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Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

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Since its publication in 1990, Gender Trouble has become one of the key works of contemporary feminist theory, and an essential work for anyone interested in the study of gender, queer theory, or the politics of sexuality in culture. This is the text where Judith Butler began to advance the ideas that would go on to take life as "performativity theory," as well as some of the first articulations of the possibility for subversive gender practices, and she writes in her preface to the 10th anniversary edition released in 1999 that one point of Gender Trouble was "not to prescribe a new gendered way of life [...] but to open up the field of possibility for gender [...]" Widely taught, and widely debated, Gender Trouble continues to offer a powerful critique of heteronormativity and of the function of gender in the modern world.

236 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1989

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About the author

Judith Butler

212 books2,415 followers
Judith Butler is an American post-structuralist and feminist philosopher who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy and ethics. She is currently a professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley.

Butler received their Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984, for a dissertation subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. In the late-1980s they held several teaching and research appointments, and were involved in "post-structuralist" efforts within Western feminist theory to question the "presuppositional terms" of feminism.

Their research ranges from literary theory, modern philosophical fiction, feminist and sexuality studies, to 19th- and 20th-century European literature and philosophy, Kafka and loss, and mourning and war. Their most recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy and exploring pre- and post-Zionist criticisms of state violence.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,018 reviews
Profile Image for Garrison.
24 reviews15 followers
January 29, 2015
Thrilling new vocabulary with which to alienate friends and offend family
Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews14.5k followers
March 12, 2015

Some very interesting ideas here imprisoned in a lot of opaque, tortuous sentences. Postmodern ‘academese’ remains the only major European language that I am completely incapable of understanding. I am also sick to death of seeing intelligent friends, both here and in real life, make apologetic comments about how they weren't quite up to the task of fully engaging with texts like this – as if it were their fault!

You know what? If a series of highly educated, intelligent and well-read adults do not properly understand you, that is because your writing is confused, not because your ideas are too complex to be captured by mere language. In actual fact, far from being complex, many of these ideas, when expressed in more familiar terms, are so simple as to be trivially refuted – which is one of the things that makes me so suspicious about this kind of prose style.

So yes, this is one of those books where honesty is called ‘efforts to wield the discourse of truth’, and a language built by men is a ‘closed phallogocentric signifying economy’. We are asked to consider the ‘heterosexual matrix’ and ‘medicojuridical hegemonies’, and to ponder the ‘normative telos of definitional closure’. Not to mention the usual postmodernist distraction of irritating and trivial puns (‘she is the masculine sex encore (and en corps)’).

When I say that these phrases are nonsense, which they are, I don't want to be misunderstood. It's not that I reject the concepts being discussed, because I don't. What I object to is being asked to accept these terms on no evidence and with no discussion, so that combinations of them become divorced from reality altogether. God, how I wish for some examples when I read books like this! A little data – some evidence, some anecdotes, anything to show what kind of behaviour or thought processes in real life are being referred to. Instead, the whole thing becomes a sort of linguistic game where abstract concepts are manipulated in isolation from reality.

What really made me angry – and I'm sorry for this lengthy rant, I will get to the book's arguments in due course – but what really upset me was Butler's introduction, where she acknowledges the complaints that have been made about her language and proceeds to double down. ‘It would be a mistake,’ she writes, ‘to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself.’

Need I point out that no one has the slightest idea whether grammar imposes any constraints upon thought (most linguists would say it does not)? In any case, ‘received grammar’ may not be the best vehicle but at least it doesn't have four flat tyres like Butler's own syntax does. Radical ideas do not become conventional by being expressed clearly, they only become better disseminated.

It does not surprise me one bit that so many of these writers of theory are sceptical about language's communicative ability, and question whether language can really communicate anything meaningful at all. If I wrote as poorly as they do, I'd have similar concerns.

(Deep breath—) with that rant out of the way, let me just offer a few disconnected reading notes on some of the very interesting ideas in the book, insofar as they were at all comprehensible.

Butler's main idea is that gender is not a binary thing, but instead a spectrum of available identities which has no simple link to biological sex. That being the case, gender is seen not as a physical or even a mental property, but rather as something ‘performative’ – gender comes into being through being enacted in a myriad small and large ways within society. ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender.’

That's the capsule summary of what's going on here, but the arguments involved are often fascinating. I thought she was particularly strong on the ways in which gender and sex are related to sexuality and desire. She recognises the huge variety of things that turn people on, and she's surprisingly practical about whether women should worry that their desires have been conditioned by a patriarchal society. Women that don't understand that premise, she warns, could be ‘potentially written off […] as “male-identified” or “unenlightened”’. This is implicitly contra thinkers like Dworkin and also more modern writers like Ariel Levy who – in broad terms – would like to imagine a new female sexuality constructed outside the influence and consideration of men. Butler doubts whether this is possible or desirable. (More importantly, she sees that it becomes yet another way of criticising women who aren't turned on by the ‘right’ things.)

Where I start to lose her, or rather where she becomes especially challenging, is when she conflates gender roles and psychological states with physical biology. For instance, she very astutely notes that the body is often ‘not the ground or cause’ of sexual desire, but rather ‘its occasion and its object’. People sometimes fantasise about exaggerated or altered bodies, or imagine themselves as the opposite sex: here sexual pleasure is coming somehow from the idea of the physical frame rather than from the physical frame itself. But this is used to suggest that conventional erogenous zones are therefore only ‘conceivable foci of pleasure precisely because they correspond to a normative ideal of a gender-specific body’, which I find very doubtful. Men do not, for instance, gain any direct sexual pleasure from their facial hair or Adam's apples. They rely on the dense network of nerve-endings found at mucus membranes like the genitals, as indeed do women.

In general there is a kind of confusion between sexual desire, on the one hand, and the physical reactions of sexual pleasure on the other – the former may not be tied to the body but the latter certainly are (which is one of the things that can make sexual assault so confusing and upsetting). Still, Butler says my opinion is a ‘literalizing fantasy’ which is ‘characteristic of the syndrome of melancholic heterosexuality’, so what do I know.

The same issue comes up when she examines the nature of gender and sex themselves. For Butler, biological sex – not just gender – is a ‘regulatory fiction’, and indeed she suggests that the social convention of having two genders is one of the ways by which a legal and linguistic two-sex distinction is maintained. To put it another way, the ‘gender trouble’ of the title is founded precisely on the assumed instability of biological sex.

I am not convinced by this, but the arguments are interesting. Mostly the focus is on what it means for the idea of women: ‘there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women.’ This is mostly building on de Beauvoir's famous dictum, On ne naît pas femme : on le devient ‘You are not born a woman, you become one’; still, it's strange to me, and historically suggestive, that these arguments never seem to exercise men in the same way. One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was to get a better understanding of the arguments that regularly fly around about transsexuality and specifically how it fits with feminism, and although a lot in here was useful on that score, it is also frustrating to the extent that it is sometimes unclear whether Butler is discussing sex or gender or both. Or neither?

Historically, feminism has worked to break down the importance of gender, while also generating a kind of solidarity among those of a particular sex.

To some second-generation feminists, transpeople appeared to go against all this. In the affinity they feel to a different biological sex, they seem implicitly to reinforce the link between that sex and its traditional gender roles. After all, if ‘biology is not destiny’ (one of feminism's great rallying-cries), then why would anyone need or want to have a different biology? ‘Trans-skeptic’ feminists (this is a more neutral term than most would use) complain that transpeople are not interested in subverting the constraints of their own gender, but rather want to adopt a different one.

