Gender Trouble: Its a Classic for a Reason

Does Butler's Gender Trouble still apply to current gender issues? Read our Q&A with Dr Nina Power for her take.

Could you summarise briefly the most important themes and arguments in Gender Trouble?

It’s a book that covers a great many themes and thinkers, but it is clear that Butler wants to question several things: the idea that the body is a neutral ground upon which cultural meanings are inscribed, that the sex/gender distinction is viable, if it ever was (where sex is somehow the ‘natural’ basis upon which gender sits atop) and that gender identity and desire are something locatable outside of the effects of institutions, power, practices and language. Although Butler originally conceives the text as an intervention into feminist thought, particularly around the idea that the subject of feminism should be ‘woman’ (either conceived of as an essential or strategically essential category), and spends much of the text critiquing various feminist positions - Kristeva, Wittig, Riviere, Rubin, de Beauvoir - as well as psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan, Rose) and (especially) Foucault, it is for the thesis of perfomativity that the text is best known. The bulk of this argument comes towards the end of the text and makes the claim that: ‘gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylised repetition of acts.’ In other words, there is, following Nietzsche, no doer behind the deed: there is no real ‘being’ of gender that lies behind or beneath its performance. By taking a look at the practice of drag, Butler is able to argue that drag ‘reveals the imitative structure of gender itself’. Gender is not something other than its performance, and its reinforcement only comes through parodic repetition (where all gender presentation is seen as parodic - as there is no ‘natural’ gender lying underneath to be parodied). We are all in drag all of the time, we are all performing gender, despite, or perhaps especially, if we appear in a ‘conventional’ way (although it should be noted in later interviews that Butler was keen to avoid the idea that drag was paradigmatic of performativity).

It is now twenty-five years since Gender Trouble was published. What impact do you think it has made in that time and why?

I think it would be hard to overestimate how significant the book has been. It has certainly had an impact far beyond the feminism to which it is originally addressed. In many ways, Butler’s perfomativity thesis and the idea that gender is socially constructed and reinforced has become the dominant way of thinking about gender inside the academy but also in LGBTQI activism and as a way of living for many. Butler herself states that the ideas in the book come out of her engagement in her life and politics so it seems only fitting that her ideas flowed back out to life beyond academic discourse. Within the academy, it is clear that Butler’s ideas have shaped the way in which gender is discussed in every arts and humanities discipline: we would not have contemporary ‘gender’ and ‘queer’ studies without Butler, and discussions of postcoloniality, race and disability would also look quite different. The reasons why I think the book has been so influential lie partly in its ability to move, not always smoothly, but with real honesty, between complex theoretical ideas and lived reality: one can recognise the reality regarding what she means about gender performativity even if one has no interest in ploughing through all of the references in the book. I think the book was also timely: it recognised shifts and changes in the way in which people were thinking about the relationship between gender and sexuality, for example, where one’s gender need not say anything about one’s sexual preference, and it also was responding to the often difficult relationship between feminism and LGBTQI activism in a productive and optimistic way. In the original preface (1990) Butler makes it very clear that the complexity of gender itself requires ‘an interdisciplinary and post disciplinary set of discourses in order to resist the domestication of gender studies or women’s studies within the academy and to radicalise the notion of feminist critique.’ It is thus the trouble that gender itself causes, both disruptively and gleefully, that means the book was perhaps always going to exceed its starting point. I think it is a mark of Butler’s intellectual honesty that she has returned to the themes of Gender Trouble in later works and has always gone out of her way to nuance her position and respond to critics.

Judith Butler studied Philosophy in the 1980s and her first book was about Hegel. What role does philosophy play in her work?

It’s absolutely key, I think. I’m a big fan of her early work, Subjects of Desire, in which she looks at Hegel, Kojeve, Sartre and others in a nuanced and careful way, making, as she does in Gender Trouble, small as well as more general claims. I think Butler’s philosophical acumen means she is able to hone in on the core ideas of any position, within and outside of the discipline. I find it highly impressive that Butler moves between 19th and 20th century philosophy, political theory, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer studies and so on, without subsuming one to the other: all are equal partners in the development of her, and consequently, our thought. Her philosophical background also means that she has a strong interest in paying attention to the complexity of concepts at play. For example, the concept of the ‘subject’, of ‘agency’ of ‘universality’ and ‘inclusion/exclusion’ have remained, among others, persistent themes in her work over many years.

In the Preface, Butler writes that 'Gender Trouble is rooted in French theory, which itself is a curious American construction.' Can you explain what she means by this and why it is important for understanding her book?

Yes, I think that’s an accurate description. It’s similar to the argument made in François Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. There is no ‘French Theory’ in France, only various French thinkers, philosophers etc. Although, of course, given the success of Butler and others, ‘French Theory’ (along with ‘queer theory’) has come back to France and other European countries in various convoluted ways over the past few decades.

