Judith Butler’s famous 1990 book Gender Trouble features on countless undergraduate reading lists in the humanities. The book’s wide-ranging line of inquiry, unforgiving style, and often abrupt shifts in focus are well known—and widely lamented among readers. Many students have been daunted by the book, and deriding especially challenging snippets has become something of a rite of passage.

Thankfully, a more rarely read set of texts can rescue a reader from despair. Between 1985 and 1989, Judith Butler published six short essays introducing ideas she would return to throughout her career. Each essay addresses a particular concern, in most cases focusing on a single thinker. Between these six pieces, Butler outlines a distinctive view of gender as tangled up with embodiment. This perspective opposes any tidy distinction between sex as both natural and bodily and gender as both cultural and historical. This idea is critical, and bears repeating: Butler is attacking the commonly assumed sex-gender distinction.

The French social theorists Butler addresses viewed our bodies as being immersed in social norms, in legal definitions, and in everyday routines. As Butler summarized it in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”:

The body is not passively scripted with cultural codes, as if it were a lifeless recipient of wholly pre-given cultural relations. But neither do embodied selves pre-exist the cultural conventions which essentially signify bodies.

This is a challenging claim. But Butler’s basic idea is that our experience of society is always through our bodies. Before Gender Trouble, Butler explored this idea repeatedly.

Variations on Beauvoir

The first of Butler’s early essays, “Variations on Sex and Gender in Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault” was published in 1985. Most of the essay focuses on French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and particularly her great feminist treatise The Second Sex. Beauvoir held that there was no separable self, a self able to stand apart from the process of thinking. For Beauvoir (and Butler) there could be no “I” which predated cultural involvement, no aloof “thinker within,” staring into life from outside. Beauvoir thus saw gender as a project. Womanhood was never a settled matter; it changed across time. As Butler puts it, gender is “an incessant project, a daily act of reconstruction and interpretation.” This existentialist position implies a greatly expanded role for human behavior. As Butler puts it, if this view holds true, “then both gender and sex seem to be thoroughly cultural affairs.” (This phrasing echoes in the title of a great essay Butler would pen a decade later: “Merely Cultural.”)

But this argument left a dilemma. As Butler asked: “How can gender be both a matter of choice and cultural construction?” Beauvoir’s treatment of embodiment offered one way of answering this. Beauvoir proposed the term situation to describe the body’s status. Through our bodies, we can reinterpret existing mores, customs, and expectations. While never outside a social context, the body was also always active. The body’s social involvement can be experienced as a kind of oppression, but it also grants a license for liberation through “re-articulation,” or self-definition. Bodies are both the site of oppression and the means of escape.

In this early piece, Butler had already settled on a style characterized by a readiness to tackle contradictory aspects of gender:

Becoming a gender is an impulsive yet mindful process of interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos and prescriptions. The choice to assume a certain kind of body, to live or wear one’s body a certain way, implies a world of already established corporeal styles. To choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that reproduces and organizes them anew. Less a radical act of creation, gender is a tacit project to renew a cultural history in one’s own corporeal terms.

Our bodies can challenge the norms we encounter, but we also recreate those norms through our bodies.

Butler is less approving in her treatment of Monique Wittig, who she describes as “alarming.” Wittig saw gender as a weaponized delusion. While anatomical differences between people appear in manifold ways (for instance, the extension or inset of an earlobe), it was only those differences associated directly with reproduction which were declared “sexual.” Men and women are set apart on the basis of fairly arbitrary traits, onto which a contrived meaning is imposed. Then, for Wittig, a retroactive naturalization of the existing political order takes place: the sex we are now is presented as what we were all along.

This basic categorization of anatomies was threatened by the very existence of lesbians. Lesbian erotic practices were not limited to the genitals, and lesbians refused to define themselves as wives married to a particular man. Wittig’s writing envisioned these women making revolutionary efforts to rework their anatomies—and their societies—in their own terms. Butler grows incomprehending as the essay continues:

It might well seem that Wittig has entered into a Utopian ground that leaves the rest of us situated souls waiting impatiently this side of her liberating imaginary space. After all, The Lesbian Body is a fantasy, and it is not clear whether we readers are supposed to recognize a potential course of action in that text, or simply be dislocated from our usual assumptions about bodies and pleasure.

Despite this distancing, Wittig’s criticism of heterosexuality clearly enjoyed a profound grip on Butler. Both thinkers shared a lesbian reading of Beauvoir. Wittig saw sex as a category that required the political imposition of heterosexuality, which Wittig calls the “heterosexual regime.” Clear fingerprints of this position are found on Butler’s later description of a “heterosexual matrix.”