Germaine Greer's views are notorious: ‘women must sympathize with transsexuals but a feminist must argue that the treatment for gender role distress is not mutilation of the sufferer but radical change of gender roles. […] Sex-change surgery is profoundly conservative in that it reinforces sharply contrasting gender roles by shaping individuals to fit them.’ Julie Bindel, more bluntly: ‘I don't have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.’

Behind all this is the looming spectre of biological essentialism. I might be happy to treat someone as a woman, refer to them as a woman, and fundamentally consider them a woman (as in fact I am), but at the end of the day your biological sex is a matter of fact, not a matter of assertion. This has practical implications – doctors need to know that transmen are at risk of ovarian cancer, say – but it also has implications for solidarity and group identity more generally. I have to be sensitive to the fact that not all women would be comfortable taking advice in a rape survival support group from someone who has XY chromosomes and a penis, no matter how firmly they identify as female. (This is not a made-up example – Google the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter for a famous test case.)

However, more recent waves of feminism have instead chosen to see sex as a matter of felt identity – one's ‘brain sex’, as some call it – which might eventually be found to have some neurological basis or might just be a matter of profound feeling. On this view, transwomen are not men who have cut off their genitals to ‘become’ women: they are women, in some essential sense, who happen to be lumbered at birth with a male physiology.

In some ways it might seem to be a matter of trivial importance. What kind of person would you be if you needed to check inside someone's underwear – or their chromosomes – before deciding how to treat them? Which is true as far as basic respect and rights and values are concerned. But there is also something to be said, perhaps, for shared experiences. Biologically female experiences like childbirth, facing the menopause, bleeding every month, access to abortion and reproductive control – these have been a crucial part of female rights and female solidarity and the feminist movement, and some women have been cautious about the idea that the word ‘woman’ can now include people who have experienced none of them. I think this is not an outrageous position to take, but attempts to articulate it tend to be silenced now by accusations of ‘transphobia’ or ‘cissexism’ – and many people feel understandably strongly about it because transsexual people face such vastly inflated risks of violence, abuse, depression and suicide, to which ill-judged statements might contribute.

What are we really arguing about here? Pure semantics – how we define the categories ‘man’, ‘woman’. But this is so deeply a part of people's sense of self that the debate can be astonishingly acrimonious. Perhaps we should make such a binary distinction less important to our sense of self, and perhaps the whole thing is built on a much shakier foundation that we realise. Butler's book offers few solutions but lots of revelatory, if badly explained, new ways to think about these ideas.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
December 18, 2013
You know, the problem with troubling gender is that gender isn’t the only thing that is going to be troubled. When I was doing my first degree my lecturer in the editing subject said that you should pay attention to the things people generally skip over in books – the titles of chapters for one, but much more importantly, epigraphs. The example he gave was Watership Down, which he claimed that if you read all of at the start of each of the chapters and said rabbits a couple of times you could plausibly get away with reading nothing else in the book and still know what the book was about. I’ve never bothered even doing this – but it would be an amusing exercise. What I can tell you is that this book can be pretty well summarised by the five quotes used as epigraphs immediately after the title page:

One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.
Simone de Beauvoir

Strictly speaking, “women” cannot be said to exist.
Julia Kristeva

Woman does not have a sex.
Luce Irigaray

The deployment of sexuality ... established this notion of sex.
Michel Foucault

The category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual.
Monique Wittig

This book is a working through of the implications of these five quotations. The takeaway message is that gender – and sex too – is a performance, not a pre-existing state, but a series of practices (although, I think we need something stronger, like habits, only stronger still) that are made real by being constantly enforced and reinforced. That’s the key thing, these are practices that are made normative by their repetition and how society regulates their adherence.

My favourite part of this book was what she does with de Beauvoir’s quote about becoming a woman. The issue here is around the notion of a pre-existing subject. The problem is complicated as such a pre-existing and non-gendered subject simply does not exist. This is a point that is made beautifully in Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – we like to think we bring up our children in ways that are gender-neutral, but in a society that colour codes children at birth as either pink or blue, we are really kidding ourselves. We literally only have a subjectivity once we have a sex – try telling someone that you’ve had a baby and not tell them the sex of the child and see how long the conversation lasts or how free flowing it is.

Now, I’m going to give my grossly simplified version of this book – but look, this is a classic text for a very good reason – it is basically a summary of lots of very important ideas about gender and is a seminal text in Queer Theory – so, I’m not going to do this one justice. Just saying.

I think it is good to ask, why is all this important? Firstly, gender is so important in deciding the kinds of persons we will be, the kinds of lives we will live and be allowed to live that to accept the gender roles assigned to us at birth is to accept remarkable restrictions as ‘purely natural’. The question is, just who decided what ‘natural’ meant? I remember an Australian politician saying of homosexuality, ‘you don’t see animals in the field doing that sort of thing’. It turns out that you do see animals engaging in homosexual behaviours – or, at least, what we would classify as such. All the same, this is a stupid argument by a stupid person. You don’t see animals in the field reading books, either – are we to stop reading out of solidarity with sheep?

My point isn’t just about ‘homosexual behaviours’ – a friend of mine once told me how angry she became after hearing a woman on the radio wonder aloud about just what it is that lesbians actually do in bed. Imagine how bad your sex-life would need to be for that to be an open question. Your sex-life would need to be summed up by the phrase, ‘whip-it-in-whip-it-out-and-wipe-it’.

Also, gender isn’t a simple dualism even if you ignore the proportion of the population that are homosexual or transsexual. As Butler points out here, there is a sense in which maleness isn’t really a gender at all, but rather the default in our society like ‘white’ also is the default – the taken for granted – the sex that is not seen. In this sense the only gender is female, the eternal other and this gender is defined (like some terrible joke from primary school) by a lack of the female.

Isn’t it remarkable that our whole life is constructed around the shape of our genitals and yet we spend all of those lives keeping them pretty well completely hidden? In fact, if you are after a quick way to get arrested, exposing your genitals in public is probably as effective as anything else. And this is particularly bizarre, as so many of our social behaviours are directed at making it clear which set of genitals we have. Literal hiding followed by ritualised display. Sort of "I've got a penis, I've got a penis - but you can't see it..."

I should speak only for myself (I’ve started this sentence a number of times now with ever-decreasing generality) but I find that when I have to spend time with what might be called hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine people my most consistent emotion is boredom. “Oh Christ, they aren’t really still talking about football, cars, makeup and weight loss are they? How can they stand being themselves?”

The problem many people might have with this book is that they will think the argument is a nurture over nature one – which is actually not the case. This is a book that is focused on the complex dialectic of human behaviour and one that says that the simple, pre-decided categories of male and female provide constraints that we really ought to think through before accepting them blindly. That is, that our habits and ways of being – as regulated and enforced by society – come with many more constraints than just who we can and cannot have sex with. If gender is a performance, then it is one that requires us to remain in character, that decides what we can and cannot do even before any conscious decision can be made. Such restraint is the very opposite of ‘freedom’. This is a point Butler makes at the end of this book – where what is presented is the dialectic of agency and construction – such that in realising how we are constructed by social norms we have at last a means of acting in ways that might undermine and trouble those norms, rather than our merely remaining repressed by them.

