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Judith Butler (1956–) is an American philosopher, queer theorist, and postmodern feminist. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she studied and got her BA in philosophy in 1978 and her PhD from Yale. Butler employed many aspects of thought that were touched on by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and other poststructural and postmodernist theorists, and questions the label and attributions of the word 'woman' and what it actually means. In regards to feminism, she discusses the ramifications of oversimplifying gender and sex to the point where women are categorized simply as a bland social group, and not as an inter-complex set of people with different viewpoints and perspective. In addition, she notes that what a 'woman' is has a convoluted answer, to say the least, and that one must consider further thought about the nature of gender. Known for her performative theory of gender, she was a pivotal intellectual in the realm of third-wave feminism. Butler is nonbinary and uses she/her and they/them pronouns.
Butler discusses the ramification of the label of 'woman' and what it means in an ever-shifting day and age at which labels are becoming more fluid and less strict. She questions the previously strict fundamental nature of the terms 'male' and 'female', pointing out that they are in more unstable ground than ever and that the lines between supposed 'genders' are much less strict than previously before. Due to the complexities of gender and its application, she reasons that she must use other types of marginal thought, such as postmodernism, to fully connect and grasp the meaning and development of our reality and what the role of feminism means in this day and age.
Subjects of sex/gender/desire
In the first section of the book Gender Trouble, Butler addresses the problem of representation. Namely, the fundamental idea of who feminism represents and what for. She questions the notion of the role of a 'woman' herself, whether oppression is the only catalyst for connection amongst 'women', or if there is something greater presupposing all oppression. In addition, the sheer nature of defining a strict and defined set of values, objectives, or demographic that feminism is fighting for is in it of itself paradoxical and obfuscating, as it therefore presents it ripe with misinterpretation. Therefore, to represent people as a whole, feminism itself must transcend its presupposed exclusionary nature (being about what people consider to be 'women') and move, as all social movements do, to something more appropriate to the historical context of today.
She then goes on to explain the ever-developing ideas of sex and gender in contemporary society. As our understandings of what sex and gender even are becomes progressively more complicated and nuanced, so too must the understanding of feminism must be understood in this context. In contrast to past feminist movements that had clearly defined oppression patterns against clearly defined sexes (and genders) in society, today it is even the concept of a 'woman' that is being put into question. Indeed, if one were to say that gender is a function of culture, one cannot say that it is in any way related to sex at all. However, she goes even deeper to explain that if our entire ideas about sex are also surrounding the ideas of gender, it is therefore merited to instead understand sex as a function of gender, not the other way around. This is because the very conceptions of sex itself is dubious at best, and instead is defined in terms of gender. However, gender here does not actually refer to culture like sex supposedly refers to biology, but rather is the underpinnings, the framework at which culture is developed. She defines these terms as "prediscursive", in that they presuppose all discussion about these categories that are socially defined and constructed.
In regards to gender itself, Butler extends her explanation even further by questioning the very nature of 'having' a gender in the first place. Is one said to have a gender, or is one capable of being a gender? If it is indeed constructed, does it not follow some sort of categorical strictness to follow in its very nature? She questions the very nature of discourse that surrounds the concept of gender, pointing out that the discussion to whether it is fixed or not is rooted in a presupposition that it can be fixed in the first place. In addition, it is important to address that femininity itself is defined in negation, as an effect of patriarchal and masculine discourse. Essentially, the very framing of 'feminine' categories in the face of 'masculine' oppression is the primary issue to understanding sex and gender, and in extension the definition of feminism. As if certain qualities are implied within women, or even the concept of femininity, it thus requires the question of what these concepts even are or if these labels are merited at any capacity.
She then summarizes the dichotomy between men and women, between feminine and masculine. In a society that is so entrenched with 'phallagocentrism', an idea of a masculine ideal, the idea of a masculine as a concept is rendered fundamentally incoherent. The reason why this is so is that masculinity and the male in society have been rendered so 'overequal' that they are now the norm, and as such the only gender that continues to exist would be the feminine, a definition separate from the norm. For sex, the meaning is also conflated to women in that people of the male 'sex' would be considered persons as a baseline, and people of the female 'sex' would be considered women first as a baseline, and then as a person afterwards. She thus advocates for the abolishment of the concept of sex at all, to remove the conception of a boundary in order to prevent any sort of encroachment or exclusion from an arbitrary measurement that is not based on any type of reality or fairness.
