Feminism/Literature/Gender Trouble

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Gender Trouble (1990) by Judith Butler is a highly influential book in academic feminism and queer theory. It is also the book credited with creating the seminal notion of gender performativity. It is considered to be one of the canonical texts of queer theory and postmodern/poststructural feminism.

Chapter 1. Subjects of Sex/Gender/DesireEdit

Butler begins Gender Trouble with an attack on one of the central assumptions of feminist theory: the supposition that there exists an identity and a subject that requires representation in politics and language. For Butler, "women" and "woman" are fraught categories, complicated by class, ethnicity, sexuality, and other facets of identity. Moreover, the universality presumed by these terms parallels the assumed universality of the patriarchy, and erases the particularity of oppression in distinct times and places. Butler thus eschews identity politics in favor of a new, coalitional feminism that critiques the basis of identity and gender.

She begins her critique of identity and gender by challenging her readers' assumptions about the distinction often made between sex and gender. (In this distinction, sex is biological while gender is culturally constructed.) In the first place, Butler argues, this distinction introduces a split into the supposedly unified subject of feminism, and in the second place, the distinction proves false. Sexed bodies cannot signify without gender, and the apparent existence of sex prior to discourse and cultural imposition is merely an effect of the functioning of gender. That is, both sex and gender are constructed.

Butler next examines the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray in order to explore the relationship between power and categories of sex and gender. For Beauvoir, women constitute a lack against which men establish their identity; for Irigaray, this dialectic belongs to a "signifying economy" that excludes the representation of women altogether because it employs phallocentric language. However, as Butler notes, both Beauvoir and Irigaray assume that there exists a female "self-identical being" in need of representation, and their arguments hide the impossibility of "being" a gender at all.

Instead, in her introduction of the central idea of Gender Trouble, Butler argues that gender is performative: no identity exists behind the acts that supposedly "express" gender, and these acts constitute—rather than express—the illusion of the stable gender identity. Furthermore, if the appearance of “being” a gender is thus an effect of culturally influenced acts, then there exists no solid, universal gender: constituted through the practice of performance, the gender "woman" (like the gender "man") remains contingent and open to interpretation and "resignification." In this way, Butler provides an opening for subversive action. She calls for gender trouble, for people to trouble the categories of gender through performance.

Chapter 2. Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual MatrixEdit

In the second chapter of Gender Trouble, Butler takes up another commonplace of feminist theory, the patriarchy. She notes that feminists have frequently made recourse to the supposed pre-patriarchal state of culture as a model upon which to base a new, non-oppressive society. For this reason, accounts of the original transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo have proven particularly useful to feminists. Butler revisits three of the most popular: Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological structuralism, in which the incest taboo necessitates a kinship structure governed by the exchange of women; Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic description of “womanliness as a masquerade” that hides masculine identification and therefore also conceals a desire for another woman; and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic explanation of mourning and melancholia, in which loss prompts the ego to incorporate attributes of the lost loved one—in which, in other words, cathexis becomes identification. (Both Riviere and Freud center their texts on the Oedipal story (see Oedipus and Oedipus complex, a classic example of the incest taboo.) In the course of examining these three accounts of gender identification, Butler extends them in order to emphasize the productive or performative aspects of gender. With Lévi-Strauss, she suggests that incest is “a pervasive cultural fantasy” and that the presence of the taboo generates these desires; with Riviere, she states that mimicry and masquerade form the “essence” of gender; with Freud, she asserts that “gender identification is a kind of melancholia in which the sex of the prohibited object is internalized as a prohibition” (63) and therefore that “same-sexed gender identification” (e.g., the identification of the boy with the masculine gender) depends on an unresolved (but simultaneously forgotten) homosexual cathexis (with the father, not the mother, of the Oedipal myth). For Butler, “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities” (70) and for heterosexuality to remain stable, it demands the notion of homosexuality, which remains prohibited but necessarily within the bounds of culture. Finally, Butler points again to the productivity of the incest taboo, a law which generates—and also regulates—approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality, neither of which exists before the law.