Profile Image for Craig Werner.
Author 13 books158 followers
August 4, 2012
Badly written and destructive in its impact on academic discourse. Butler is a darling of the theory crowd, one of the required citations. I found nothing in it that went beyond the standard cliches concerning the inadequacy of essentialist definitions. That wouldn't earn it the one star; what does is Butler's centrality to the infinite regression school of literary/cultural theory. By the time Butler's acolytes--apparently oblivious to the fact that every third sentence is borderline ungrammatical--are finished, what we're left with is an approach that elevates critique of critique of critique to near-holy status. The Butlerians believe themselves to be progressive in some oddly hermetic sense; far as I can tell the discourse is profoundly nihilistic.
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,323 followers
July 21, 2022
Much has been said about the academic, impenetrable nature of the text in this book. (It was supposed to be for academics - surprise, surprise! Nobody expects physics texts to be written in layman’s terms even if they are revolutionary, we only write articles explaining them in layman’s terms later. What baffles me is that, in my personal experience I’ve seen that a lot of people who complain about the difficulty of the text are the very humanities students who also constantly complain about the discrimination against humanities academia.) I am going to admit that it was fairly easy for me to read. I come from a position of privilege, I’ve had the sort of exposure, access to resources, and opportunities that enabled me to read all of this book and understand most of it. So I’m not going to presume to speak for people who didn’t have an experience similar to mine while reading this book.

Besides, my ideas on language are whacky, possibly because I’m multilingual and fluidly move between at least three languages on a daily basis. I also want to point out that no revolutionary changes have come from a belief in language and the truth in grammatical categories. Language has mostly been an institutional instrument, with historically specific meanings socially passed down in a way that preserves oppressive, hierarchical structures. So I see value in trying to subvert and even overturn these structure-preserving instruments, even if it seems incomprehensible at face value. I also tend to believe that the sort of schism we need from the mainstream begins with incomprehensibility. The way I talk about gender in my mother tongue is vastly different from how I talk about it in English. In Hindi, which I’ve been having to speak a lot lately, even adjectives and adverbs are gendered. This has been a great source of confusion for me, since this concept is completely absent in my Dravidian mother tongue. I’ve had people advise me to think of if the word that needs to be gendered would be a male name or a female name if ascribed to a human, and this in itself has been extremely hilarious to me. If the way we talk about gender from language to language varies vastly thus also shaping and altering our view of it, why can’t it vary within a given language too? Especially within a language that has historically been that of the colonizers and therefore has also been a symbol of power? We cannot overturn the system using the very instruments of the system, no matter what the reformists tell you

I realize I have been talking too much about the language of the book, rather than dissecting its substance. There’s no doubt that this book is a foundational text of queer theory, is revolutionary, and introduced a path that many of us have been treading on. I do however have questions about the relationship between performativity and spatiality. If gender is always a performative skill, as Butler claims, how do we reconcile it with nationally, racially, and historically specific distinctions and determinations of this skill? If gender norms are embodied knowledges, how are they distributed? Is there a metric? Is it made more available to certain subjects than others? Time to go digging.

P.S. I also read Heterosexism, Misrecognition, and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler by Nancy Fraser after reading this book and it enriched my whole experience. I highly recommend it. It’s only 11 pages long.
Profile Image for Peiman E iran.
1,394 reviews703 followers
September 20, 2017
دوستانِ گرانقدر، در موردِ این کتاب باید بگویم که بسیار سخت و پیچیده بیان شده است... برایِ خواندنِ این کتاب، بدونِ تردید باید آگاهی از اصطلاحات سیاسی و ادبیاتِ حزبی و بخصوص اصطلاحات و استدلال هایِ رایجِ آکادمیکیِ <فمینیستی> داشته باشید... به هرحال برایِ فهمِ «فمینیسم» در سطحِ بسیار بالا، این کتاب، میتواند تا حدی مفید باشد
امیدوارم روزی برسد که در سرزمینِ با ارزشمان ایران، همانندِ ایرانیانِ قبل از تجاوز و حملۀ تازیان، ساکنینِ این مرز و بوم برایِ جنسِ با ارزش و لطیفِ «زن» ارزش قائل شوند
بخشی از کتاب را به انتخاب در زیر برایِ شما دوستانِ خردگرا مینویسم
آيا اين صرفاً يك عرف فرهنگی نيست كه پيج و ديگران با آن تصميم می گيرند فردی كه از نظر آناتوميكی مبهم و دارایِ كروموزوم «2 ایکس» است را مرد بدانند، عرفی كه آلات تناسلی را نشانه قطعیِ جنس تصور ميكند؟ ميتوان استدلال نمود كه ناپيوستگی در اين نمونه ها با مراجعه به یک عامل مجزا مشخص نمی شود و اينكه جنس، به عنوان یک دسته بندی كه شاملِ عناصر، كاركردها و ابعادِ هورمونی و كروموزومی است، ديگر در چارچوب دوتايی كه بدان بخشيده ايم عمل نميكند
اگر بدن موجوديتی ندارد جز یک مرزبندیِ متغير، سطحی كه نفوذ پذيری اش به طور سياسی تنظيم ميشود، كنش دلالتی در یک زمينۀ فرهنگیِ سلسله مراتب جنسيتی و دگرجنسگرايیِ اجباری، پس برای درکِ اين تصويب جسمانی يعنی جنسيت كه دلالت " درونی " را بر رویِ سطح اش ايجاد ميكند، چه زبانی لازم است؟... «سارتر» شايد اين عمل را یک «سبکِ موجوديت» ميخواند، «فوكو» «سبک شناسی وجود» ... و در تعبيرِ من از «بوآر» بدن هایِ جنسيتی شده «سبک هایِ جسمانيت» هستند
البته دوستانِ گرامی با اینکه جنابِ «قضایی» را یکی از ایرانیانِ باشعور و خوش سواد میدانم و با توجه به توانایی هایی که از ایشان سراغ دارم، فکر میکنم میتوانست ترجمۀ روان تری از این کتاب ارائه دهد. در بعضی از قسمت هایِ کتاب، بر رویِ جمله بندی ها اصلاً کار نشده است.. ولی بازهم زحمتی که کشیده اند قابلِ تقدیر است، زیرا برگرداندنِ این کتابِ تخصصی به زبانِ شیرینِ فارسی کارِ بسیار دشواری میباشد که ایشان آن را انجام داده است
امیدوارم این ریویو جهتِ آشناییِ شما عزیزان با این ریویو، کافی و مفید بوده باشه
«پیروز باشید و ایرانی»
Profile Image for Alan.
2 reviews2 followers
January 28, 2018
I like my language esoteric and my discourse inaccesible
Profile Image for Lit Bug.
160 reviews441 followers
October 7, 2013
This was a woefully dense text, meant primarily for those who have read enough feminism to have at least a basic idea of the major concepts of feminist theory as well a basic idea of the theorists from whom Butler draws her arguments. I was aware of what Foucault, Beauvoir, Lacan, Freud and Levi-Strauss stood for, could never get into Kristeva, and had read little or nothing of Wittig, Reviere, Cixous and Mary Douglas. On that account, this seemed to be a quite difficult text, but I suppose someone familiar with their basic ideas will find it quite lucid.

