Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble
was first published in 1990, and is now regarded as not only a key text for anyone interested in feminist theory, but also as one of the founding texts of queer theory. Butler’s background is in philosophy; her engagement with poststructuralist theory and her convoluted writing style make her work notoriously demanding. Butler has addressed criticism
based on her writing’s impenetrability by saying that shaking up language is part of the process of shaking up the status quo. While I think Butler’s position certainly invites discussion, it would be a shame to let her style steal attention away from her ideas.
Gender Trouble was the text that first introduced the concept of gender performativity: the idea that what we consider to be “real gender” is a cultural construction sustained by “the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders”. Butler critiques gender essentialism, a stance that even some feminist thinkers have aligned themselves with, and says in the preface to the 10th anniversary edition:
It was and remains my view that any feminist theory that restricts the meaning of gender in the presupposition of its own practice sets up exclusionary gender norms within feminism, often with homophobic consequences.
I found this an interesting idea, because if there’s one thing I certainly don’t want feminism to do, it’s to replace our current set of rules about how each gender should or shouldn’t act with a different but equally restrictive set. I don’t think feminism is generally guilty of doing this, but it’s also not a monolith, and as such there will naturally be people identifying with the term whose positions I don’t agree or identify with.
One of the most common criticisms of Butler’s work is its alleged lack of practical application: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal, which we reviewed here on the blog earlier this year, was an example of this. Staal writes about how she became frustrated with Butler’s reliance on theory and didn’t find a way to connect her ideas with her actual life, which is what she had done beautifully and insightfully with the authors she had previously discussed. Reading the preface to my edition of Gender Trouble left me with the impression that this is something Butler has heard countless times before. She says:
The point was not to prescribe a new gendered way of life that might then serve as a model for readers of the text. Rather, the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which possibilities ought to be realised. One might wonder what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible”, illegible, unrealisable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.
Again, this is an interesting idea: Butler suggests that her work is easier to dismiss by those whose identities easily fit into the current gender binary. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with having an uncomplicated gender identity, of course – not as long as we do acknowledge that other possibilities exist.
Also, it’s important to remember that as much as there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about our current ideas about gender, categories of identity do matter to people. Butler acknowledges this when she says:
One is a woman, according to this framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual framework, and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of place in gender.
I look forward to seeing how Butler develops these ideas as I continue to read Gender Trouble. I have briefly studied Butler’s work in the past, but this will be my first time reading her most famous book in its entirety. Because Gender Trouble is a complicated work and November is full of “real life” demands for many people, I’d like to invite you all to perhaps post your impressions of the book as you read it, even if you’re not done by the end of the month. I can’t wait to hear what everyone makes of Gender Trouble.