JUDITH BUTLER questions the belief that certain gendered behaviors are natural, illustrating the ways that one's learned performance of gendered behavior (what we commonly associate with femininity and masculinity) is an act of sorts, a performance, one that is imposed upon us by normative heterosexuality. Butler thus offers what she herself calls "a more radical use of the doctrine of constitution that takes the social agent as an object rather than the subject of constitutive acts" ("Performative" 270). In other words, Butler questions the extent to which we can assume that a given individual can be said to constitute him- or herself; she wonders to what extent our acts are determined for us, rather, by our place within language and convention. She follows postmodernist and poststructuralist practice in using the term "subject" (rather than "individual" or "person") in order to underline the linguistic nature of our position within what Jacques Lacan terms the symbolic order, the system of signs and conventions that determines our perception of what we see as reality. Unlike theatrical acting, Butler argues that we cannot even assume a stable subjectivity that goes about performing various gender roles; rather, it is the very act of performing gender that constitutes who we are (see the next module on performativity). Identity itself, for Butler, is an illusion retroactively created by our performances: "In opposition to theatrical or phenomenological models which take the gendered self to be prior to its acts, I will understand constituting acts not only as constituting the identity of the actor, but as constituting that identity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief" ("Performative" 271). That belief (in stable identities and gender differences) is, in fact, compelled "by social sanction and taboo" ("Performative" 271), so that our belief in "natural" behavior is really the result of both subtle and blatant coercions. One effect of such coercions is also the creation of that which cannot be articulated, "a domain of unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies" (Bodies xi) that, through abjection by the "normal" subject helps that subject to constitute itself: "This zone of uninhabitability will constitute the defining limit of the subject's domain; it will constitute that site of dreaded identification against, which—and by virtue of which—the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life" (Bodies 3). This repudiation is necessary for the subject to establish "an identification with the normative phantasm of 'sex'" (Bodies 3), but, because the act is not "natural" or "biological" in any way, Butler uses that abjected domain to question and "rearticulate the very terms of symbolic legitimacy and intelligibility" (Bodies 3). By underlining the artificial, proscribed, and performative nature of gender identity, Butler seeks to trouble the definition of gender, challenging the status quo in order to fight for the rights of marginalized identities (especially gay and lesbian identity).

Indeed, Butler goes far as to argue that gender, as an objective natural thing, does not exist: "Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed" ("Performative" 278). Gender, according to Butler, is by no means tied to material bodily facts but is solely and completely a social construction, a fiction, one that, therefore, is open to change and contestation: "Because there is neither an 'essence' that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis" ("Performative" 273). That genesis is not corporeal but performative (see next module), so that the body becomes its gender only "through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time" ("Performative" 274). By illustrating the artificial, conventional, and historical nature of gender construction, Butler attempts to critique the assumptions of normative heterosexuality: those punitive rules (social, familial, and legal) that force us to conform to hegemonic, heterosexual standards for identity.

Butler takes her formulations even further by questioning the very distinction between gender and sex. In the past, feminists regularly made a distinction between bodily sex (the corporeal facts of our existence) and gender (the social conventions that determine the differences between masculinity and femininity). Such feminists accepted the fact that certain anatomical differences do exist between men and women but they pointed out how most of the conventions that determine the behaviors of men and women are, in fact, social gender constructions that have little or nothing to do with our corporeal sexes. According to traditional feminists, sex is a biological category; gender is a historical category. Butler questions that distinction by arguing that our "gender acts" affect us in such material, corporeal ways that even our perception of corporeal sexual differences are affected by social conventions. For Butler, sex is not "a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but... a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies" (Bodies 2-3; my italics). Sex, for Butler, "is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize 'sex' and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms" (Bodies 2). Butler here is influenced by the postmodern tendency to see our very conception of reality as determined by language, so that it is ultimately impossible even to think or articulate sex without imposing linguistic norms: "there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body" (Bodies 10). (See the Introduction to Gender and Sex for Thomas Laqueur's exploration of the different ways that science has determined our understanding of bodily sexuality since the ancient Greeks.) The very act of saying something about sex ends up imposing cultural or ideological norms, according to Butler. As she puts it, "'sex' becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access" (Bodies 5). Nonetheless, that fiction is central to the establishment of subjectivity and human society, which is to say that, even so, it has material effects: "the 'I' neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within and as the matrix of gender relations themselves" (Bodies 7). That linguistic construction is also not stable, working as it does by always re-establishing boundaries (and a zone of abjection) through the endlessly repeated performative acts that mark us as one sex or another. "Sex" is thus unveiled not only as an artificial norm but also a norm that is subject to change. Butler's project, then, is "to 'cite' the law in order to reiterate and coopt its power, to expose the heterosexual matrix and to displace the effect of its necessity" (Bodies 15).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Butler: On Gender and Sex." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/genderandsex/modules/butlergendersex.html>.



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