Mostly, this is a postmodernist approach that refutes simplistic assumptions of feminine identity and is more inclusive than earlier feminist stances. Drawing upon various theorists, Butler charts the way ahead where binaries of not only men and women, but that of sex and gender too could be transgressed in a way it would expose the artificiality of the hegemonic patriarchal discourse and the fallacies of earlier feminist discourse which addressed narrower, more specific concerns that were representative of their own particular historical, social, economic and geographic positions.

Overall, given the exhaustive study of various standpoint theories, I am extremely surprised Butler leaves out Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak altogether, despite her being a postmodern Marxist feminist when she had briefly discussed Eagleton and Marx as well, and very early on drew attention to the pluralistic complexity of feminist theory today with concerns of age, time, place, ethnicity, class, sexuality and religion.

Perhaps, I temporarily conclude, this is as much a West-centric text as others, but in that specific framework, I deduce it works fine.

Through this text, Butler proceeds to consolidate her theory of “Gender Performativity” by extrapolating on various discourses of power and sexuality by cultural theorists/feminists/psychoanalysts such as Beauvoir, Foucault, Irigaray, Cixous, Wittig, Reviere, Freud, Lacan, Kristeva and Levi-Strauss. Forming a base from the acceptance and/or refutation of the theories proposed by them, Butler derives her conclusions as to how feminism and gender issues can be used to deconstruct hegemonic structures of patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality.

However, a big drawback of this book is that it is, apart from being too dense and too technical, quite repetitive as well, and goes about in circles sometimes without a clear end. And it is quite long for its content. I'd much more prefer a lucid, less repetitive, shorter book. Butler has some brilliant ideas, but they get lost in the density and repetition. but this, I guess, is a malady affecting all those I've found exceedingly amazing - Foucault, Beauvoir, Althusser, Gramsci, Haraway and Spivak. They're probably so high up on the technical ladder, they can't see us down there.


In the first section, Butler refutes the idea of an “essential” woman/feminine identity, especially in the view of racial and colonial discourses. Negating the idea of “femininity” or “womanhood” as a ‘stable signifier’, she sees it as a site for contest that is all the more problematic owing to growing rifts within the feminist discourse that attempts to create a pre-patriarchal identity they can revert back to.

Not only does she find “politics of identity” counter-productive to the liberation of women, Butler emphasizes it as a product of the very hegemonic structures feminism wishes to undo. Instead, Butler advocates “coalitional politics”, what Donna J. Haraway would later refer to as “politics of affiliation”, that would eschew a priori assumptions of “feminine” identity.

Butler goes on to refute the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as ‘biological’ and ‘cultural’ constructs. For her, they are historically and genealogically inseparable, and discourses of power have either constructed gender from sex or reduced and restricted gender by sex.

Drawing on Foucault, who points out that “juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent”, Butler concludes that ”the gender/sex divide ceases to be the culture/nature divide; gender becomes the discursive/cultural means by which “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive”, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface upon which culture acts.”

Taking cues from Beauvoir (for whom women are the Other) and Irigaray (for whom women are multiple identities, unrepresentable) she explores the formation of and contexts of gender and its sociological implications in the complex webs of race, ethnicity and class, and further examines their conflicting views on the “marking (off)” of the female body by “masculinist discourse”.

Drawing on Wittig’s argument that doing away with normative heterosexuality will lead to dissolution of the gender-binaried thinking, aligning with Foucault’s view that gender is a production of not biological sex but sexuality, Butler argues that Wittig provides a normative humanistic framework as a structure, making space for non-binaried categories of sexualities under feminism instead of the man v/s woman argument.

Butler proposes that “the claim that gender is ‘constructed’ does not assert its illusoriness or artificiality……. but acts as an inquiry to understand the discursive production of the plausibility of that binary relation and to suggest that certain cultural configurations of gender take the place of the ‘real’ and consolidate and augment their hegemony through that felicious self-naturalization.”


The following chapter is devoted to the ‘investigation of some aspects of the psychoanalytical structuralist account of sexual difference and the reconstruction of sexuality with respect to its power to contest regulatory regimes as well as its roles in uncritically reproducing those regimes.’

Butler takes up patriarchy, one of the focal points of feminist thought, along with the idea of a pre-patriarchal state that would serve as the basis for a new non-patriarchal society. She warns of the tendency to universalize patriarchy as a counter-productive technique, emphasizing the need for new techniques in the wake of legitimate incursions of feminist theory into the examination of racial and ethnic oppression.

Studying the taboo of incest through the lens of Levi-Strauss’ ‘anthropological structuralism’, which posits a kinship structure governed by women, she views Levi-Strauss’ assertion of gender as an imposition on sex as an equivalent of culture’s imposition of meaning on nature which is ‘before’ the law as yet another problematic binary between nature and culture, reinforcing culture as ‘male’ and nature as ‘female’, and mind as ‘male’ and the body as a ‘female’ territory.

Levi-Strauss’ argument that the institution of marriage through which women are traded as good without their own identity, acts as an indicator of homoerotic discourse that is implied yet negated – the function of marriage is to simultaneously an act of ‘dividing’ men into different clans and uniting them by the bonds of marriage.

Levi-Strauss maintains that the centrality of the incest taboo establishes the significant nexus between structuralist anthropology and psychoanalysis. This prohibitive nature of incest taboo that engenders desire is appropriated by Lacan who contends that the taboo is reproduced in kinship and linguistic structures, since it is not sanctioned culturally. Language, then, for Lacan, acts as the ‘residue and alternative accomplishment of dissatisfied desire.’

Butler moves on to Joan Riviera, along with Lacan, both of who consider women as masquerading as men, through what Butler would eventually call Gender Performance, accentuated with a Phallic “lack” in order to participate and perpetuate their own subjugation. Irigaray too remarked, the masquerade… is what women do…. In order to participate in men’s desire, but at the cost of giving up their own…”

Reviere’s argument is that females take up homosexuality not as an expression of their sexual preference, but as a way to masquerade as men, desirous of women sexually, but wishing desperately to enter the realm of men as a man herself, equal to other men in status. The core here, then, is not sexuality but rivalry and rage.

Using Freud’s theories of Oedipal Complex and sexuality and drawing on Foucault, Butler notes that emphasis on compulsory heterosexuality coupled with lack of sanction on homosexuality and incest in turn naturalize heterosexuality through the act of mourning and melancholia, which leads people to willingly or unwillingly choose a gender identity.

Butler remarks that ”homosexual melancholy is culturally instituted and maintained as the price of stable gender identities related through oppositional desires.”

Problematic to me particularly is Butler’s notion that “bisexuality is indeed the consequence of child-rearing practices in which parents of both sexes are present and presently occupied with child-care and in which the repudiation of femininity no longer serves as a precondition of gender identity for both men and women.” I’m not sure I wholly, or even partly agree to this, though I keep the doors of possibility open.


The final chapter considers “the very notion of the body, not as a ready surface awaiting signification, but as a set of boundaries, individual and social, politically signified and maintained. No longer believable as an interior ‘truth’ of dispositions and identity, sex will be shown to be a performatively enacted signification, one that, released from its naturalized interiority and surface, can occasion the parodic proliferation and subversive play of gendered meanings.”

