisely in the service of shoring up heterosexual hegemony?”
In other words, we cannot have gender without compulsory heterosexuality.
But is it so simple?
Feminist activist Catharine MacKinnon, whose work Butler has criticised harshly, takes this a step further, arguing that “to have a gender means to have entered already into a heterosexual relationship of subordination.”
When Butler introduces performativity, she does so to theorise the potential subversion of this kind of relationship of subordination.
One of the most common misunderstandings of this part of Butler’s theory is that performativity means performance. No. They are very different things. In her 1999 preface to Gender Trouble, Butler clarifies this misconception (and many of her own earlier assumptions):
“[T]he performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself.”
Basically, in expecting that we are a gender, inherently, we in fact produce it – or reproduce it. In the doing of gender, we create it.
There is no prior existence of gender.
She clarifies: “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalisation in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.”
Those two points summarise very nicely the most important contributions Gender Trouble has made to feminist theory and queer theory.
It’s quite easy to see how we perform gender through bodily acts, but how does language contribute to the production of gender?
Butler has quite a dim view of the capacity for dominant forms of language to destroy hegemony. Subversion is possible, but language is a hegemonic trap.
She asks us to think: “If gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.”
Which is a tough ask. How many of us have the ability to subvert grammatical norms successfully and lucidly?
This is essentially what she is pointing to when she asks if the terms “men” and “women” are “untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualising gender and desire? What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces and reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?”
In other words, without compulsory heterosexuality, the assumption that heterosexuality is a real and natural phenomenon, everything about gender becomes meaningless.
She also takes issue with what she sees as primary concern of feminist theory – to establish identity. If feminism takes as its starting point the category of “women,” what hegemonic assumptions is it already making about gender and power?
This is indicative of a problem a lot of readers have with Butler. Like Foucault, she seems to deny us any possibility for revolutionary subversion! She even denies the existence of a subject which can act outside cultural norms. That is, we are all socially constructed to such an extent that our ability to defy hegemonic gender is very limited.
I think Butler is more subtle than this. She is relentlessly critical, but she also has little grains of idealism and hope that offer shining possibilities.
In this paragraph she summarises her aims and hopes, which is a good thing to keep in mind when reading Gender Trouble:
“What continues to concern me most is the following kinds of questions: what will and will not constitute an intelligible life, and how do presumptions about normative gender and sexuality determine in advance what will qualify as the ‘human’ and the ‘livable’? In other words, how do normative gender presumptions work to delimit the very field of description that we have for the human? What is the means by which we come to see this delimiting power, and what are the means by which we transform it?”
These are the questions with which Butler radicalises feminism. And for this reason she has been ignored in most mainstream conceptions of feminism. For without identity, are we all just blank spaces?
Her offering is this: “we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity. What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constrains the discourse on feminist politics? And to what extent does the effort to locate a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself?”
This is most evident when it comes to a “gay identity.” To what extent are the labels “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual” complicit in heteronormativity?
An unusual question in today’s society, and perhaps one of the things that makes many uncomfortable with Butler. But I think it’s one of the concepts that is at the heart of her optimism. A ruthless critique of all hegemonic assumptions, and an imperative to radicalise everything.