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.