Butler begins with Kristeva’s reclaiming of the maternal body within Language, as a move against Lacan who held that language and culture indicated repression of women. Kristeva appropriated poetic language as expression of femininity, which Butler considers just as “essentialist” and binaried a position as Lacan’s. For Kristeva, the act of giving birth is a covert acknowledgement of female homosexuality, by which a female bonds with her own mother when she gives birth. Female homosexuality, to her, is the emergence of psychosis in a culture, manifest in poetic language.

Butler deals with Foucault’s conflicting views on sex and gender through a reading of his introduction to the journals of a hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin in 19th century France who committed suicide after she was compelled to act like a man by society on account of her physical characteristics after she confessed to priests and doctors about her condition. While Foucault seems to celebrate here a utopian sexuality ‘before’ the law prohibits it, he directly contradicts his own views in ‘The History of Sexuality’ where he contends that the notion of “real” sex is illusory, since ‘sex’ is a product of socio-cultural discourse, and not the cause. Butler also reads it as a possibly parallel account of Foucault’s own homosexuality, about which he was reluctant to talk.

Butler backs her case up by an account of a culturally biased MIT project by a group of scientists headed by Dr. Page who established sex on the basis of the presence/lack of testes – i.e., to determine if a person was female, the litmus test was whether the person had a testicles or not, rather than checking for ovaries and ovarian functions.

Next, Butler examines Wittig’s arguments that the category of ‘sex’ as well as ‘normative heterosexuality’ is repressive to women, lesbians and gays, and that lesbians are not women – because to her, the category woman is assumed to be a heterosexual identity. Drawing on Beauvoir’s iconic statement ”One is not born a woman; one becomes one.”, Wittig explores that sex itself is a product of male ideology, the Other to males. Because one’s biological sex has little to do with one’s sexuality – e.g. hermaphrodites. To Wittig, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are political categories, not natural facts.

Aligning herself with Marx, Wittig further says that language is a form and expression of repression, not a neutral or abstract exchange.

Butler, however, disagrees with Wittig’s idea that heterosexuality is the only power that shapes and restricts homosexuality. For Butler, there are “other power/discourse centers that construct and structure both gay and straight sexuality.” Butler does not entirely reject Wittig’s stand, but posits that Wittig’s formulation of power structures in only one of the many structures of oppression. Wittig’s theory, says Butler, overrides those discourses within the gay and lesbian culture that employ sex as a category to proliferate the number of sexes with terms such as dyke, butch, fag, femme and queer, through which these discourses situate themselves within heterosexual discourse.

She cites the example of a lesbian femme, who liked her boys to be ‘girls’, with the ‘girl’ resignifying ‘masculinity’ in a butch identity. Such categories both recall and displace conventional, normative heterosexuality, a point that Wittig misses.

Drawing on Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, Butler posits that “any discourse that establishes the boundaries of the body serves the purpose of instating and naturalizing certain taboos regarding the appropriate limits, postures and modes of exchange that define what it is that constitutes bodies.”

Butler cites the example of AIDS being defamed as a “gay disease” to perpetuate its heterosexual hegemony. Later, Butler derives that,

”If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can neither be true or false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of a primary and stable identity.”

Further, Butler suggests that the ‘figure of the ”drag” fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.’

With the drag, gender becomes performative, rather than essence, as much as normative gender is, through repetition.


Butler, in her concluding chapter suggests the act of ‘parody’ as a practice that can serve to reengage and reconsolidate the very distinction between a privileged and naturalized gender configuration and one that appears as derived, phantasmatic, and mimetic - a failed copy.

By employing these ‘failed attempts’ at performing the socially approved gender, Butler believes it is possible to critique hegemonic accounts of gender formation.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56.6k followers
June 7, 2018
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990; second edition 1999) is a book by the philosopher Judith Butler, in which the author argues that gender is a kind of improvised performance. The work is influential in feminism, women's studies, and lesbian and gay studies, and has also enjoyed widespread popularity outside of traditional academic circles.
تاریخ نخستین خوانش: ماه آوریل سال 2007 میلادی
عنوان: آشفتگی جنسیتی ؛ نویسنده: جودیت باتلر؛ مترجم: امین قضایی؛ مشخصات نشر: 1386، نشر مجله شعر
ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Vartika.
374 reviews607 followers
January 22, 2020
One of the reasons why theory remains theoretical and largely confined to the ivory tower of academia is that it is grossly inaccessible to most people, especially to those who could benefit the most from what it reveals. Judith Butler's Gender Trouble is one of those endlessly frustrating books that not only exemplifies this habit amongst academics, but also aggressively defends it.

Gender Trouble is a radical, founding text of queer theory which exposes gender as a performative construct, and *cue stretched-out drumroll* Sex (M/F) as a prohibitive one. Butler demonstrates her point in the book armed with a great deal of criticism on post-structuralism, feminist foundationalism, essentialism and the likes. Her arguments, though controversial, are truly groundbreaking, but are presented in terribly esoteric language — and supplemented by an even worse defense of it (something about it allegedly helping her challenge deep-seeded power structures, which is the only part of this book I found outrightly unconvincing).

Honestly, this book in comprehensible English could have either been just about 100 pages, or gone on for 500 more — either way, it would've been more readable than its current, highly repetitive and impenetrable form. There were (brief) sections where I felt genuinely smarter for reading this, but most of it made me want to hit myself on the head.

Tl;dr: Useful insights on gender coded and coated in a dense, brain-bending smoothie of jargon, academic buzzwords, and a hostile disregard for being understood by readers. This book is proof of exactly how agonising educating oneself can get.
Profile Image for Jamie.
321 reviews240 followers
November 3, 2010
Butler has numerous loud detractors, and faces a variety of underhanded compliments, even on this very website, along the lines of comments such as: "oh, she's smart, but *only* when she's not talking about gender." OR "Butler would be great if she wasn't such an impenetrable writer."

Well, I'll say it outright. I love Butler. I love Gender Trouble. I love Bodies that Matter. I love Giving an Account of Oneself. I love basically everything I've read by her, and I'm always excited to have the opportunity of reading more. I think she's a brilliant thinker, a strangely poetic writer, and a sorely underappreciated figure in contemporary philosophy. I suppose she inadvertently falls into a sad trap: conventional philosophers fume at her for taking up the 'non-philosophical' (?) subjects of gender and sexuality in a serious fashion; feminists hate her because of her supposed theoretical elitism. Undergraduates hate her because they find her impossible. Or at any rate, this has been my experience of seeing Butler interjected into the classroom.

Gender Trouble is what I'd like to call a "genealogy of the (de)naturalization of gender in 20th century thought." Why does it take nearly 200 pages for Butler to arrive at her conclusion, where it seems her claims are finally staked? Because the past hundred years of theoretical consideration on the subjects of gender, sex, sexuality, and desire are such a fucking mess. From Freud & Levi-Strauss to Lacan and Foucault, to Irigaray, Wittig, and Kristeva--Butler's got a problem with all of 'em. And so these huge paradigms have first to be apprehended and refigured or dismantled in order for Butler to situate herself in an ongoing and incredibly difficult dialogue.

