Understanding a little Judith Butler…

So let’s be honest here – postmodern philosophers write using such dense language that I am fairly certain you need a graduate degree to dissect what they’re saying.  Perhaps and undergrad in philosophy can handle the serious post-modernists, but this PhD student (that’s right, I just talked about myself in the third person) didn’t really get a handle on postmodernists until grad school. That said, I think that  no matter whether you choose to agree or disagree with her, grasping Judith Butler is key to contemporary feminist thought/queer theory. In particular, I think we all need to genuinely understand her concept of performativty.

Judith Butler’s book  Gender Trouble (1999) presents the idea of gender as “performative,” implying that gender is not an innate quality linked to sex but rather a series of “fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (2584). Butler uses “the performance of drag” to exemplify “those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity” (2549-50). She shows how the very nature of the drag performance – the idea that both physical and mental gender codes can be enacted by any/either/all sexes – unearths gender as “parody” rather than innate bodily function (2550). In other words gender is an enactment separate from our chromosomal sex, which is learned and practiced, quite like playing the piano. Butler’s details an understanding of gender as performance and parody, so that she can underscore the idea that these performances are “repeated…with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame,” which in turn maintains the patriarchal and heteronormative dynamic of western cultural traditions. Butler purposes that escape from this binary lockdown could possibly be achieved through the “failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction” (2552). More simply, she is saying in order to escape the boxes imposed by culturally constructed gender norms, we have perform and repeat other gender constructions so that they might expose the nature of gender as performance.

If you are interested in Judith Butler’s ideas there was wonderful documentary  about her thinking created by Arte, which you can watch on You tube. Take a look at the first installment:

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble.” 2001. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed.Leitch Vincent, et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2010. 2540-53. Print.

15 Books Every Feminist Should Read

1. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir2. Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly

3. Borderlands/La Fontera: The New Metiza by Gloria Anzaldua

4. The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor

5. Goddesses and Monsters by Jane Caputi6. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature by Val Plumwood7. Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins8. Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace by Sara Ruddick9. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture by Janelle Hobson

10. The Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo11. Pornland by Gail Dines 12. Guyland by Michael Kimmel13. Gender Trouble by Judith Butler14. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by Bell Hooks15. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions
by Paula Gunn Allen

Currently, I’m Diggin’ The Hunger Games

The word on the street was I needed to read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. (You know that by street I mean my super cuddly but totally gangsta women’s studies  friends, right?) And to be honest, this recommendation wasn’t just at a low hum – this was a full on YOU – YOU with your interest in feminism and YA, YOU MUST READ HUNGER GAMES from the A-1, top of the heap, head of the coven, feminist I know, Jane Caputi. (<—- that’s a link to her books, but If you don’t know Jane you can check out an old interview with her by clicking here). So, I did it. I followed the prescriptions of my friends and colleagues and read the Hunger Games Trilogy, and as usual, they know me well. It is enthralling and really presents a lot of fodder for someone with feminist leanings – but also anyone who is questioning the culture we are living at this moment. (Hmm… a dystopian story which makes you question your current culture…how could that happen.)

First off, The trilogy centers on the characters Katniss and Peeta, who stray from traditional representations of gender.  Okay, put it this way – our everyday understanding of gender includes stereotypes that normalize the behavior and physicality of each sex. For example, girls like pink and boys like blue or women are slight and men are brawny and because these gender codes are generally understood as normal and natural, a departure from them is often perceived as irregular or even deviant. (In the era of Marxist, Feminist, Postmodern and Queer theory, with a particular nod to Foucault, it must be acknowledged that ‘natural’ is a loaded word, which begs the question who or what determines what is natural? Is natural an innate state of being or rather is natural a construction of the social sphere?  Like natural, the presentation of a ‘normal’ way innately implies a determined social construct, boundary or othering, a prejudice.)  In this framework the ability to live up to your sex – to be a ‘true’ man or a ‘real’ lady – is recognized as both culturally necessary and desirable because gender is seen as an innate quality, necessary for sexual attraction and reproduction. Katniss and Peeta successfully blur and defy these standards or ‘norms’ and for that reason lend themselves to a discussion of Judith Butler’s concept of performativity. (If your not familiar with Butler you could buy this and watch this or keep reading).

In Gender Trouble, Butler presents the idea of gender as ‘performative’ implying that gender is not an innate quality linked to sex but rather a behavior, which is learned and practiced, quite like playing the piano.  Butler details this understanding of gender as performance, so that she can underscore the idea that these performances are repeated with the intention of maintaining the gender binary.What she means is that continuing to imply that boys are different from girls, makes it possible to maintain the idea that boys are better than girls or, if you will, the oppressive dynamic of western patriarchal traditions. Butler purposes that to escape the boxes imposed by culturally constructed gender norms, we have perform and repeat other gender constructions so that we expose the nature of gender as performance. AND this is exactly what Hunger Games does – blurs the lines! While first few pages some readers claim to mistake  Katniss for a boy because of her behavior – surprise!

The second issue that I’ve been thinking about regarding these books is feminist care ethics. Let me give you an example: A chain link fence encircles District 12, separating Katniss Everdeen from the woods and the bounty that lives there. The law handed down by the capital says, “Trespassing in the woods is illegal and poaching carries the severest of penalties” (Collins 5). Despite these rules, Katniss regularly shimmies her way under the fence, hunts freely with the intention of providing for her starving family, and believes that “more people would risk” hunting if they were capable (Collins 5). Even in this seemingly simple action, Katniss’s behavior presents readers with an ethical conundrum: Katniss is breaking the law, which should be considered wrong but she does so for good reason, right? Feminists who are philosophically based in care ethics would say, right!

Grounded in fighting for social justice, feminist thinkers, including Carol Gilligan and Sara Ruddick, argued the feminine perspective and/or experience offered a counter point to the more traditional Kantian or deontological ethics. These more customary ethical perspectives argue that to maintain an ethically sound environment we must impartially adhere to rules or universal truths of goodness. For example, thou shall not steal and if thou doesth steal, well then, thou deserveth thou’s punishment because stealing is wrong, no matter the context. In response to deontological ethics, feminists purposed a feminist care ethic, which recognizes the intentional good that resides in supposed universal truths, but also notes that life – the reality of existence – does not happen in a moral vacuum. These feminists believed that when confronted with a moral decision, ethically sound people must not remain impartial but rather make their choice with regard to the particularity of their perspective and the context of the situation at hand.

This is the kind of thinking that Katniss Everdeen does – and I think this is pretty interesting stuff  – even if it is a YA novel…See, I told you they were worth thinking about. We wax poetic about Holden Caulfield, don’t we?

Oh and by the way – I also wanted to share these two tidbits the Blackwell …And Philosophy series is planning a Hunger Games and Philosophy book, which I am hoping to be a part of and this project.  And, finally,  illustrator Sabrina Vincent has created some Cute Hunger Games Drawings you might want to check out, if you’re into the whole ETSY scene.