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Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Gender Trouble (1990) by Judith Butler is a really interesting text suggested me by my tutors. Although some part are quite tough to understand since Butler sometimes introduces theories which deny what she has just affirmed; I found this text inspiring and capable to answer to my many questions regarding the definitions of "man" and "woman". Judith Butler (1956) is Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and is well-known as a theorist of power, gender, sexuality and identity. In her essay Gender Trouble she discusses gender identity,  the relations between gender and sex and introduces the notion of gender as performance or gender performativity.

Butler claims that gender identity is not a manifestation of intrinsic essence but rather the product of actions and behaviors, that is, performance. She argues that everyday actions, speech utterances, gestures and representations, dress codes and behaviors as well as certain prohibitions and taboos all work to produce what is perceived as an essential masculine of feminine identity. Butler aims at deconstructing this notion of integrated, stable identity as the extension of an inner essence, and the illusion of the sexual body, which are in Butler's view repressive and dangerous, but also undermineable.

Judith Butler relies in Gender Trouble on Michel Foucault's theory presented in Discipline and Punish, which challenges the relations of body and soul. Foucault argued that oppression imposed on prisoners is not internalized but is rather imprinted or marked on their bodies. Methods of discipline and punishment act on the body and form the image of the recalcitrant inner soul. This image regulates and justifies the actions of power upon the body.

Foucault's argument, adopted by Judith Butler, is that the soul is the prison of the body, and not the other way around as was widely held in western culture. In this Foucault means to argue that discourse formations that deal with the human soul and define it essentially operate through the body and on the body, shaping it and marking it with the traces of the alleged "soul" which hides somewhere deep inside. In Gender Trouble Judith Butler genders Foucault's notions and holds that gender is in fact the predominant cultural agent which operates on the body, thus constituting the concepts of masculinity/femininity and the identities of heterosexuality/homosexuality. Judith Butler's agenda in "Gender Trouble" is to deconstruct the essential nature of gender identity and to expose it as the fabrication that it is.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) called for a new way of looking at sex and gender. As opposed to the fixed masculine/feminine gender binary, Butler argued that gender should be seen as fluid, variable; the way we behave at different times and in different situations rather than who we are.

 Butler argues that sex also is a socially constructed category which stems out of social and cultural practices and in the context of a discourse that has a history and its own social and political dynamics.

Butler suggested that by 'deconstructing' the way we think about gender we might move towards a new equality where people are not restricted by masculine or feminine gender roles.

Butler is concerned with reaching greater equality between men and women, but her emphasis is different, as are her proposed means of action.

Butler looks at the problems of defining 'woman'. She argues that we cannot see women as a unified homogenous group since every woman is a unique individual. Women are not a united group since there are a great many divisive differences between them, for example those of class, race and ethnicity

"The consequence of such sharp disagreements about the meaning of gender.... establishes the need for a radical re-thinking of the categories of identity within the context of relations of radical gender asymmetry." (Butler, 1990, p.11) Conventional theory states that our sex (male/female) produces our gender (masculine/feminine) which causes our desire towards the opposite sex. Butler concludes that our gender is not a core aspect of our identity but rather a performance, how we behave at different times. Our gender (masculinity and femininity) is an achievement rather than a biological factor.

Butler suggests that we should think of gender as free-floating and fluid rather than fixed:

"When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one." (Butler, 1990, p.6)

Butler advocates 'gender trouble' as a way of challenging traditional notions of gender identities. Butler's main metaphor for this is drag. By dressing up as a member of the opposite sex, drag artists are subverting ideas of gender norms, challenging the "constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity" (Butler, 1990, p.148)


Butler's ideas about individuals using performative acts to change the way people think about gender are seen by many as unrealistic because few people subvert conventional notions of gender identity on a regular basis.

Butler implies that gender identities can be made and re-made at will.  She suggests that the way we view sex and gender is fundamental to the conventional roles attached to gender. There is sense behind her argument that until sex differences are disregarded and people cease to be classed into either male or female, true equality is impossible.

Butler asserts that feminism had made a mistake by trying to assert that 'women' were a group with common characteristics and interests. That approach, Butler said, performed 'an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations' -- reinforcing a binary view of gender relations in which human beings are divided into two clear-cut groups, women and men. Rather than opening up possibilities for a person to form and choose their own individual identity, therefore, feminism had closed the options down.

Butler argues that sex (male, female) is seen to cause gender (masculine, feminine) which is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender). This is seen as a kind of continuum. Butler's approach -- inspired in part by Foucault  is basically to smash the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, free-floating and not 'caused' by other stable factors.

Butler says: 'There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.' (Gender Trouble, p. 25). In other words, gender is a performance; it's what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.

David Halperin has said, 'Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.'

To illustrate the worldwide subordinate position of women, a  stated that: "Women constitute half the world's population, perform nearly two thirds of its work hours, receive one tenth of the world's income and own less than one hundredth of the world's property."

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