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Gender Trouble and Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1998) began the groundbreaking approach that Butler established in examining the ways in which we look at gender. She critiques identity and gender as we have come to know and understand it—and as she would say, perform it. Based on the notion that gender is socially, culturally, and historically defined, Butler asserts that “gender is an artifice. Our ideas of women and men…derive from customs that embed social relations of power” (131). In other words, men and women play the roles of their socially assigned gender, but none of it is real since the identities have been established by patriarchal powers that be. They are also, according to Butler, exaggerated.

Born in 1956 in Ohio, Judith Butler has been a standout individual since childhood. Considered a problem child because she questioned authority and took nothing that was told her at face value, she was warned that she would end up in jail by the time she was a teen. As part of her “punishment,” or to set her on the right path of acceptable feminine behavior, Butler was ordered to meet weekly with the Rabbi at her Hebrew school. To her, this was a gift, a relief. She took the opportunity to engage in intellectual discourse over ethics and philosophy—and she was only 14-years-old.

Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy in Switzerland and Maxine Elliot Professor at Berkeley, Judith Butler is known for her work in gender studies and queer theory. Having received her PhD. from Yale University in 1984, she has concentrated her studies and research on feminism, sexuality, ethics, philosophy, and literature, as well as on the ways with which we grieve and retaliate our losses as individuals and as nations when atrocities such as 9/11 occur. In terms of her teaching, she has worked at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins, and will begin teaching Comparative Literature at Columbia University in 2012-13. Infamous for her “impenetrable” and dense writing style, in 1998, Judith Butler was a winner of The Bad Writing Contest, hosted by Philosophy and Literature, a scholarly journal. Of course, this isn’t an insult; by “bad writing,” they mean verbose and difficult to grasp, but quite brilliant as far as academic writing goes. Even intelligent feminist academic Martha C. Nussbaum found herself exhausted by Butler’s arduous rhetoric.

In her work, Butler pushes past gender and focuses primarily on bodies and how they are constructed as “performative.” She concentrates on bodies as texts, especially as they are materially and discursively inscribed upon by race, class, and sexuality. In other words, similar to gender, our bodies have also been defined for us, historically and culturally, limiting the ways in which we talk about them and how we use them, for pleasure or otherwise. This stretches the way we look at gender and heterosexuality. Butler articulates the need for new ways with which to look at and use our bodies—new ways of performing and materializing them. She believes that in order to “undo” these gender norms, which we aid in perpetuating, we must “undo” ourselves and how we view our lives and our bodies as we have been trained to—by the lens that we have been assigned.

In her interview with Haaretz.com’s Udi Aloni, Butler comments on the way her name had been used in an Israeli movie wherein one of the characters says to the other, “Don’t Judith Butler me”:

I’ve never been identified with that form of feminism [man-hating]. That’s not my mode. I’m not known for that. So it seems like it was confusing me with a radical feminist view that one would associate with Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin, a completely different feminist modality. I’m not always calling into question who’s a man and who’s not, and am I a man? Maybe I’m a man. [laughs] Call me a man. I am much more open about categories of gender, and my feminism has been about women’s safety from violence, increased literacy, decreased poverty and more equality. I was never against the category of men.

This statement epitomizes the pure essence of Judith Butler. A post-structuralist philosopher at heart, she argues that history and culture have created false selves, especially as it comes to the way we think about gender. In one of the YouTube videos below, she is interviewed as saying that at a very early age she observed that gender traits or constructions were “exaggerated” as feminine or masculine; they are caricatures of individualized selves, and the origins of these constructs she largely blames on Hollywood. Gender as social constructs is at the heart of her research and writing. Gender is what we do daily without paying attention. Like Shakespeare’s players on a stage, we, men and women both, play the roles that history and culture have assigned us. We appropriate gender norms and attitudes without thinking twice about them because we genuinely believe in the feminine/masculine binaries as authentic gender descriptors. Butler extends her theory to our sexuality, saying that the way we view sex and biology is also socially constructed.

This philosophy is what makes her a groundbreaking theorist, for she posits new ways of looking at gender and sex. By observing our own lives through the lens she provides us, we can re-evaluate our bodies, our gender, and our sexuality. In doing so, we can unravel the ways with which men and women are both controlled and weighed down by the gender constructions that limit our potential in existing as liberated entities—free of politicized definitions, and unhindered by what we deem normal, or traditionally feminine and masculine in the ways we move, live, and perform.

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Marina DelVecchio
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute's Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.
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One Comment
  • L. George Alexander

    The above review of Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” (Routledge, 1998) is fascinating. I plan to read the book. Thank you so much for presenting Butler’s ideas and her book.

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