Chapter 3. Subversive Bodily ActsEdit

i. The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva: In response to the work of Jacques Lacan that posited a paternal Symbolic order and a repression of the "feminine" required for language and culture, Julia Kristeva added women back into the narrative by claiming that poetic language—the "semiotic" —was a surfacing of the maternal body in writing, uncontrolled by the paternal logos. For Kristeva, poetic writing and maternity are the sole culturally permissible ways for women to return to the maternal body that bore them, and female homosexuality is an impossibility, a near psychosis. Butler takes on the arguments of Kristeva, claiming that Kristeva's insistence on a "maternal" that somehow precedes culture and on poetry as a return to the maternal body is an essentialist trap: "Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress" (90). Butler argues the notion of "maternity" as the long-lost haven for females is a social construction. Butler invokes Foucault's arguments in The History of Sexuality to posit that in fact the notion that maternity precedes or defines women is itself a product of discourse. Thus perhaps repression produces the object that it comes to deny; that is, the paternal law (the symbolic) invents a notion of "feminine" that it then "represses."

ii. Foucault, Herculine, and the Politics of Sexual Discontinuity: Here Butler dismantles part of Foucault's critical introduction to the journals he published of the hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin, who lived in France during the 19th century and eventually committed suicide when s/he was forced to live as a man by the authorities. In his introduction to the journals Foucault writes of Herculine's early days, when she was able to live her gender or "sex" as she saw fit as a "happy limbo of nonidentity" (94). Butler reads such a statement as romanticism on Foucault's part, claiming that Foucault's proclamation a blissful identity "prior" to cultural inscription contradicts his work in The History of Sexuality, in which he posits that the idea of a "real" or "true" or "originary" sexual identity is an illusion, in other words that "sex" is not the solution to the repressive system of power but part of that system itself. Butler instead places Barbin's early day not in a "happy limbo" but along a larger trajectory, always part of a larger network of social control. She suggests finally that Foucault's surprising deviation from his ideas on repression in the introduction might be a sort of "confessional moment," or vindication of Foucault's own homosexuality of which he rarely spoke and on which he permitted himself only once to be interviewed.

iii. Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex: Here Butler traces Wittig's thinking about lesbianism as the one recourse to the constructed notion of sex. The notion of "sex" is always coded as female, according to Wittig, a way to designate the non-male through an absence. Women, thus reduced to "sex," cannot escape carrying sex as a burden. Wittig argues that even the naming of the body parts creates a fiction and constructs the features themselves, fragmenting what was really once "whole." Language, repeated over time, "produces reality-effects that are eventually misperceived as 'facts" (115).

iv. Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions: Butler begins by questioning the notion that "the body" itself is a natural entity that "admits no genealogy," a usual given without explanation: "How are the contours of the body clearly marked as the taken-for-granted ground or surface upon which gender signification are inscribed, a mere facticity devoid of value, prior to significance?" (129). Building on the thinking of Mary Douglas outlined in her Purity and Danger, Butler claims that the boundaries of the body have been drawn to instate certain taboos about limits and possibilities of exchange. Thus the hegemonic and homophobic press has read the pollution of the body that AIDS brings about as corresponding to the pollution of the homosexual's sexual activity, in particular his crossing the forbidden bodily boundary of the perineum. In other words, Butler's claim is that "the body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries" (133). Butler proposes the practice of drag as a way to destabilize the exteriority/interiority binary, finally to poke fun at the notion that there is an "original" gender, and to demonstrate playfully to the audience, through an exaggeration, that all gender is in fact scripted, rehearsed, and performed.

Conclusion: From Parody to PoliticsEdit

Here Butler attempts to construct a feminism (via the politics of jurido-discursive power) from which the gendered pronoun has been removed or not presumed to be a reasonable category. She claims that even the binary of subject/object, which forms the basic assumption for feminist practices - "we, 'women,' must become subjects and not objects" - is a hegemonic and artificial division. The notion of a subject, instead, is for her formed through repetition, through a "practice of signification" (144). Butler offers parody (for example, the practice of drag) as a way to destabilize and make apparent the invisible assumptions about gender identity and the inhabitability of such "ontological locales" (146) as gender. By redeploying those practices of identity and exposing as always failed the attempts to "become" one's gender, Butler believes that a positive, transformative politics can emerge.

All page numbers are from the first edition: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, Routledge, 1990).

Related TextsEdit

  • Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
  • Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter
  • Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
  • Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia;"
  • Erich Fromm, Love, Sexuality, and Matriarchy: About Gender
  • Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One and Speculum of the Other Woman
  • Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, "The Principles of Kinship" in The Elementary Structures of Kinship
  • Joan Riviere, "Womanliness as a Masquerade"
  • Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex"
  • Monique Wittig, The Lesbian Body and "One Is Not Born a Woman" (in La pensée straight)
  • Jacques Derrida, "Signature, Event, Context" in Margins of Philosophy
  • Sherry Ortner, "Is female to male as nature is to culture?"

Further readingEdit

  • Judith Butler: Live Theory by Vicki Kirby
Last modified on 11 March 2012, at 11:02