Study Guide Excerpt: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler


Judith Butler FBA (b. February 24, 1956) is an American philosopher and gender theorist. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended a Jewish school until she was 18. At 16 she came out as a lesbian. Butler went on to Bennington College, then studied for a PhD in Philosophy at Yale University where she became a political activist and a prominent member of the lesbian community. She received her doctorate in 1984 and since 1993 she has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is now Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory. Butler has transformed how gender is studied and understood in philosophy literature, and also how certain groups set about demanding political change. She has published more than a dozen books, including Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (from hereon known as Gender Trouble) which was published in 1990. She describes the book as “springing from a desire to live, to make life possible, and to rethink the possible” (xxi). Gender Trouble made Butler an instant celebrity and she remains one of the most famous philosophers in the world. 

Gender Trouble, a book about gender theory, is widely acclaimed as groundbreaking and is highly influential in feminism, women's studies and lesbian and gay studies. It has also enjoyed widespread popularity outside of traditional academic circles. Butler argues that people must rethink the most basic categories of human identity to make society better. She achieves this by asking questions about sex, gender and sexuality, and how these define people’s identities. Butler’s revolutionary ideas regarding gender identity, the relations between gender and sex, and her argument that gender is essentially an improvised performance, forcing both women and men to inhabit roles, came to be seen as foundational to queer theory.

Butler begins by questioning some of the central assumptions within feminist theory; that there exists an identity that requires representation in politics and language. Butler argues that in recent years feminism has made an error by trying to assert that women share a common concrete identity. She asks whether feminist identity politics can survive without a feminist identity? If there is no focal point conception of women, can there be no foundation for feminist identity politics? 

However, as Butler points out, there are various postmodern and post-structuralist reasons to worry about the very idea of concrete identities, much less the idea of well-defined, non-social conceptual boundaries. To answer the question, Butler focuses almost exclusively on questions surrounding the construction of feminine identity. Thus, the book's three chapters focus on a gradual critique of the feminine identity as having a concrete form. 

In the first chapter, "The Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire", Butler recognizes the importance of intersectional feminism but views the term “women” as problematic. That is, this term has been constructed by a phallocentric society and assumes a universality that negates the meaning it is trying to convey. As a result, Butler proposes a new, unified feminism that critiques these notions of identity and gender. This leads Butler to look at the relationship between sex and gender. She says that if we assume sex is biological, and gender is culturally constructed, then the two concepts are independent of one another. She argues against a strict binary association between sex and gender, as well as between gender types. If gender identity is complex, especially in its relation to sex, Butler argues that feminists must embrace this complexity and move further away from traditional western gender roles and the social mores they encourage.

In the second chapter, “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix”, Butler investigates some aspects of the psychoanalytic structuralist account of sexual difference and the construction of sexuality with respect to power. The falling back on historical/pre-patriarchal societies, Butler feels, only serves culturally conservative aims and constitutes an exclusionary practice in feminism, leading to the fragmentation that the endeavor tries to overcome. Butler shows how Engel's socialist feminism is problematic and Levi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology commits fallacies that lead to a self-defeating formulation of gender. Butler's critiques of both Freud and Lacan are also exceptionally insightful. For example, Butler argues that in Freud's system of bisexuality the taboo against homosexuality, in fact, creates heterosexual dispositions thereby making the oedipal complex possible.

The third chapter, “Subversive Bodily Acts”, begins with a discussion of Julia Kristeva. Butler claims that Kristeva depends upon the stability and reproduction of precisely the paternal law that she seeks to displace. Butler believes that any theory that asserts that signification is predicated upon the denial or repression of a female principle, ought to consider whether that femaleness is really external to the cultural norms by which it is repressed. This chapter also includes Butler’s discussion of Foucault's publication of the journals of Herculine Barbin, a 19th- century hermaphrodite, her sympathetic critique of Monique Wittig, and her view that traditional views of gender identity can be “subverted” through masquerade and drag.

In the conclusion, “From Parody to Politics”, Butler pulls together several open threads of the preceding three chapters and concentrates on gender as a performance. She argues that feminist politics really can do without a concrete feminine identity, and that doing without it will make solidarity and organization easier.

Preface (1999) and (1990) Analysis

Gender Trouble applies some of the ideas best described as post-structuralism to gender construction. Among many other things, post-structuralists understood most of the ways we categorize ourselves - race, gender, and so on - as generated through our interactions, or discourse. Butler, like French thinker Michel Foucault, argued that discourse, or language, was the site of power relations between people. Much of feminist thought, she claimed, had been rooted in a discourse that, intentionally or unintentionally, constructed gender in binary terms. According to Butler, the creation of binary, essentialized genders, had been highly destructive to many people - lesbians, transgender people, and others - who did not fit into this construction. In other words, they caused “gender trouble”. The real problem, Butler argued, was that essentialized views of womanhood or femininity that undergirded much of modern feminist thought tended to perpetuate these norms. An important way to analyze these is to look at what the 1999 preface includes that the 1990 one does not.

In the 1999 preface, Butler directly relates the tone and the theory of the book to her own life, which included her "tempestuous coming out at 16", one of many events that subjected her to "strong and scarring condemnation" even as it did not prevent her from "insisting on a legitimating recognition for [her] sexual life" (xx). Beyond this vital examination of her own point of view, she goes on to explain many of the parts of the book that had elicited the most comment in the nine years since its publication. For instance, Butler explains her comments on drag not as an attempt to recommend attempts to subvert popularly understood notions of gender, but to show that the assumptions behind drag are very good examples of how discourse creates our notions of gender norms: “If one thinks that one sees a man dressed as a woman...then one takes the first term of [this perception] as the "reality" of gender: the gender that is introduced through the simile lacks “reality", and is taken to constitute an illusory appearance” (xxiii).

So the 1999 preface gives Butler an opportunity to address some of the misunderstandings, criticisms (many of which Butler views as legitimate), and to underscore her core argument that “naturalized knowledge of gender operates as a preemptive and violent circumscription of reality” (xxiv). We can better understand after reading the 1999 preface how, in 1990, Butler was trying to facilitate a political convergence of feminism, gay and lesbian perspectives on gender, and post-structuralist theory.