Prohibition, psychoanalysis, and the production of the heterosexual matrix
Stemming from these assertions, Butler then goes on to critique the commonplace understanding of the patriarchy itself. In particular, she emphasizes that the patriarchy as an idea to attack as a feminist resides on an important point, as a harkening back to a time before the patriarchy existed, a supposed imagined non-patriarchal society that existed and can exist in form. However, this idea is flawed in that if it is part of the already pre-constructed timeline of history presented and reinforced in society, meaning that it is already entrenched and therefore not actually an ideal that can unequivocally be a feminist idea, as it is part of a hierarchal structure that feminism is supposedly fighting against. In addition, it is also flawed in that the utopian idea of a 'pure femininity' or an 'original femininity' is ripe with organizational fragmentation, and is but an idea that disregards all complex analysis of the nuance of gender and sex within nature and modern society.
The disturbing observation that Butler is attempting to make is that the labels, feminine and masculine, are not part of a dichotomy or binary scale, but rather as an existence and a repression of existence. Particularly, she addresses that because what is considered 'masculine' is in fact the baseline existence for people, whereas femininity is actually a 'masquerade', a repression of some characteristics that may in fact be intrinsic between all individuals regardless of gender or sex. Specifically, Butler cites other authors talking about femininity not as a part of a dichotomy of personality or attitude, but a scale of conformity to an ideal, a repression of basic characteristics that everyone has. Ultimately, femininity as a basic concept is in fact defined by whatever masculinity means, by whatever it entails and as an opposition to its very existence.
Finally, she addresses sexuality in terms of homosexuality and transsexuals. Firstly, homosexuality exists in a gendered society that instinctively represses it. It necessarily does so, despite superficial gains made within contemporary society, for the reason that the dominance of heterosexuality is necessarily built on the ideas of femininity and masculinity in culture. Essentially, the strictly defined and stable gender identities that are enforced implicitly enforce heterosexuality, despite ones own sexual orientation or society's progress in legality. Secondly, Butler addresses a common conservative talking point she dubs "literalizing fantasy". This is the standpoint that whatever your biology dictates is what you are sexually or gendered-ly and that being or 'doing' trans anything is impossible. This is addressed on multiple fronts, as follows:
To sustain a literalizing fantasy, the predominant gendered meanings must be enforced and encouraged within a society, thus causing changes over time that eventually result in the supposed sexual dimorphism that people claim to be 'nature'. However, this isn't necessarily 'nature': it is a complicated form of enforcement and evolution over time that has overall accumulated in a position such as today that has led to any sort of biological claim to hold true because of gendered expectations themselves, not because of some sort of natural evolutionary process. In this way, one could perhaps consider such a literalizing fantasy take on transsexuals to be a form of social Darwinism, as it holds parallels to the idea that how one is biologically is necessarily how they must be and act in society.
In essence, to treat the body as such a banal object simply as objects of pleasure is to paint a picture of enforced heterosexuality, and to maintain the structures that have been realized and constructed. This is successfully done by moving all definable objects primarily to literal, measurable functions, rather than 'imaginary' aspects such as homosexuality, love, etc, and instead reduce and sublimate them down to a purely physical level, forgetting and removing the baseline that undercuts the body and identity. It is not only this forgetfulness both in practice and in history that has caused repression, but also the sheer totality of moving towards an enforced society at which social understandings of gender have become, in fact, 'literalized'. They have been realized in reality, and therefore realized as true. If they are true, how can one argue against its existence?
Overall, it is the realization of this repression and prohibition of aspects such as gender, homosexuality, transsexuality, etc. that translates directly to power, power wielded by those who are able and allowed to be defined as a 'person' first in lieu of any other types of identity blockades. It is the state-defined and enforced definition of existence that is maintained and therefore further structures the society, and the people in extension. The defined definition in its 'trueness' legitimizes the power of those who may attempt to enforce it, utilizing the ignorant idea that what is true today is necessarily what is absolutely true. Thus, it is the continued definitions, sanctions, coherence, and coerced shaping of the world that has resulted in what we have come to understand as sex, gender, and therefore sexuality.
