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.