How This Feminist Went Beyond Male and Female And Started A Revolution In Gender Studies

By Rohini Banerjee:

Gender does not just mean being ‘male’ or ‘female’ — a concept that is finally being discussed today. But guess who was one of the first feminists to tell us that? Yes, it’s none other than good ol’ Judith Butler. Celebrated feminist, academic, and philosopher, Butler, in her seminal work Gender Trouble totally annihilated the traditional, binary understanding of gender and established that gender is ultimately a ‘construct’ or a ‘performance’. The ideas she put forward in this text became so influential that it went on to form the foundation of queer studies — and especially, that of trans and gender nonconforming identities.

Judith Butler, The Superstar of 90s Academia

Born to a family of Hungarian Jewish immigrants who lived through the Holocaust, Judith Butler grew up questioning the structures around her — whether it be religion, class hierarchy, gender politics or even philosophy. Having attended Yale, receiving the prestigious Fulbright scholarship, and later going on to teach at top-rated universities such as John Hopkins University, and Berkeley College among others, she came to be known as one of the most significant theorists of contemporary times. In fact, she was labelled the ‘superstar of 90s academia’ due to her extensive subversive writings.

Her popularity was such that she even had a fanzine (called Judy!) written about her by her students! She was writing (and teaching) in a period where feminist thought was steadily moving towards intersectionality — with the questions of race and sexuality seeping into its purview. Hence, the time was ripe for her to question the ‘constructs’ and structures that exist even within the fields of feminism.

1: In Which She Questions The Common Mistake (White) Feminists Tend To Make

“The effort to identify the enemy as singular in form is a reverse-discourse that uncritically mimics the strategy of the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms.”

Butler criticizes one of the central principles of feminism that came before her — the assumption that there is one singular identity or category called ‘woman’ which needs representation in politics and culture. In doing so, she critiques the works of a large variety of influential theorists — from Lacan’s idea of the symbolic order, to Kristeva’s criticism of it, to Foucault’s theories on intersex identities — because all of them saw gender within the narrow-minded male/female binary. Even when they spoke about a feminist emancipation, they saw it as a freedom of women from men — and that, according to Butler, was inherently messed up, and even patriarchal.

What really is a ‘woman’ anyway, she questions, and why do we club all women into a single universal category? This questioning has two layers of critique — one is her critique of a simplistic idea of gender. She talks about how this universal category ignores the very important distinction between sex and gender. While sex is biological (based on genitals, chromosomes, etc), gender is sociological (i.e, it’s shaped by the patterns of behaviour and roles imposed upon you). Hence, a ‘woman’ is not just someone who’s assigned female at birth, and in fact, the very idea of what being a woman constitutes is fluid and ever-changing. There is, quite simply, no one way of being a woman — and since gender is also sociological, the factors of race, class, sexuality, (dis)ability all come into play in determining this identity.

This brings us to her second level of criticism — and that is how the feminists that came before her just assumed that the only problem “women” face, is that of patriarchy. She punches holes in this notion so hard that you can actually feel it deflating! She talks about how this assumption comes from (mostly white) women already in positions of privilege, who deny the existence of oppressions other than the ones they face — namely, that of racism, homophobia and transphobia. Butler, before anything else, advocates a feminism that is inclusive — one that does not just focus on how men treat women horribly (which is still a legit issue), but also how white people oppress people (women, especially) of colour, and how straight people oppress queer and trans people.

2: In Which She Majorly Shakes Up The Way We See Sex and Gender

“If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”

Here’s where things become complex. Sticking true to the title, Butler really “troubles” the idea of gender and pretty much makes you question everything you thought you knew about it.

Here, Butler gives the major thumbs down to some influential theorists once again. She examines the work of two celebrated feminists that came before her — Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray — and exposes how, despite talking about gender-based oppression differently, the one thing they both get wrong is their assumption of an essential “female” self which needs representation, which doesn’t include the possibility of one not identifying with a ‘gender’ at all! According to Butler, to express a gender is hence, to ‘perform’ what society thinks that gender should be like. For example, if society thinks wearing a dress is ‘womanly’, then one ‘performs’ being a woman by wearing that dress or dresses ‘like a man’. The revolutionary conclusion that Butler ultimately reaches is that gender is fluid, unstable, undefinable, and, essentially, a construct.

What about ‘sex’ then? She’s already talked about how sex is different from gender, hasn’t she? But as she delves deeper, she questions this as well. Say for example, if it hadn’t been already established that the presence of a vagina and uterus corresponds to ‘woman’ (which, again, has been culturally constructed), then it would not be possible to assign that person’s sex ‘female’. Hence, sex, too, is as much constructed as gender is. ‘Sexed’ bodies, or bodies that are assigned a sex, cannot be signified without a gender. What this means is that, because there is an exisiting cultural notion of what ‘gender’ should be like it is only on the basis of that is how one’s sex determined. Pretty mind-boggling, right?

So, since she has established that both sex and gender are unstable categories, and are a ‘performance’, now she urges us feminists to ‘trouble’ the cultural ideas of sex and gender further by ‘performing’ it in subversive, nonconforming ways. Today we see it in the likes of, a Jaden Smith wearing makeup and heels, or a Kristen Stewart wearing suits.

3: In Which She Talks About The Body And Its Relationship with Gender

“The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.

Like sex and gender, Butler also sees the body as a space governed by social constructs. She questions why the body becomes the means for determining gender in the first place (something to really ponder upon, ain’t it?), and, drawing upon various theories, reaches the conclusion that this is because society loves to slutshame.

Since it is the body is through which sexual acts are performed, linking it with gender and the bounds of gender, helps society to impose taboos upon it. A big example is the construct of virginity, which is often (ridiculously) linked to the ‘purity’ of womanhood (i.e, the effectiveness of the female gender). Another example is how the homophobic public has linked AIDS — a disease which should be linked to nothing but the body — with ‘polluted’ sexuality of homosexual people. This theory makes a lot of sense once you think about it, right?

In order to topple this link between body and gender, Butler proposes the use of drag or crossdressing to shake things up and poke fun at the notion that there is an “original” gender, and that it’s linked to a person’s body or genitals.

Why Butler’s Feminism Was So Revolutionary

Butler envisioned a feminism where the gendered pronoun would be totally dismantled — something that is perhaps finally coming to fruition with the huge spectrum of gender neutral pronouns that are being used today. She wanted gender to be destabilized so thoroughly, that the very need to define it as a set category would no longer exist. And that’s pretty mind blowing, and for the 1990s, beyond revolutionary. Even now, people find it hard to question or break out of the male/female binary because it is so thoroughly drilled into us, so to imagine a world without binaries — hell, a world without gender — is something truly visionary indeed, and something we hope that we do get to see someday.

Judith ‘Superstar’ Butler tells us that even the binary of subject and object — i.e, the whole ‘we women must become subjects not objects’ rhetoric of traditional feminism — is inherently messed up and reinforces the patriarchal status quo which is already oppressing us. And hence, she asks us to question these ideas, and to really challenge and break out of the gender norms which tell us that we can only behave a certain way if we belong to a certain gender. If gender is a ‘performance’, she tells us to ‘perform’ our way out of it by refusing to conform, and beat it at its own game.