Subversive bodily acts
Butler starts this chapter by discussing the nature of the term "the maternal body". She points out an author that uses such terminology to make her case that the default for a woman is the heterosexual, due to the relations of childbirth, motherhood, and hegemony. As a result, the lesbian woman is not only the "other", but completely incomprehensible as a concept. This is, as Butler notes, rooted in her flawed assumptions about language and the nature of how it is used to describe these things. To use language as a justification of the existence of these concepts being the correct way of interpreting them and also to postulate that language exists as a description of things is to create a circular argument at which one asserts that the language being used is correct and correctly defines reality within its terms.
Butler then draws from Labeling theory in how one defines the heterosexual relationship within cultures, including the concept of straightness in its paradigm. She notes that there is no coherent and ultimate definition of the heterosexual, nor is there one to the law of identity. The identity of a mother being extrapolated into the ideas of how we understand motherhood and therefore heterosexuality is not one that one would necessarily see universally. It, instead, is a contextual thing rooted in whatever culture and terms of existence exist at the moment. That is to say, the roles of a mother in a specific heterosexual paradigm will differ both from other heterosexual paradigms and non-heteronormative ones. Rather, they will vary in terms of their roles and their very terms of existence.
From this point, Butler goes on to discuss how, then, one is able to attribute characteristics to the female body before it enters the culture in the first place. How is one able to assign a role and an expectation towards the identity of "woman" without one already existing in form, pushing its own agenda on that individual? On what grounds does one have to assign a teleological maternity onto a woman before she even enters the world? That answer, of course, is that there is no grounds, and that it is instead based on the current manifestation and construction of reality. And this point leads into the main facet of the article: that what the female sex represents is entirely dependent on the conceptions and prescriptions of gender, and not intrinsic towards the female body.
The continuation of discussion about sexuality is also tainted by this omnipresent definition of the terms of discourse. Because it is dependent on the power relations, it is already discussed in terms of the mandatory expectation of women for motherhood. Not only are there prohibitive measures towards the people within the parameters of the discourse, but it also generates and influences the desires themselves, priming people to want or not want certain things and characteristics.
Essentially, the ultimate idea is that the univocal concept of sex, that is to say, that one is either one or the other and therefore cannot be the other, is a construct produced in the social regulation of such gender and sexed relations, conceals and unifies a series of characteristics that are in reality intrinsic indiscriminately but labeled to be in some but not others, and therefore postulated as a cause of such things, rather than a concordant variable to the means of hierarchy. Therefore, one must consider the conception and enforcement of sex not as a cause but as an effect stemming from a historical struggle of sexuality, sex, and power relations. To define sex as immutable, basic, and causal in relation to gender characteristics is to mask a hierarchy and therefore reinforce power relations.
Finally, Butler mentions a few more authors to discuss the nature of "becoming a woman". She remarks that this understanding of a non-woman entering the concept of "woman-hood" is not at all an infliction of the hierarchy, but rather a subversion to the established binary and promulgated to the point of incomprehensibility. Essentially, we simultaneously attribute intrinsic characteristics to what we consider to be "sex", and yet also hold litmus tests verbally with such phrases as "now you are a real woman". What does it mean to be a real woman? The veil lifts itself with this terminology, as it is now clear that what is happening is that there is a preconceived notion of what sex is supposed to entail, without having or holding any factual basis. Therefore, the identity of "woman", "man", "lesbian", or "straight" seems to be based in acts, not in identity. Neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality are 'real' or 'fake' as they are understood in the current paradigm, but instead acted upon by individuals as a reflection of their desires. Similarly, neither 'woman' nor 'man' are real or fake as they are understood in the current paradigm, but instead acted by individuals to shape themselves into what is prescribed to them based on their so-called natural sex.
Does the body, in fact, necessitate this extreme sort of enforcement and attribution to these traits? Butler says a resounding no.
- Judith Butler Qualifications
- Feminism and Gender
- Judith Butler, Britannica.
- "Judith Butler on her Philosophy and Current Events"
- "Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in 'anti-intellectual times'", New Statesmen
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1990.ISBN 0415900425