This is a tough book, there's no doubt about it. I think it's far more manageable when you've read the works and thinkers she's discussing at length (namely, de Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault, Kristeva, and Irigaray, among a handful of others), but at the same time, I think Butler's a really fantastic teacher. For all of her obtuse prose, Butler is also persistently methodical about leading her reader by the hand through the thoughts she's working through; she's often repetitive, constantly figuring out different and/or better ways to say the same thing. And I don't think this means that she needs an editor; I think it means that much of what she's working through doesn't quite fit the 'languages' and tools we work with. To conceptualize the notion of a subject without a 'core,' an 'I' that is incoherent, and an identity that is merely the effect of a number of situated and contingent discourses--these are ideas that go against basically everything we know, and so this truly does feel as though you're learning a new language. But once you've got the basics down, it becomes a quite thrilling experience, if you ask me.

In any case, Butler--and I suppose most likely Gender Trouble, since that's what skyrocketed her to academic fame and remains the most commonly taught text of hers--is a must-read for anyone interested in post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, queer politics, subjectivity, &co. Love her or hate her, she remains one of our most famous living thinkers on these subjects. To my mind, this is a deserved status.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,682 reviews636 followers
November 29, 2016
'Gender Trouble' is an extremely thought-provoking, dense, and erudite book. In it, Butler expounds the idea of gender as something performed, rather than an innate and unchangeable quality. She also emphasises that the often-assumed differentiation of gender as social construction and sex as biological is both deeply problematic and vastly oversimplified. The exploration and critique of compulsory heterosexuality is likewise excellent.

That said, 'Gender Trouble' is a challenging book to read. The central eighty or so pages took me a disproportionate amount of time to get through, as they deal with complicated and seemingly esoteric psychoanalytic theory. If I hadn't read Introducing Lacan, I wouldn't have understood any of it as a lot of Lacanian terms are used, such as the Phallus, signifiers, paternal law, and jouissance. As it is, please don't ask me for a precise point-by-point summary. From what I understand, Freud, Lacan, and other theorists presuppose a gender binary, based on taboos against homosexuality and incest. Quite apart from the seeming absurdity of such theory ever being universally applicable, this approach invites much criticism on feminist grounds. For example, characterising lesbianism as psychosis and maternity as a product of repressed homosexual desire just seems absurd, not to mention offensive. (Personally, the more I read of psychoanalytic theory the more strongly it seems to take on the quality of fiction. Moreover, I refuse to believe that sexual desire is the catalyst for so much of the personality.)

The commentary on intersectional feminism toward the end of the book was, I think, the most practical part. This I definitely found helpful as context for debates I've come across. It is impressive, actually, how Butler segues smoothly from the most arcane of theoretical analyses to pragmatic political commentary. Even if psychoanalytic theory leaves you cold, this book is still well worth reading for its dissection of how we think about gender, sex, and sexuality. It is dense with ideas, which Butler articulates effectively. You're unlikely to find a more thorough deconstruction of the gender binary anywhere. As with any book that discusses sexuality, I wish that it mentioned asexuality, but never mind.
1 review1 follower
September 13, 2011
Butler's writing is some of the worst I've encountered in academia. A few of her ideas are novel, but they are so buried in unnecessarily convoluted reasoning and unexplained references to vaguely related work that they are hardly worth the effort. The book also abuses trans people's identities for political purposes.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews945 followers
December 31, 2015
I mark this book read somewhat disingenuously, since it was so far over my head much of the time I was merely skimming it inattentively. However, there were moments when even I experienced a feeling of awesome revelation

The mark of gender appears to qualify bodies as human bodies; the moment at which an infant becomes humanised is when the question 'is it a boy or a girl?' is answered...

Strategies of exclusion and hierarchy are shown to persist in the formulation of the sex/gender distinction and its recourse to "sex" as the prediscursive...
Profile Image for M..
738 reviews116 followers
February 18, 2016
The opening sentence of this Butler classic and feminist (if it can be called as such at all) reference, says what's happening of late. The definition of gender is the crumbling point for feminism, as gender theorists and radical feminists have this rivalry that endangers the theorical unity of the movement, and maybe it's very purpose. Why call it feminism at all if now it can be about every single gender expression out there? Why would its concern be women, when gender minorities might be some made up gender you just thought of?

But I digress. She reflects on the theory that preceeded her, namely Beauvoir and Sartre, and their problematization of female otherness, sometimes in an euphemism known as "mystery" (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the feminine mystery that John Paul II speaks of). A genderist would deny the existence of mystery in a positive sense. Everything is a question of power, dialectic, marxist relations. This is going to be a fun ride, I thought to myself as I read this.

What would happen if we tackled presumptive heterosexuality? "I must get in trouble", the sentence reads. No matter what the cost. "I must be a rebel". And the loathed expressions such as "compulsory heterosexuality" start. Now, it's funny because genderists stumble between arguments on whether homosexuality, or all sexuality is a choice. And if heterosexuality is compulsory, someone forces you to feel that way, which would mean that you can choose your way out. And same for homosexuality, even if for these movements it's an expression of freedom, you could choose out if you wanted to. A big 1-0 for the radfems and the horrible, horrible religious right.

The question of femaleness arrives. Is it a performance? Is it really "natural"? Foucault is her base for asserting that what must be investigated are the political institutions which hold certain practices as "natural", when in reality they're just imposed. There are two institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.

There's not much sense in being a woman or a female altogether, if we're not defined as such in opposition to other, so for the time being, the only solution Butler finds acceptable is to do away with the conception of identity and never ask about it anymore. Systems of power settle the question: the subject which will be reduced to a concept and later represented, all this process is done by a system of power. So, the definition of woman itself is a product of a system of power, which responds to its requierements.

"Woman" is not a common identity, and the notion of patriarchy oppressing women does not apply equally in all parts of the world. Feminism can't be universally representative of every woman, because in order to work as an encompassing discourse it has to have some restrictions. An ode to vagueness. Feminist aims are exactly the contrary of what its limited discourse encompasses. If I have to define what a woman is, I'm also defining relationships, therefore no emancipation is possible. But here's the deal: every political idea has to have definitions to work from, whether these definitions might be perceived as reductionisms or not. Butler wants a war against language, by using language. If languages didn't work with concepts, and words to represent them, communication would be impossible altogether. Or maybe she has a better method, but this is honestly turning confusing.

The sex / gender distinction makes gender "the cultural interpretation of sex". It also establishes the idea of a "natural sex". She takes the notion of Beauvoir that women are not born as such but become such by cultural practices, and then applies it to the idea that follows, which is even crazier: becoming a woman is not a question of biological nature, but cultural instead. Since it doesn't stem from sex, anyone can become a woman (well, this is the corner stone of transexualism, isn't it?)

Since women escape the representation of a phallogocentric language, they can be anything. Then she questions the need for unity in political action. She's trying to deconstruct feminism because she's not happy with how it succumbed to the categories of language it said to despise. Is genderist approach even marxist at all? Or some weird kind of individualism? By not defining gender entirely, anyone can participate in the struggle (which kind of going against, or probably for the monthly adding of one letter in the LGBT acronym, or something like that)

But what is identity to Butler? What is a person? Is identity a normative ideal? Can identity be understood at all? The institutionalization of heterosexuality opens the door for the creation of binaries and oppositions that make reality understood in these terms. This leaves a lot of identities out.