But Wittig’s strategy was more sweeping than Butler’s. Rather than subversion, Wittig argues for an end to sexual division itself. Butler’s doubts are at once practical and theoretical: “On the one hand, Wittig calls for a transcendence of sex altogether, but her theory might equally well lead to an inverse conclusion, to the dissolution of binary restrictions through the proliferation of genders.”

Whether abolishing gender would mean no or infinite genders is a recurring question in feminist thought (that I’ve examined in another essay). Butler ultimately says that Wittig’s politics are “profoundly humanistic,” but she certainly intended this remark as a putdown. Butler could never advocate doing away with gender altogether. This cautiousness was most certainly advantageous in the 1980s and 1990s, a time of collapsing fortune for the left internationally amid the rise of the New Right. Today, her timidity reads differently.

This essay also introduces Michel Foucault, who is closely associated with Butler’s thought. Foucault, like Wittig, saw sex as a wholly political assembly of anatomical features and animating drives, drawn together by the demands of power. Butler suggests that this agreement across contexts has “improbable but significant consequences for feminist theory.” From this medley of complex and challenging texts, Butler takes a surprisingly clear message: “The political program for overcoming binary restrictions ought to be concerned… with cultural innovation rather than myths of transcendence.” In other words, a newfound creativity is required for fruitful gender politics, rather than a myth of rising above distinction—or idealizing androgyny.

A second essay, “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex,” published in Yale French Studies is really a second version of “Variations on Sex,” only more laser-focused on the thorny position on embodiment found in Beauvoir. Butler briefly addresses the question of sex, which she claims is more easily settled than womanhood: a sex is defined by what one cannot also be (those who can bear children being bracketed as female, as opposed to those who can inseminate). Butler then doubles back to acknowledge that chromosomal variation could provide yet another layer of complexity.

However, this is not an anatomically sufficient account of intersex variations: in many cases those born intersex have XY chromosomes accompanied by an insensitivity to sex hormones that causes them to be taken for female. Nevertheless, this acknowledgement of intersex experiences was unusual for theory of the time, and to Butler’s lasting credit she would follow up this early inclusivity in her essay “Doing Justice to Someone,” on the case of David Reimer.

Butler’s View of Gender

Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” was published in Theatre Journal. This article debuts Butler’s most famous argument: that gender is performative. In other words, that gendered practices are generative of gender, rather than reflecting any innate inner truth. Easily her greatest contribution to gender theory, Butler’s “performativity” argument also ranks as one of the most widely misunderstood propositions in the history of thought. In interviews and writings since, Butler has been quick to distinguish the performativity thesis from describing gender as simply performance. “Performative” is a quality of how we live out our genders: becoming by doing.

“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” offers a clear account of Butler’s performativity thesis by opposing it to the expressive view of gender. Performativity was intended to replace the framework of gender roles (commonplace in gender theory then and since):

Gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior “self,” whether that “self” is conceived as sexed or not.

The expressive view Butler sought to replace presents gender as an inner self, which practices allow to emerge. By contrast, Butler saw those practices, and their repetition, as the source of gender.

This essay hints at an intimate familiarity with the restrictions and stigmatization that define gendered experience:

As a corporeal field of cultural play, gender is a basically innovative affair, although it is quite clear that there are strict punishments for contesting the script by performing out of turn or through unwarranted improvisations.

While Butler sees gender as potentially liberatory, she was also well aware that gender norms are often experienced in terms of confinement, stigmatization, and chastisement over deviance. “Performativity” describes the contours of an ongoing field of struggle.

On Embodiment

Butler’s final three publications before Gender Trouble were all released in 1989. Each engages with a particular thinker’s thoughts on gender and the body: Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva,” published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia offers a critical view of a critical view. Kristeva, the Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher, attempted to correct the androcentrism of the seminal Parisian psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. While Lacan stressed the importance of the patriarchy in structuring the symbolic, and therefore language, Kristeva presents a version of psychoanalysis that features a formative trauma of maternal separation. In this view, motherhood occupied a dominating and “pre-discursive” role (in that maternal attachment comes before speech). Kristeva saw maternity as “semiotic” in scope—it unfolds on the level of sign-process, extending beyond mere linguistics.

Butler finds two aspects of Kristeva’s worldview unacceptable: Her view of motherhood accepts that women (or females?) wish to give birth as a matter of “pre-discursive biological necessity.” To be a female means to want to give birth. Secondly, this view has no place for lesbians as full participants in culture, with Kristeva instead declaring them “inherently psychotic.”

