Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”



It is in sexual practice that gender is destabilized because “policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality” xii [Foucauldian?].

“The sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womannes in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure… a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” xiv.

While we assume that gender is “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” this is “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” xv. This Butler stages as “metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” xv. The notion of performativity Butler advances is “a repetition and a ritual… a culturally sustained temporal duration… the gendered stylization of the body” and “an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” xv. This narrativization of performance also interests me in terms of duree. (Interestingly, Butler also asks us not to transpose the theory onto race unproblematically, but to consider what happens when it performativity tries to come to grips with race.)

In a way, this is an advocation of surface reading, for if we see a person in drag and take their assumed gender as the opposite of their performed one, we give the first one priority and call the second one “mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion” xxiii [Blade Runner]. Butler’s goal is to explore the vacillation of reading between categories as “the experience of the body in question” xxiv.

“To the extent that gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible. Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be” xxv.

While this implies a history of symptomatic reading (the surface belies depth), it also values surface. It is neither pure surface, self-invention, language, or theatricality xxvi. “Those who are deemed ‘unreal’ nevertheless lay hold of the real” xxviii.


If woman is mystery for de Beauvoir, it might stem from the “trouble” Sartre locates in her ability to return the gaze xxx. For Butler, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” xxx. In a Foucauldian genaeological approach, Butler will look at gender as a set of effects, rather than causes.

“Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. His/her performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” xxxi.


Rather than feminism based in identity politics, which glosses over issues of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and individuality, Butler invites us to consider a coalitional feminism (rather than a universal basis on identity politics, which, as bell hooks suggests, already confronts issues of race) that would undermine the term “woman” and upset the patriarchal linguistic binary. In fact, gender is multiple and unstable 4.

The split between sex and gender is false for Butler, since both, and not just gender, are constructed: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” 10. If de Beauvoir sees men constructing their gender against woman’s lack and Irigaray holds that it is One phallogocentric gender that cancels woman altogether, Butler questions the idea of “being” a gender at all, as well as the necessity of being represented as such.

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure” 22 [Foucauldian, Deleuze & Guattari]

Gender, instead, is performative. “Intelligible” genders uphold “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire 23.

“The identification of women with ‘sex,’ for Beauvoir as for Wittig, is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men. Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito” 27 [Isherwood!]

Institutional heterosexuality has created this, since “gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender” 30. [But where does that leave us now, since we can’t all drag and still get laid?] Another issue is language – Wittig claims it is only problematic in its applications, Irigaray in its content. Wittig ends up making polymorphous perversity a “telos” of human sexuality rather than its former state, however. “Woman itself is a term in process” 45.


Gender’s acts of “expression” constitute, rather than reflect, gender [vs. symptomatic reading! Here surface is content.] Both genders are open to resignification. This is where she calls for “gender trouble,” performance that troubles the binary: “a proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” 46.


In this section, Butler challenges a utopian “pre-patriarchal” ideal as it appears in much feminist literature. Structuralist accounts, such as that of Levi-Strauss, depend on an idea of the transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo, which creates a kinship structure around the exchange of women. Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic approach claims femininity is a masquerade to hide masculine identification and lesbian desire. Finally, Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholia posits cathexis as identification, as the traits of a lost loved one are incorporated.

Butler challenges all three. In the case of incest, she argues that it is the presence of the taboo that incites incestuous desire. In Riviere, mimicry are the essence of gender, not an outward concealment of it. In Freud, we actually internalize the prohibited object via melancholia as we construct our own gender. This involves homosexual cathexis, but “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.” Heterosexuality depends on homosexuality for its existence (is it Sontag who says this?). Approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality only exist after the law, which is generated and regulated via the incest taboo [Foucauldian]. “Not only does the taboo forbid and dictate sexuality in certain forms, but it inadvertently produces a variety of substitute desires and identities that are in no sense constrained in advance, except insofar as they are ‘substitutes’ in some sense” 103. Incest incites desire for the mother or father but also displaces that desire: “the notion of an ‘original’ sexuality forever repressed and forbidden thus becomes a production of the law which subsequently functions as its prohibition” 104.


In this section, Butler addresses Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Recalling Kristeva’s argument that the feminine surfaces in language via the semiotic (vs the symbolic), Butler challenges the notion of writing and womanhood as reclamations of the body, but not homosexuality: “the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis” 117. On motherhood: “Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress.” In a Foucauldian argument, she claims that ideas of maternity themselves are products of discourse and power. “The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law’s self-amplification and proliferation… If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself” 127 [faceting!].

Butler examines the journals of the hermaphrodite Herculine who committed suicide when forced to live as a man. Prior to this, Herculine lived in “nonidentity.” Butler sees this idealism as a sort of “confessional” on Foucault’s part of his own (silent) homosexuality, since the idea contradicts what he argues for in History of Sexuality: namely, that there is no sex “prior” to power, and that sex is not a solution to discourse but part of it. “S/he is ‘outside’ the law, but the law maintains this ‘outside’ within itself… the law’s uncanny capacity to produce only those rebellions that it can guarantee will… defeat themselves” 144.

Sex is produced by compulsory heterosexuality – compulsory reproduction. Therefore, the binary of gender only exists in “the heterosexual matrix” and are naturalized there to conceal and reproduce it 150. Butler examines and agrees with Wittig’s formulation of lesbian sexuality. Wittig argues that women carry the burden of sex because they are always identified with/as sex. Thus sex is a way to designate the non-male by absence, and the synecdochic division of the body into parts (which we now feel is fact) fragments what is really a whole. “The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.” In lesbian sexuality, partners might multiply and proliferate signifying parts of the body. Lesbian sexuality must not posit itself all too radically outside heterosexuality, lest it consolidate that hegemony 174.

In the last part of the chapter, Butler asks why bodies are the surfaces on which gender is written. We enforce the boundaries of the body as a means of establishing taboo (thus AIDS being equated with anal sex – a threshold being crossed). Drag is a way to playfully exaggerate and undercut “original” gender.

“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 crucial [since the former implies truth, but the latter implies there is no prior truth]… Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” 193.

It’s interesting to use the word incredible – unbelievable – here. It ties this to fiction and narrativization, which she has done all along. )It is also, again, a form of surface reading, at least insofar as it makes surfaces count.)


Butler tries to imagine a feminism free of the binary – the us/them or object/subject divide, as many feminists have thought before, is itself problematic and hegemonic. The subject is formed by repetition as signification (think of Stein!) Drag and other forms of parody destabilize and make apparent hidden assumptions about the “ontological locales” of gender (like Adorno on Beckett!) Butler hopes to have demonstrated how “the signifying practices that enable this metaleptic misdescription remain outside the purview of a feminist critique of gender relations” 202. We have no choice but to repeat the terms – the question is how or “to repeat, and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” 203 [how multiple is gender already, before this, I wonder?] Feminism’s foundationalist frame “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate,” in an “internal paradox” 203. The task is to “redescribe those possibilities as they already exist,” but in “unintelligible and impossible domains” 203. Gender’s “present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” 203.


One thought on “Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”

  1. Pingback: On experiencing myself as an unhealthy person | Self, Soul and Writer

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