The whole work turns into an epistemological question: what can really be understood at all? A critique of poststructuralist french feminist school ensues. And it's surprising, because in many ways, Butler is rejecting what allowed her to start with all this nonsense in the first place. Her conclusions about Beauvoir and Wittig's anaylisis is even more outrageous: the construction of the notion of sex is made for men's enjoyment. Women and lesbian are, therefore, not the same, and lesbian is a cop out from the oppression.

She takes the case for hermaphrodites as an impossible identity in the sex binary. Identity is, for Foucault, a regulatory fiction. At least she recognizes that Wittig does not aim to take language out as something purely evil in nature, but yet misogynystic in its applications, a reason why it can be transformed for good purposes.

This is, undoubteddly, the most confusing book on Earth. I was planning to read it as to see what else I'm opposing to, when I speak of my opposition to gender theory. While the idea is to escape essentialism, all the other concepts seem vague, or to go nowhere. Maybe her personal anecdote of wanting to be in trouble since it was unavoidable, shown in the preface, is the principle of this book.

There's some re-readings of Freud and Lacan whose work I'm not very familiar with. A few more references to juridical "fictions" and constructions of the subject (then again, how is possible to understand anything at all if you don't make a cut somewhere?) I get that it is important not to make assumptions which end up being damaging to human relationships. To propose that nothing can be understood is a bit frustrating. And how can you propose such a thing if nothing really can be understood?

Even lesbianism is not a liberated sexuality for Butler. She says it's the result of a lesbian appropiation of Foucault which allowed for the thought of this utopia to take place (interesting, because Foucault gave no thought to lesbians as far as I'm concerned, and I've read his History of Sexuality, while the radical feminist whose work I'm interested in, Sheila Jeffreys, acknowledges this and despises Foucault and Butler likewise for their childish desires of "sexual liberation").

Perhaps Butler is not too far from arguing for some other kind of sexual liberation which claims to be better. To oppose female sexuality to male sexuality is problematic. Everything is problematic. The existence of feminism trying to define what a woman is, is as problematic as the existence of a woman herself. Everything is reductionism, so let's be incredibly vague about notions, and criticize notions to appear to be more inclusive.

This paragraph below is one of the most intelligible paragraphs of the whole book (and even so, it's quite frustrating), which summarizes what I just said. Don't get into the binary logic, don't coin other terms for alternative sexualities, because it's impossible:

"If sexuality is culturally constructed within existing power relations, then the postulation of a normative sexuality that is 'before', 'outside', or 'beyond' power is a culturally impossibility and a politically impracticable dream, one that postpones the concrete and contemporary task of rethinking subversive posibilities for sexuality and identity within the terms of power itself. This critical task presumes, of course, that to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination".

The heterosexist discourse has not permeated homosexual relationships by perpetuating stereotypes as "butch" and "femme" (though both are parodical representations of maleness and femaleness, as other feminists acknowledge). To reconstruct these categories in the homosexual ambient legitimates heterosexuality, and Butler can't have that.

I wonder if Butler knows what she wants and what she means, because 33 pages in, I just don't know. I wonder how many people who applaud this book really understood a word. I'm not the most versed person in philosophy around, but this screams rebellion for rebellion's sake to me, and not clear definitions at all.

So maybe, radical and liberal feminism have something in common: an anarchist desire. At least, radical feminists bother to define something, no matter how outrageous it might seem.

I just thought, this is a short book. I need to give it a chance before I get further into the radical feminist critique of transexualism. Oh, boy. How wrong I was.
Profile Image for Canon.
636 reviews64 followers
July 22, 2022
"One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one." - Simone de Beauvoir

A landmark text of queer theory, this book is also and as such an engaging philosophical work on that interminably debated topic of freedom versus determinism — of how gender might become a site of freedom rather than social domination.

My take is that Butler seeks to move the reader from thinking of one's gender as a reality that is antecedently given or determined, whether biologically or culturally — something, moreover, that is metaphysically internal to oneself and merely expressed outwardly — to thinking of it as a reality that is the effect of ongoing actions or performances within and from one's social-cultural-linguistic milieu (hence, "performativity theory").

Philosophically, one might say Butler urges the reader from a metaphysics of static substances (biological sex) to one of agency and creative action (gender). For example, Butler persistently challenges theories of the biologically sexed body as a stable, non-constructed point of reference in distinction to gender. These theories take what I call the Realist Two Step: (1) abstract some piece of reality from the human world in order to (2) set it up as a non-humanly constructed ground of epistemic authority. This maneuver is supposed to externally ground truth antecedent to human understanding and discovery. They make of the body (biology) an intellectual idol that can cast judgement on the human world.

I take Butler’s argument to mean that one cannot conceptually get back to a sexed body that is both (1) wholly unconditioned and yet (2) knowable. Understandings of sex are after all human understandings, forged in one's actual, i.e., social and cultural, context, and this context brings in the category of gender as Butler theorizes it. All of this made me think of the William James aphorism that "the trail of the human serpent is over everything."

Butler, I take it, may nevertheless be described as a realist despite emphasizing the role of social construction and performance. For performativity does not mean "unreal," and does not entail that gender is fake or artificial; rather, as Butler put it in a 2021 interview, "performativity names the way that social reality can change over time." Performativity also doesn't necessarily mean intentional, i.e. putting on a show or knowingly playing a role like an actor; performativity, in naming the way social reality changes, involves far more complex and widespread processes in the production of gender than such discrete, intentional performances. However, gender being understood as the ongoing effect of performativity, performativity may then be employed to disrupt (e.g., parody) the very cultural assumptions about and social policing of gender in which the performance occurs — hence, a dynamic interplay between social power and individual possibility.

I take one of Butler's key philosophical moves in defense of agency and freedom, and perhaps the most exciting feature of the book for me, to be what one might call a radical anti-Kantianism that displays the incoherence of any theory that posits a reality beyond human intelligibility (i.e., the actual tools of understanding to which one has access) while at the same time referring to or describing or relying on such a reality. Such theories are not just incoherent but also, Butler rightly says, utopian, in the sense of being politically useless. Perhaps paradoxically, reality needs to be brought within the human ambit to serve its function as reality, to be thinkable, actionable, emancipatory. It is theoretically and practically useless to speak of or valorize something that is conceived as being completely outside of human intelligibility; such a reality is demonstrably within the orbit of intelligibility and is merely being described from within as beyond or outside for some reason (to secure it, to valorize it, to revile it). Hence Butler's critique of Kristeva:

"The 'unthinkable' is thus fully within culture, but fully excluded from dominant culture. The theory which presumes bisexuality or homosexuality as the 'before' to culture and then locates that 'priority' as the source of a prediscursive subversion, effectively forbids from within the terms of the culture the very subversion that it ambivalently defends and defends against... in the case of Kristeva, subversion thus becomes a futile gesture, entertained only in a derealized aesthetic mode which can never be translated into other cultural practices."