For Kristeva, female homosexuality was too radical a break with the paternal law and symbolic order to be culturally intelligible. Since heterosexuality was defined (for either partner) as a means of getting over the trauma of separation from the maternal body, desiring other women was anti-social. While heterosexuality’s psychodrama joined together two matchings sets of traumas, lesbianism could play no such role. Butler gently implies that Kristeva is examining her own phobia, rather than the phenomenon of lesbian desire itself:

Significantly, this description of lesbian experience is effected from the outside, and tells us more about the fantasies that a fearful heterosexual culture produces to defend against its own homosexual possibilities than about lesbian experience itself.

This defense of lesbianism was hardly surprising coming from Butler. Having spent most of her adult life out, Butler even played a minor role in the so called “lesbian sex wars.” During the early 1980s, sadomasochist groups such as New York City’s Lesbian Sex Mafia or California’s Samois were charged by more “radical” lesbian feminists with being subversive agents of patriarchy. In 1982, the Against Sadomasochism collection included an essay criticising Samois entitled, “Lesbian S&M: The Politics of Dis-Illusion,” written under the penname Judy Butler. Butler had moved well clear of this circle—and this commitment—by the later 1980s. In these essays, Butler often cited the queer thinker Gayle Rubin, once a prominent member of Samois.

By 1989, Butler had gained profound doubts that categories such as “female” or “the maternal” could be relied upon for an emancipatory politics: “The female body that [Kristeva] seeks to express is itself a construct produced by the very law it is supposed to undermine.” For Butler, female identity could not be presupposed, set apart from legal regimes as having some primordial force.

Next, Butler addresses Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a major French phenomenologist. Nine years earlier, Iris Marion Young had offered a favorable feminist account of Merleau-Ponty, but Butler was considerably more critical.

Butler charges Merleau-Ponty with assuming heterosexuality as the default state. In Merleau-Ponty’s examination of the famous Schneider case, a brain-damaged patient of influential German psychologists Adhémar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, Merleau-Ponty assumes that Schneider’s lack of interest in women who he finds unappealing on a personal level is evidence of “repression.” Butler suggests it instead makes Schneider a “feminist of sorts.” Merleau-Ponty expected men to experience desire as an objectifying force, presupposing heterosexuality as a universal norm. This resulted in him failing not only as a feminist, but as a phenomenologist:

Viewed as an expression of sexual ideology, The Phenomenology of Perception reveals the cultural construction of the masculine subject as a strangely disembodied voyeur whose sexuality is strangely non-corporeal… Erotic experience is almost never described as tactile or physical or even passionate.

Later scholars have argued that Butler’s harsh approach overlooks a potential radicalism found in embodied phenomenology. And other subsequent scholarship has noted that Beauvoir’s theorizing was informed by Merleau-Ponty, developing their shared key theme of ambiguity.

Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions” was published in The Journal of Philosophy and examines how Foucault’s work, taken as a whole, “raises the question of whether there is in fact a body which is external to its construction, invariant in some of its structures which… represents a dynamic locus of resistance to culture per se.” The essay seems unable to answer this question. One Foucault text is aimlessly compared to the next, without considering whether the resulting coherence may have an obvious source: developments in Foucault’s thought occurred as he completed one work after another.

Perhaps most remarkable is the essay’s opening line: “The position that the body is constructed is one that is surely, if not immediately, associated with Michel Foucault.” Today, it’s difficult to imagine a more immediate association than this one, in no small part as a result of Gender Trouble.

* * *

Between these six essays, Butler outlined a view of gender as extending beyond any straightforward distinction. Gender was a means used by any given individual to situate themselves in their era’s prevailing mores. Or to resist them. Performativity is at once the invariant burden and liberatory promise offered by Butler’s thinking. The “construction” Butler has in mind when she writes of gender is a messy and ongoing process, always featuring both punishment for transgression and the potential for getting free.

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Yale University Press
Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Hypatia, Vol. 3, No. 3, French Feminist Philosophy (Winter, 1989), pp. 104-118
Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.
Human Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), pp. 137-156
Springer
Hypatia, Vol. 28, No. 4 (FALL 2013), pp. 767-783
Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.
Hypatia, Vol. 21, No. 3, Feminist Epistemologies of Ignorance (Summer, 2006), pp. 194-198
Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.
The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, No. 11, Eighty-Sixth Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Nov., 1989), pp. 601-607
Journal of Philosophy, Inc.