Gender Trouble by Judith Butler - Review


Judith Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble book was widely acclaimed for its innovative and revolutionary ideas as regards gender identity and the distinction between sex and gender. It is also well received for its introduction of the nothing of gender performativity.

Butler begins her chapterSubjects of Sex/Gender/Desire from her book Gender Troublewith an investigation on the assumptions offeminist theory. In particular, she criticizes the belief that there exists anidentityand a subject within the feminist theory that necessitates representation. She argues that women’s lives, within the contemporary political and linguistic condition, have been misrepresented or not represented at all. For Butler, "women" and "woman" are loaded categories which are made complex byclass,ethnicity,sexuality, and other aspects of identity. Furthermore, Butler affirms that the “universality” encompassed by these terms is analogous to the assumed universality of thepatriarchy. Butler thus avoids and trespassesidentity politicsin favor of a new feminism that critiques the basis of identity and gender.

She begins her critique of identity and gender by subverting the celebrated assumptions about the distinction often made by other feminists between sex and gender. A distinction which believes that sex is biological whereas gender is culturally constructed. Firstly, Butler argues that this distinction brings in a divide into the supposedly unified subject of feminism, and secondly, the distinction for her proves to be false. Butler hence assumes that both sex and gender are culturally constructed.

Butler after that, in the third part of the chapter, scrutinizes the works ofSimone de Beauvoirand Luce Irigaray in order to investigate the link between power and the categories of sex and gender. For Beauvoir, women make up a lack against which men found and base their identity; for Irigaray, this dialectical situationbelongs to a "signifying economy" that is exclusionary of the representation of women on the whole. It is so for the reason that it utilizesphallocentric language patriarchal discourse. Butler, however, notices that both Beauvoir and Irigaray take for granted that there exists a female "self-identical being" that needs to be represented. Beauvoir and Irigaray’s arguments do not show the impossibility of "being" a gender.

As a substitute, Butler argues that gender is performative. In other words, the idea of identity is as open and flexible and gender as a performance. Identity is not an essence; it is the performativity that defines gender. That’s to say, identity does not exist behind the acts that convey gender, and these acts/performances constitute gender identity—those performative acts create the illusion that identity is stable. Furthermore, if a gender is an effect of culturally influenced acts, then there exists no solid, universal gender. As gender is constituted through performativity, (both that of "woman" and "man") it remains reliant and open to interpretation and "resignification." In this way, Butler provides subversion. She invites people to question all that’s gender related.


Main Points of the Chapter:

Butler starts her chapter questioning the assumption, brought by the feminist theory, that “women” constitute a homogenous subject and category. She affirms that the subject of women is no longer understood in stable terms. She criticizes the fact that the “subject of women” is represented even if it has not qualifications of being a subject. She uses Foucault’s idea that juridical systems of powers produce subjects that they represent. Butler finds that these notions of power control the political life in negative ways. Using this hypothesis as a basis, she moves to assert that the very subject of “women” is itself a production in accordance with the requirements of those systems.

Butler, criticizing the label “women”, uses Denise Riley’s book title Am I That Name? as a basis to investigate the label’s signification which she considers multiple. For her the terms women denotes a common identity, even if the term is in the plural it is a cause of anxiety and trouble. Butler calls feminists to establish a universal status for patriarchy in order to support the manifestation of claims of feminism because she thinks that patriarchy has failed to account for the functioning of gender oppression the real cultural contexts where it concretely exists. Butler blames patriarchy for implanting the label “women” admitting that it’s difficult to replace. The masculine/feminine binary leaves no “specificity” of the feminine. Butler subsequently suggests that the supposed universality of the subject of feminism is destabilized by the limits of the discourse within which it functions.

With all the constructions that patriarchy and its other hegemonic forms have created, Butler speculates, a radical deconstruction has become necessary in order to reconstruct a “representational politics” capable of reviving new grounds for feminism. This might necessitate creating a critique which does not abide by a single ground rather a critique with perpetually challenged identities.

Butler notes that the feminist subject cannot constitute herself as a subject unless she starts working from inside the very system of political framework which constrains her—implying that she –herself- wishes to get rid of it. This system, for Butler, is an organism that bases itself on "foundational" logic. This later is a logic which builds itself on a hierarchical difference between men and women. According to this logic, the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘women’ comes before linguistic discourse of history and politics. This way of thinking presupposes that there is an essential conflict between the I and the Other. It is a conflict which initiates a field for subjects to interact. Adopting this politics of feminism, Butler believes, presupposes adopting a hegemonic foundational logic which establishes women’s otherness.

Judith Butler deals with the historical construction of language through the domination of certain categories of people, which itself, perpetuates traditions of gender. Butler focuses on the discursive means of universalized heterosexuality and how these influence our understandings of feminine and masculine. There are, Butler believes, political principles that have strengthened positioning the notion of women. The challenge here is only through these systems of oppression whereby individuals can free themselves:

Butler focuses on the problematic raising from the difficulties of going beyond womanly stereotypes inside the society that has constructed these constraints in the beginning. She suggests to carry out a deconstructing investigation of the notion of ‘subject’, and to interpret binary oppositions as tyrannical construction which are made up through the discourse of identity.

