Posted by: coiled | November 20, 2007

Thoughts on Judith Butler

                In the Judith Butler’s article, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” the author argues that “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (416). Butler argues that gender is constituted through a series of “acts” that have been actualized by individuals in repetition over time. The individual object in that experience overtime creates gender and not something a subject has created individually for itself. She further agues that gender is something that is not a concrete “social fiction” but is constantly reproducing, shifting and moving (423).
Butler conceptualizes gender as repetitive social fictions that have been built up and created over time. She states that “corporeal style, an ‘act’” is what the “I” embodies (417). Embodiment then is the performative or reproduction of social scripts. Gender is not something that is internally built by the “I” but something that is done by the body where the body is possibilities. The body that the gender is being performed by then conceptualizes that gender to be a set of truths of what is “natural” or “true belief.” She argues that gender is not a set of concrete identities, but it is always reproduced over and over by the body. Butler further argues that the spaces between the “acts” in gender’s reproduction are where variability occurs, and where social sanctions proceed these variabilities.

Butler argues that gender is performative, but it is not expressive. In order to be expressive a body would have to create it internally by the “I” and present it externally as a possibility. Therefore expression of gender only suggests that it is an “essential” part of a body’s identity that is presented in the world. Butler argues that there is no essential core of a body’s being. An “essential” core identity would then suggest that a body constituted it through a set of preexisting characteristics that have been imposed on that body. The author argues gender as performance does not render any ideas of an essential sex. Through repetition and overtime the body creates an illusion of these “true” social scripts and concrete identities, and those who do not comply are punished. She argues this illusion is what the dichotomous relationship of male/female has come from.

Butler’s idea of performativity has then created the idea that gender is always moving and shifting. The body is constantly doing new “acts,” and gender is in a constant flux. Based on this theory gender is not a given fact, nor is it a set of cultural meanings that have been imposed upon a body. Butler argues “…the more mundane reproduction of gendered identity takes place through the various ways in which bodies are acted in relationship to the deeply entrenched or sedimented expectations of gendered existence” (419). These “sedimentations” of social expectations and social norms help to create the illusion of “true” gender or “belief.”

The author’s theory of gender as performance has given rise to a whole identity politics debate in feminist circles. I argue that her theory is important and liberating to some and not accessible most. I argue that her concept and framework is important in that it gives gender the room to shift and move. It also gives gender a way of being explained beyond heterosexual patriarchal ideals. Gender can not be ascribed a certain set of social characteristics, but overtime the illusion of “true gender identity” is formed. We have been made to believe that gender is something that we rely on, and must have a concrete definition of or else we will be lost. If a body does deviate from these “acts” there are most defiantly social sanctions. Essentially sexed bodies must comply with their naturally gendered selves is what we are taught to believe.



  1. My problem with her article was that she claims there is no essential gender whatsoever, moves on to claim that there is social punishment for not conforming, yet doesn’t provide an explanation for people with non-conforming gender. How would someone be socialized into the “wrong” gender or decide to express the “wrong” gender if there was punishment involved and there was nothing internal instigating his/her/hir gender identity? Her argument is incomplete to say that least, because every solid argument needs to address the variables.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this essay. It was easier to read than many of the authors that our class read this term. She states that people are given genders to act out throughout their lives. These binary genders are repeated through acts throughout our history. I have had many discussions with people who say that women traditionally should clean the house..raise kids, etc. All of these are acts that were given to women throughout time to have been to be normative. I liked this author because she addresses this head on. I agree with Mae that she does not give much explanation of those who defy these gender roles. How would some go about that, would you have to be a lesbian etc. to defy this…anything but the two binary genders? What about those who are heterosexual, could they defy their given genders the same?

  3. I agree with Mae that theories need to account for variables in order to be strong, and obviously there are some whole in her theory. And although I may not agree with her I still thought Butler’s argument was intriguing.
    A big part of Butler argument was to illustrate simply how gender becomes naturalized through performative acts. These repetitions can thus be broken and consequently changed. Her ideas that one makes something true by performance and that the body is performative, rather than just is are important ways of understanding gender. We perform to be understood because gender identity is part of who we are and without it we can’t be understood. Is it people who then took those performances and place gender on them. Non conforming genders have always existed. We created binary genders and those who had been performing outside of those created genders either conformed or continued their performance. Maybe that is another way of seeing her argument if there is no essential gender.

  4. I think one important thing to keep in mind when discussing the performativity of gender is that everyone, trans and cisgendered folks alike have complex gender identities that are performed differently according to social context.

  5. I think that Butler’s point was that the existence of the binary contract of gender is what is faulty. I felt that Butler in fact defined the concept of gender, as used in society, as a binary structure where one is more male or female. Butler finds fault with this thinking as it is naturalized gender that states female gender identity goes with female biological sex. I think that if we disassociated gender with any kind of sexuality or biological sex (which I feel Butler is trying to get at with the destruction of normative gender) then gender would be seen as just they way one is read and interacts socially.

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