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.
This is a story about crying and feeling. When I was a little, little girl, I would cry so often and so hard that I was gasping for air, and then I would pass out. Later, as a child, and especially as an adolescent, I was ashamed of crying. I saw it as a manifestation of my own weaknesses, exposed for the whole watching world to witness. I tried to convince myself that I should not feel or care about anything because then I would never be hurt enough to cry. I held my tears in for months at a time, only for them burst out violently when least expected, when they had been held in for too long. I had developed an elaborate metaphor to justify this, involving stuffing a suitcase so full of emotions that I had to sit on it just to keep it closed. When I did cry, the suitcase exploded, and all the things I had been holding in for the past six months would have to be unpacked, in the same way that one unpacks a suitcase when they are at their destination. Typically, this occurred while laughing because, for me, laughing and crying are fundamentally connected. Laughing is a way of crying that is more socially acceptable. Both are a feeling of bodily release of emotions. I would laugh so hard that I could not breath, then the laughing would come too close to the feeling of crying, and I would start sobbing. When this happened, it was very confusing for my companions and me because my laughing and crying noise sound scarily similar. Honestly, this still happens sometimes, and my laughing and crying still sound remarkable similar. However, this year, I understand the flaws in all of this logic. I know that crying is good. I know that expressing emotion is healthy. I know that feeling and caring is better than the alternative. I know that being vulnerable is valuable. I revel in my emotion.
If you flip through any book about art, from any time, on any movement, the artists that will be featured are primarily men. Historically, women’s relationship with art has not been a good one. Women have been involved in art in one of two ways. The first is when women were subjects of paintings and objects of male desire. Nude portraits, which have been prominent since the Renaissance, are predominantly of women. In addition, the women in these portraits are presented as shy, demure, and pleasing to men. They do not look at the viewer, but instead look off to the side, which shows weakness. They are lounged in a way that displays their sexuality for the pleasure of the viewer, but they in no way own their own sexuality.
I am an eco, Marxist, intersectional, radical, dirt-loving feminist. This week, all of the writers for the blog were asked to define what feminism means to them. I find this challenging because it is so open ended. Everyone who has interacted with feminism defines it differently. Different generations have widely different collective notions of feminism. My mom’s generation thought feminism was playing the game like the men do, rather than dismantling the underlying power structures. Ultimately, feminism is equality, acceptance, understanding, and love for yourself and for others.
In the past year, the news has been filled with election coverage. Some of it was hopeful, some of it was scary, but it was constant and unyielding. Now, Donald Trump has been elected and women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQA+ people are all scared for what will happen to their rights. The news is story after story of what awful bill has been passed, law has been rescinded, bans have been put in place, and what Donald Trump plans to do next. Even just seeing headlines such as defund Planned Parenthood, exclude trans kids from bathrooms, take away the Affordable Care Act, and ban immigration is extremely depressing. Actually reading the news articles is even worse. It seems like every day there is a new awful event happening in our country. It seems like our civil rights are moving backwards at fast pace. It seems like these next four years this pattern will only continue. This is why we need to stay political. This is why we need to stay aware.
John Berger in his famous television program Ways of Seeing said that, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” This quote summarizes the problem of the male gaze and how it has influenced our culture. The intersection between the male gaze and the beauty industry has created a systemic expectation that women need to be beautiful in order to be successful, to have love, to have sex, and to be happy. This pits women against other women, men, and themselves, dividing them and alienating them. This is not about being confident, radiant, and beautiful on your own terms. Instead, this is about a systemic problem that women need solidarity with each other to overcome and destroy this expectation of beauty.
Every part of our lives is stereotyped and put into boxes – our class, our education, our gender, our sexuality, and our love. This is frustrating and wrong because love should be the most free, open, and genuine part of life. Instead, it is limited by strict normalized gender roles and heteronormativity. These place implied expectations and create assumptions based on one’s role as the man or the woman in the relationship. Because of this, the possibilities of what love can be are limited. Openness, comfort, and self-love on the individual level also create these characteristics in a relationship. However, these traits are stifled by what is considered “normal” and people’s attempts to conform to it. There is potential to expand the possibilities of how people love through looking at the queer community and through a vision of a post-heterosexual world. I acknowledge that this is a very broad topic. I am only going to do a brief survey of how I think queerness could help us move beyond the boundaries and institutions in place today, but I am aware of the infiniteness of this topic.