Judith Butler challenges the idea of male-female relationship. She considers that a relationship is ‘intelligible’ when the ‘persons’ in it make ‘coherent’ and ‘continuous’ beings—identities. By doing this, she undermines what she calls ‘regulatory practices’ which she considers ‘culturally instituted’. These culturally instituted practices imply that certain “identities” cannot ‘follow’—cannot ‘exist’. In other words, they “fail to conform to those norms of cultural intelligibility” (Butler, p. 24). Some of these ‘culturally constructed practices’ are regulated by cultural laws so as to control and “shape the meaning of sexuality”. As an alternative, Butler regards a connection between persons ‘expressive’ and ‘effective’ when it generates a sexual manifestation that is brought into being through reciprocal desire in spite of the conventions of heterosexuality.

Butler supports her argument with the fact that those ‘suppressed and excluded’ identities persist and resist the ‘imposed cultural laws’ and as they numbers increase, it creates decisive opportunities to question the limits and the exclusionary nature of the aforementioned cultural laws. In this way, she meets her aim which is to subvert the gender roles. She also bases on Irigaray’s ironical idea that there is only one sex—the masculine. Irigaray’s claim entails the oppressive and domineering nature of the masculine sex as it creates a ground for Othering all that’s not masculine. Butler also bases on Wittig’s interrelated that the sex categories are conditioned by heterosexuality whose cultural power always others the feminine making from the masculine the untouched and hence comparable to “universal”. Taking on Foucault’s claim, Irigaray maintains that the heterosexual hegemony’s disarray and displacement would pave the ground for the category of sex to gradually disappear. As an example of this displacement, the term “lesbian” emerges to rise above the binary limitation imposed by the system of forced heterosexuality. This destruction of “sex”, Butler assumes basing on Irigaray, would allow women to acquire the status of a universal subject.

Butler uses the Nietzschean criticism to achieve the destruction of the psychological logic. Drawing on Michel Haar’s critique, she founds the ground in order to deconstruct the psychological categories that constitute the illusion of having a substantial identity. Butler deconstructs the linguistic and the cultural complexities that make of gender unified and universal in a repressive and oppressive manner that excludes other identities.

One of the aims of Judith Butler in Gender Trouble and in this chapter is to make people understand that gender is not a fixed, unchanging perception, but it is a set of freely floating ‘attributes’. In other words, gender is free of significance until it is attributed to it through performativity. Using Nietzsche’s “the deed is everything”, Butler states that gender acquires its identity through a ‘doing’ process. She says:

According to Butler, many feminists approach the subject of sexuality and try to dispute the matter of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’. That is, they believe that there is a "doer" for every "deed". Wittig appears to handle an ambiguous attitude towards this situation however her humanist approach tends to certify that there is behind every agency an agent. What we take as a cause. This is obvious from the emergence of homosexuality in her approach.

Butler criticizes the feminist theory for assuming that behind every deed there is a ‘doer’ and neglecting the performativity of sex. For her, what is significant and worth of focus is the results of the deed—its “expressions”, even if the doer –agent— can generate some change in society. Wittig takes language as well to be another way to undermine women for it is misogynistic per se. Language has been used –through law- to produce the masculine ‘subject’, itself, as a fictive production to strengthen the heterosexual hegemony. On the other hand, language as a power does not allow the feminine to ‘mark’ itself as a subject or as attribute of gender. Butler draws Irigaray’s ideas basing on a number of figures such as Lacan, Freud,Jacqueline Rose and Jane Gallop.

Judith Butler finishes her chapter with an analytical view of Beauvoir’s renowned quote: “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”. She considers that this quote entails an implicit perception of construction through which identity of women undergo. There is an ongoing process of resignification which is insistently regulated by an assortment of social mechanisms.


Personal evaluation and conclusion:

Judith Butler’s ideas have gained a wide acclaim for their innovative analysis of sexuality, paving the way to the sexually excluded people to be able to rise against the socially constructed perceptions and practices. Her deconstruction of the socially accepted ideals of sexually has made people be aware of the possibility of tolerating the sexual differences. So many people after reading Butler would simply feel that it is not anymore needed to think of gender categories as a form of defining people. People would feel that those sex categories are only constructed socially and therefore have no fundamental credibility. This anxiety created by the inability to conform to the ‘normal’ has to be questioned. Butler says in a documentary by ARTE that when she was fourteen she fell for young girls instead of boys. And later as she has found out that her sexual inclination was called ‘lesbian’ she says, she felt a kind of linguistic and cultural repression that this label has practiced upon her.

Some of her ideas are interesting to be contemplated as they open up a social debate on gender forms forwards initiating a possible recognition, why not acceptance, of all that’s different from us, and therefore, adopt an anti-essentialist and critical way of thinking where you could tolerate differences and discard hierarchical and oppositional dichotomies. This would make one able to accept the self. Butler’s ideas make one have the right to claim the right to be oneself.

Having ideas such as questioning the social institutions like marriage would give Butler’s ideas and language an authoritarian power to negate and destruct the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ way of copulation. Her way of challenging all that is cultural is in itself a rebellious act that does not tolerate the cultural differences. One might argue that her views of effacing gender categories might end up in a chaos where people are only concerned with their sexual instincts. Her effacement of gender categories implies the possibility of undermining male-female marriage a natural function –rather than an institution— therefore; humans would fall in a impeding state of stagnancy.

I would recommend this chapter to students of feminism course to study it seeing that it consists of sophisticated philosophical views of a feminist whose ideas help students to rethink the continuum of the feminist theory. Butler’s style is advanced and needs a sufficient understanding of other philosophical works to understand Butler. This makes of it an opportunity for students of feminism to have a handle on the various related topics.

Abderrazak Baddou

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