By Olivia Comstock
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, published in 1999, is a key text for feminist theory, queer theory, and continental philosophy. She wrote several other books on gender and has a position as a professor at the University of California Berkeley. Her books are regarded as difficult to read due to their long, unstructured sentences and many references to other philosophers that it is assumed the reader knows. Regardless, I still think her work is valuable because of its contributions to the larger field of gender theory and how we think about gender today. I will give a summary of Gender Trouble, explaining the concepts she covers.
She uses and builds off the theories and writings of the psychoanalytic tradition, including Freud, Lacan and Kristeva. Additionally, she references structuralist and post-structuralist theory, using Derrida’s theories of deconstruction, which is a type literary analysis, and Foucault’s concepts on how power is structured. There are a few feminist theorists, including Kristeva, which she also references, such as Wittig and Irigaray. It is important that readers of Butler are familiar with the concepts of these thinkers beforehand because she uses their ideas in her writing and criticizes their texts. It would be even more difficult to read without that background knowledge. Gender Trouble is divided into three sections and a conclusion. The first section is “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire,” the second is “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix,” followed by “Subversive Bodily Acts,” and the conclusion “From Parody to Politics.” I will give an overview of the main arguments in each section. Within each section, she has chapters where she discusses a specific topic or a specific thinker, analyzing and criticizing what they have written. Most of her chapters begin and end with an entire paragraph of questions that she never gives a clear answer for, but the reader is left to contemplate.
Before the 1990s and Judith Butler, the feminist movement was largely based in essentialism, which is the idea that people are gendered because of their inherent biology and that someone’s sex and gender are not only deeply connected, but also the same. Later on, was the theory of constructivism, that sex and gender were separate, and that gender is something constructed and performed through culture, not inherent to biology. Judith Butler took constructivist theories even further and through her impact on other thinkers, brought constructivism into the mainstream, and influenced the way we think about gender today.
Her main question throughout Gender Trouble is whether “women” should be considered a conglomerate, collective whole to be used for feminist rhetoric. It asks if “woman” is a universal term. This questions on the relationship between sex and gender. Sex is the anatomical body parts that one has – like the penis and vagina. Gender is socially constructed performance that makes one appear recognizably male or female to the general public. Your gender is not inherent to your being. You are not a “woman,” you perform a woman. The characteristics of gender, such as the superficial qualities of long hair and skirts and the more subtle behaviors of the way one carries themselves and how one interacts with others, are determined by the structure of culture. This performance is not an active choice that one makes. I do not wake up every morning and choose to present as female. Instead, the performance of gender is an effect or product of the world that we live in and are assimilated to, which is why it is largely unconscious. Gender is anticipation, repetition, and ritual. Butler uses this idea and takes it further, suggesting that sex too is socially constructed.
Here, Butler uses some key Derridian theories. Binaries, such as male and female, are constructed because our language is structured on using opposition to give something meaning. We know what love means because it is not hate, but this means that we do not really know what love is. Underneath the structure of language, culture, and ideas, there is no natural inner truth. Butler is saying that sex too is just a created category with no inherent inner truth. Sex is always already gender due to the heterosexual matrix, which is a grid of naturalized bodies, gender, and desires, meaning that a viewer looking at a person knows that person’s sex, gender, and sexuality. The problem with the heterosexual matrix is that it only allows for a certain number of identities and all others are outside of it and are erased or ignored. There is no way to overcome the heterosexual matrix individually, on ones own; instead, Butler suggests that sexual minorities and people with excluded identities need to form a coalition in order transcend the existing categories of identity. Ideally, there would be no categories. Based on this, the answer to her original question of the book is that “woman” as a category is not an appropriate subject for feminism because it is ultimately fictive and exclusionary. Perhaps consider how you view gender and sex as categories. When you are walking around in public, are you putting people in the heterosexual matrix subconsciously? Do work to mold yourself into an identifiable category? How do you avoid this? How do you stay open?