[If you’re not interested in cissexist bullshit denying the reality of gender or in the ramblings of academia, scroll right past.]
“If one more person tells me that ‘all gender is performance’ I think I am going to strangle them. What’s most annoying about that sound-bite is how it is often recited in a somewhat snooty ‘I-took-a-gender-studies-class-and-you-didn’t’ sort of way, which is ironic given the way that phrase dumbs down gender. It is a crass oversimplification that is as ridiculous as saying all gender is genitals, all gender is chromosomes, or all gender is socialization. In reality gender is all of these things and more. In fact, if there’s one thing that every person in this room should be able to agree on, it’s that gender is a confusing and complicated mess. It’s like a junior high school mixer where our bodies and our internal desires awkwardly dance with one another and with the external expectations that other people place on us.”
— Julia Serano in “Performance Piece”
And, of course, the thing is that not only is it insulting and wrong, but the people saying this are both misquoting and completely failing to understand Butler. Gender isn’t performance, gender [presentation] is performative. Which is an obscure-ish bit of academic lingo, but the difference in definition is actually huge, and makes a big difference. It means that it’s a thing you do. Anti-racism is performative. Social justice is performative. Love is performative.
Now, Butler’s line does ignore the other elements of gender, especially gender identity. (She may have addressed them elsewhere in her writing, I haven’t read much of her and can’t recall.) But she’s right about gender presentation, when considering it from an academic, sociological viewpoint. Gender presentation is something you do. That doesn’t make it a performance, because performance implies that something is fake. And, of course, some people present their genders in ways they would not want to, usually under a great deal of pressure from society. But that doesn’t make all gender a performance in this sense. Being oneself usually includes some form of gender presentation, which is still performative, while not being a performance at all. Even presenting as agendered or nongendered is performative.
So the next time some snotty twit who thinks they know more than you (general you, not Julia, because I am dead certain Julia know how to handle it) about gender says this shit? Tell them they need to go back to gender studies class, because they don’t know shit from Butler.
I have to disagree. Judith Butler, at least in her 1988 article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (pdf), claims precisely that there is no such thing as gender identity.
She does not make any difference between gender performance and internal sense of gender. In fact, she says that all that exists is performance — gender presentation, if you will — and that the presence of this cultural fiction deludes us into believing in a such thing as gender identity.
Which is clearly bullshit.
I have heard that Judith Butler might have changed her mind later on. She might have started phrasing her words differently. She might have taken a few steps back from her initial extreme position. I hear that she discusses this topic further in Gender Trouble (1990). However, I haven’t yet read Gender Trouble. I haven’t read Judith Butler’s other work covering gender and performativity.
I would love to believe that Judith Butler didn’t really mean that gender is “cultural fiction.” That she didn’t mean that “performance” is all there is to gender. Every time someone says, “Oh, but those ‘gender-is-performance’ people misunderstood Judith Butler,” I see a glimpse of hope. Surely one of the most prominent thinkers in queer theory and third-wave feminism didn’t just deny gender as a mere social construct?
Oh, but she did. At least in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” the piece I’m going to discuss. If she changed her mind later, that’s great. That’s fantastic. I’m glad. But as far as her groundbreaking 1988 piece goes, no, denying the validity of gender is exactly what she did.
Her claims wouldn’t be too far off if she limited them to gender performance. If she, like Julia Serano, made a distinction between subconscious sex and gender presentation. Here’s what Butler says:
“The act that gender is, the act that embodied agents are inasmuch as they dramatically and actively embody and, indeed, wear certain cultural significations, is clearly not one’s act alone. Surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions, is clearly not a fully individual matter. […] [G]ender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.” (525–6)
(For this and all future quotes, italics are preserved from the original. All bolding is mine.)
OK, gender presentation is a language constructed by culture and enforced through societal norms. That’s fine. But that’s not what Butler wants to say. She goes beyond that:
“Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extend that it is performed. [… The] implicit and popular theory of acts and gestures as expressive of gender suggests that gender itself is something prior to the various acts, postures, and gestures by which it is dramatized and known; indeed, gender appears to the popular imagination as a substantial core which might well be understood as the spiritual or psychological correlate of biological sex. If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is quite crucial, for if gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex, a true or abiding masculinity or femininity, are also constituted as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed.
“As a consequence, gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self,’ whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act,’ broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority.” (pp. 527–8)
She goes on like this for quite a bit. Butler isn’t satisfied with challenging the essentialist view that naturalizes socially constructed gender roles as inherent features of polar, binary sexes. No, instead she denies the very existence of a thing such as gender: “Genders, then, can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent.” The idea of gender as an internal, psychological reality is but a social fiction fed by the social script of gender performance. In reality, there is no such thing as gender as an inherent identity; there is simply performance, and performance, as we know, is socially constructed. Thus, “a fiction.”
If that isn’t clear enough about what Butler thinks of gender identity, let’s look at her treatment of “the transvestite.” She writes: “The transvestite, however, can do more than simply express the distinction between sex and gender” — and let’s stop there before going any further. When Butler appeals to the concept of “the transvestite,” she is clearly referring to a cis man cross-dressing as a woman. So when she refers to “the distinction between sex and gender,” she conflates gender with gender presentation. She simplifies the complexity of what we call “gender” into two seemingly simple features: biological sex and gender presentation. Thus her “transvestite,” as a cis man, has a male biological sex, and, as a cross-dresser, a female presentation. Note that she fails to recognize anything as gender identity, which is fully in line with the statements I quoted earlier, in which she outright denies the existence of an interior gender reality. A man, by merely dressing as a woman, has taken on the “gender” of a woman, according to Butler. This is an absurd simplification. Butler finds it acceptable, however, since she does not want to believe in gender as a reality beyond presentation.
The full quote is this:
“The transvestite, however, can do more than simply express the distinction between sex and gender, but challenges, at least implicitly, the distinction between appearance and reality that structures a good deal of popular thinking about gender identity. If the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ which gender performances ostensibly express. Indeed, the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations.” (527)
The condition Butler presents for gender to be a reality — “If the ‘reality of gender is constituted by the performance itself’” — is a false one. The reality of gender (no scare quotes here) is not constituted by the performance. The reality of a person’s gender is not tantamount to how that person’s physical presentation is read. Thus, performance does not unwrite internal gender, even when it is inconsistent with it. I can dress in drag — and perhaps manage to be read as boy or man — but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m still a woman. My gender presentation does not change my gender. I may present in a more or less feminine manner, depending on the day, but that does not necessarily correlate to any internal change in who I am.
Has Butler even consider the notion that “the transvestite” she envisions might have, regardless of his “male biological sex” and feminine presentation, a male internal gender? No, that would be too complex. To Butler, gender is performance.
I know Butler’s prose can be obscure sometimes. It’s easy to claim that “You just don’t understand the complexity of her ideas” or “Butler is too deep for you.” But this article is remarkably straightforward and lucid. If Butler truly believed in a such thing as a gender identity, she would have probably mentioned this insignificant fact once or twice. She would not have continuously interchanged the term “gender” with what would be rightly called “gender presentation,” and she would certainly would not have outright denied the existence of gender as a psychological reality. I’d love to believe that the theory of gender performativity doesn’t entail denying the existence of gender. But Butler’s article speaks for itself. Her word choice and conclusions clearly reflect her belief that gender is merely “an ‘act’” (528).
If she’s changed her ideas since 1988, I’ll be glad to hear it.
Oh this is FANTASTIC! If you’ve ever found yourself saying things like ‘but Butler didn’t mean that!’, please read this whole reblog, it is wonderful.