Book review: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Judith Butler (Source)

The deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics: rather, it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated. (148)

Oh Judith Butler, how you exhaust my eyeballs… It’s a good thing I took Representation and Gender in the Americas last semester, because Butler and her theory about gender performativity came up A LOT in our assigned readings (though her theory was being applied to Pre-Columbian and Colonial Latin American culture, often via artistic evidence such as pictorial codices). Therefore, actually reading Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was not as mentally rigorous as it could have been, but there is no denying that Butler is a bit painful to get through. Her rhetoric is so overdone and unnecessarily complex, and though her ideas are fascinating, it bordered on being physically strenuous to get through her book. That really is one of the most frustrating things about scholarly writing; it’s like some writers try to write above everyone’s heads just to prove how awesome their brain matter is. But whatever, her cerebrum is neither her nor there, because there is no denying that Gender Trouble is one of the most important works ever written for feminism and queer theory. 

Butler basically re-wrote our understanding of third wave feminism and changed our interpretation of “sex” and “gender” with Gender Trouble, which was published in 1990 (when she was about 34 years old, I might add– the woman’s kind of a prodigy). The problem with feminism, according to her, is that it represents a universal woman. However, not all women are cut from the same cloth: post-structuralism states that we need to take into account other factors such as class, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and regional modalities. Therefore, there is no universal woman for feminism to represent, but feminism previously needed to use this stance to generate political visibility, as women were previously grossly misrepresented (or not represented at all). However, aside from the issue that there is no universal woman, the very political system of feminism– a system of power, according to Foucault, which produces the subjects they have come to represent–is in fact masculine in its attempt to regulate (i.e. control) the subject. It is self-defeating. Or, as Butler stated, the system of feminism makes women “discursively constituted by the very political system that it is supposed to facilitate its emancipation” (2). This regulation is concealed and naturalized by political analysis. Feminism does not like to acknowledge its masculine structure– it doesn’t really like to critique itself at all– but it needs to start doing so in order to make advancements for ALL women.

Gender is typically thought in terms of a binary: male and female, man and woman, masculine and feminine. This is because gender was originally seen as dependent on physical sex and is therefore heterosexualized through the perceived relationship between sex, gender and desire. Butler declares that this is incorrect by reiterating the scholarship of Simone de Beauvoir, who suggests that one becomes a woman. This makes gender variable– a cultural compulsion. Social scientists say that gender is a factor or dimension of an analysis, a mark of biological, linguistic, and cultural difference. Luce Irigaray states that women have come to represent the sex that cannot be thought and that the female body should not be limited but rather a tool for freedom. However, because the feminine is in relation to masculine, both the subject and the Other become masculine, thus excluding the feminine altogether. Therefore, gender cannot be thought of in terms of a binary– it needs to be radically rethought within the context of relations of radical gender asymmetry.

Butler asks, “To what extent to regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of a person? To what extent is ‘identity’ a normative ideal rather than the descriptive feature of experience?” (16). In plain English, Butler suggests that gender is performative and it is fluid in that it is able to change depending on the context. A genealogical critique, which was originally proposed by Foucault, helps explain the “disruptions” in the (incorrect) binary system:

[it] refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task this inquiry is to center on– and decenter– such defining institutions: phallagocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality (viii-ix)

Butler goes on to discuss the incest taboo according to Claude Levi-Strauss, Joan Riviere, and Sigmund Freud. This discussion supports her point about gender being performative, where “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities” (70). She then thoroughly analyzes the work of Julia Kristeva and the maternal body, Foucault’s analysis of the hermaphrodite Herculine, and Monique Wittig’s scholarship on lesbianism. Finally, in order to disrupt the gendered “norm” and point out its performative nature, Butler proposes that everyone dress in drag. This also serves a parodic role, since parody is quite effective in revealing larger ideas.

This work has been undoubtedly influential and has been referenced numerous times in a wide variety of scholarship. However, I am curious to know how much influence these ideas have had outside academia. I feel like I really need to look more into the current political state of feminism to get a better grasp on how (or if) it has shifted significantly enough to be less focused on the universal (aka Western and white) woman to suit its political needs. There is no doubt that enormous strides have been made for women in America (particularly in liberal centers) since the 1970’s, but the same cannot be said for the rest of the world because feminism is still a very Western concept. Has feminism (or, in academic terms, Women’s Studies) been officially eclipsed by Gender Studies?

Georgia O’Keeffe (Source)

I am also thinking a lot about Independent Spirits and In Wonderland, both of which made the West sound like a place that was less restrictive in its boundaries for women and overall more open-minded. Was the American West further ahead in its post-structuralist feminism before the concept even existed because of these factors? There is no denying that there were many women artists who were more fluid in their gender: Georgia O’Keeffe was very fond of wearing pants for their convenience, Helen Lundeberg helped create Post-Surrealism– even though Surrealism was one of the most masculine artistic genres out there– to suit wider artistic needs, and women in Colorado were often in charge of promoting the arts and culture in the state. So much to think about… I should get in touch with my minor advisor (two weeks late) to start posing these ideas to him as possible comps questions.

Addendum: I found this fascinating article, which looks at how men too face their own problems when it comes to gendered expectations. It also looks at how the vernacular of feminism could benefit masculism. 

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3 thoughts on “Book review: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

  1. Judith Butler is insanely impossible to read – try Rosi Braidotti who is fantastic and challenges the use of obfuscating language suggesting that it in fact restricts feminist writing as it emulates patriarchal philosophical style. Amusingly, after Braidotti’s call to action, Butler does make a bit of an effort to be more accessible, bless her. See ‘Undoing Gender’.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! That is pretty amusing that Butler seems to change her style after Braidotti’s “call to action,” I’ll definitely have to check her out. I do love readable yet meaningful scholarship.

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