I suppose the reason why it is important to understand this strange construction in the context of Gender Trouble is to do with Butler’s approach and method. Rather than stick strictly to psychoanalytic, philosophical or feminist discussions, she moves between these fields in ways I’ve already mentioned. Butler describes the book as ‘intellectually promiscuous’, and that’s its strength really. It also reflects the way in which French (and not just French, but European or ‘Continental’) philosophy is taught and bundled up in the American academy where you might have a jumble of Bataille, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze and others all taught within the same few weeks under the heading ‘From Structuralism to Poststructuralism’, or whatever. But readers in France would be unlikely to read in this way unless influenced by US images of French Theory itself via Butler…

As an academic in philosophy and politics can you tell us how Gender Trouble has been received within these general areas? What implications does it have for the study of radical politics and protest?

I am not sure how much Gender Trouble is taught in UK Philosophy departments, despite its influence across the academy more widely. Philosophy in the UK tends to be rather historical, conservative and male-dominated, both at the level of teaching and at the level of texts. Unless you had a dedicated ‘feminist philosophy’ course you would probably not encounter Butler other than perhaps as a secondary reader of Hegel, Levinas, Foucault etc. (and even then, many Philosophy departments would not be teaching much European philosophy). But Philosophy understood as this strange discipline that moves peripatetically between departments and has an impact outside universities would be much more likely to mention Butler as a key contemporary thinker. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Butler’s influence on the way in which gender is conceived in political activism has been enormous. The way in which she shattered the stranglehold of gender within feminism with Gender Trouble has had direct consequences for feminist and queer activism, for example: those who remain committed to a notion of essential ‘femaleness’ are much more marginal, which means that the transphobia promulgated by some radical feminists is basically now unacceptable, if not yet completely absent (i.e. ‘feminist’ conferences that only permit ‘women-born women’ find it hard if not impossible to find venues). I think widespread recognition of the constructed nature of gender, following Butler, has made it possible for more people to live more easily in gender non-conforming ways. But there is still a long way to go.

Butler’s own political trajectory is also relevant here: her more recent work in Precarious Lives and Frames of War regarding whose lives ‘count’ has also been politically influential, and her recent discussion with George Yancy regarding the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ was particularly good. As she says: ‘One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.’

I think the avenues of thought opened up by Gender Trouble have both permitted people to act more freely and to protest more effectively - not in the name of some imposed unity, but with unstable and asymmetrical differences foregrounded. While Butler is not the first person we might look to in any discussion of race, it is important that her work on gender has led her to think more broadly about the way in which lives are counted and taken away. Butler’s is a living, on-going thought and set of engagements, not a set of stale doctrines.

Can you say something about the relation between Gender Trouble and classic texts of feminism of the past, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex?

Gender Trouble is in dialogue with feminism, and it is also critical of various aspects of some of it - where feminism presumes a specific subject (that of ‘woman’), but also where it presumes a normative heterosexuality, even where that feminism seeks to valorise the ‘feminine’ or ‘female’ side of the supposed relationship. I would, however, be wary of constructing a happy feminist canon that ran from Wollstonecraft to de Beauvoir to Butler, to be honest, as I think the differences between their starting points and overall ambitions are too great. I do think, though, that Butler is explicitly trying to engage with de Beauvoir in Gender Trouble: some elements of the formulation ‘one is not born but becomes (a) woman’ are obviously appealing for Butler’s project, but de Beauvoir and existentialism’s commitment to a ‘pre-discursive’ structure of the self are deemed to be untenable. But we have to say that Butler’s work shakes up feminism in a variety of interesting and important ways, and continues to do so.

Gender Trouble was published before the internet and the explosion of social media and the ability to create online identities. Do you think social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, provide new ways of thinking about the core message of Gender Trouble?

Yes, absolutely. I think Gender Trouble is in part responsible for the proliferation of online discourses and practices around gender. I think that Butler (and others) opened up the possibility for thinking about gender, sexuality and relationships in ways that explode binaries, identities, norms and conventions. Butler is always careful to say that not all gender performance is subversive and we should be wary of positing an ‘outside’ to power and recuperation. That said, the importance of providing people with the tools to understand their own complex relation to gender, both individually and collectively, cannot be overestimated. But this is an ongoing, and unfinished, project. Even while Facebook, for example, offers users opportunities to note their sexuality in different ways, it is at the same time increasingly demanding that people use their ‘real names’. This has highly negative consequences for people who use different names online for reasons of gender identity and/or for protection from abusive others. So once again we are reminded in a Butlerian way that we do not have absolute freedom when it comes to gender and that we are dragged back again and again to imposed institutional forms of identity. Knowing that these forms are contingent, however dominant, allows us to imagine that they are not permanent and can be overthrown. If there is an implicit revolutionary message in Gender Trouble, I think it is this.

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