Or this analysis, which I love, of Lacan's Symbolic order:

"[The] structure of religious tragedy in Lacanian theory effectively undermines any strategy of cultural politics to configure an alternative imaginary for the play of desires. If the Symbolic guarantees the failure of the tasks it commands, perhaps its purposes, like those of the Old Testament God, are altogether unteleological—not the accomplishment of some goal, but obedience and suffering to enforce the 'subject’s' sense of limitation 'before the law.' There is, of course, the comic side to this drama that is revealed through the disclosure of the permanent impossibility of the realization of identity. But even this comedy is the inverse expression of an enslavement to the God that it claims to be unable to overcome. Lacanian theory must be understood as a kind of 'slave morality.' How would Lacanian theory be reformulated after the appropriation of Nietzsche’s insight in On the Genealogy of Morals that God, the inaccessible Symbolic, is rendered inaccessible by a power (the will-to-power) that regularly institutes its own powerlessness? This figuration of the paternal law as the inevitable and unknowable authority before which the sexed subject is bound to fail must be read for the theological impulse that motivates it as well as for the critique of theology that points beyond it. The construction of the law that guarantees failure is symptomatic of a slave morality that disavows the very generative powers it uses to construct the 'Law' as a permanent impossibility. What is the power that creates this fiction that reflects inevitable subjection? What are the cultural stakes in keeping power within that self-negating circle, and how might that power be reclaimed from the trappings of a prohibitive law that is that power in its dissimulation and self-subjection?"


A small aside, which I note for its fascination to me: Butler's discussion of the construction of interiority from the surface-play of social discourse (p. 173) reminded me of (1) the Jesuit-constructed carriages in Mason & Dixon , which are mysteriously much bigger on the inside than their exterior would indicate; and (2) the Dirac Sea in Neon Genesis Evangelion episode 16.
Profile Image for David Michael.
10 reviews3 followers
August 30, 2007
True, it is a bit dated today, and I would distance myself from her strong emphasis on psychoanalysis and performativity, but it was a radical turning point in my life, and is close to perfect as a theory text.
Its impact on contemporary feminism and critical practices can not be underestimated. This book will always be close to my heart.
Profile Image for Markus.
472 reviews1,523 followers
December 28, 2018
As someone researching and working with the performativity of gender and its connection to social power on a daily basis, this book is a foundational pillar. These days, Judith Butler is the most important theorist on the topic of gender, at least in my personal opinion.

Aside from the unfortunate fact that it is written to be almost incomprehensibly academic, making it atrociously difficult for non-academics to tackle, Gender Trouble is arguably the most remarkable achievement in the field of gender studies, and the most important contribution to feminist thought since Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
Profile Image for muthuvel.
257 reviews156 followers
March 8, 2020
This work is a tedious theoretical inquiry, based on the nuances of cultural, psychological, philosophical understanding, which attempts to locate the 'signified political' in the very signifying practices that establish, regulate, and deregulate gender identity. Beware of field jargonic balderdash that follows.

Butler starts with the critique of traditional feminism is wrong to looking for a common unifying ground for political representation without much of a comprehensive understanding of intersectional elements. She goes on to question the validity on the idea of what it means to be feminine/masculine or of a particular sex, and who gives that authenticity to be it so.

After a series of critical interpretation of the writings of philosophers, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, contemporary theorists, (some worth mentioning are Simone de Beauvoir, Irigaray, Lacan, Freud, Foucault, Claude Levi-Strauss, Julia Kristeva and Monica Wittig) the writer theorizes that gender is culturally constructed and even the human anatomy - the naked body parts has no signified means yet completely influenced by the cultural presupposition and this influences the clothing, mannerisms, and all sorts of everyday activities as well as sexual activity and choice of sexual partner from which we perceive ourselves to be. Not to mention the social norms reinforcement via the language making sure we perform in a certain way.

And to escape all the cultural burden, she advocates subversion - deliberate parody performance of conventional gender acts such as drag. She also mentioned this should not be trivial lifestyle choice - one cannot wake up and decide what gender one wants to be. Some how postmodernists do scare me every now and then. It also worth mentioning that all these ideas of the author on sexuality and gender served as a precursor of what came to be known as Queer theory.

“Gender ought not to be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts."

"In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself - as well as its contingency."

"Gender reality is created through sustained social performances means the very notions of an essential sex and abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender performative characters and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality."

Now that I complete the work with some satisfaction of understanding, It almost feel like a great feat finishing the work yet at the same time, I certainly feel the need to revisit this again after familiarizing myself better with Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and importantly with the theories of structural Anthropology and Post-structuralism.
Profile Image for Tuğçe Kozak.
262 reviews237 followers
August 14, 2019
Öncelikle feminist okumalara yeni başlayanlara tavsiye etmiyorum, akedemik bir metin olduğu için ağır gelebilir. Butler radikal bir metin kaleme almış ve metin içersinde düşünürlerin cinsiyet ile ilgili düşüncelerini ele alıp bolca incelemiş. Genel anlamda bir çizgi çizecek olursak Butler cinsiyet kavramını reddediyor ve bunun gerekçelendirmesini yaparken querr edebiyat için de kılavuz bir metin sunuyor.
Profile Image for ✨    jami   ✨.
660 reviews3,882 followers
January 1, 2022
‘Gender is the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’

very dense but very good!!!!!!!! Judith Butler was on something ELSE when they wrote this
Profile Image for sologdin.
1,706 reviews619 followers
January 1, 2018
Reassessed: Outworks here mark out the conceptual lineage of the title: “Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism” (vii). To ‘trouble’ gender is to shake or arouse or summon it at its foundation or in its entirety. That’s the normal Derridean notion, anyway. Here, there is some concern that the solicitation of gender will end up shaking also the foundations of feminism; the role of this text is to argue against that equivalence and maintain that feminism proceeds in the absence of gender—that gender ideology is not the condition of possibility for feminist doctrine as such. In that regard, it is successful overall, distancing feminism from gender essentialism.

Text works closely with Lacan, Foucault, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray, Levi-Strauss, Gayle Rubin, Cixous, and de Beauvoir, of course. Some plain peripheral interest in Marx, Derrida, Bakhtin. Much intelligent commentary thereupon—though the psychoanalytic stuff is a bit much at times (inclusive of most of the second section).

Argument begins with the proposition that “universal patriarchy has been widely criticized in recent years” (3), leading to the inference that “feminism’s own claims to be representative has occasionally motivated the shortcut to a categorical or fictive universality of the structure of domination, held to produce women’s common subjugated experience” (4). The problem is “a seamless category of women” (id.). She very quickly gets to the point:
Originally intended to dispute the biology-is-destiny formulation, the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex. (6)
Thence: “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all” (7)—which is not a rigorous argument for the implosion of the binary, but rather a hypothetical, a thought experiment, upon which the remainder of the argument proceeds. I propose to make true the thought experiment herein.

The problem is set forth as “It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category” (id.); rather, “gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established” (id.). That is, “construction of ‘sex’ as the radically unconstructed” (id.) is the object of critique, “sex as the prediscursive.” By contrast with others who argue that “the notion that gender is constructed suggests a certain determinism of gender meanings inscribed on anatomically differentiated bodies” (8), author argues that if “gender is understood in terms of such a law or set of laws, then it seems that gender is as determined and fixed as it was under the biology-is-destiny formula”—“not biology, but culture, becomes destiny” (id.).

Regarding de Beauvoir’s famous opening to The Second Sex,
There is nothing in her account that guarantees that the ‘one’ who becomes a woman is necessarily female. If ‘the body is a situation,’ as she claims, there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will have been shown to have been gender all along. (8)
This is, again, not rigorous argumentation for the implosion, but rather an immanent critique of basic feminist theory on the principle of sex/gender differentiation—what we might designate as primary differentiation, as opposed to secondary differentiation radiating thereunder, between the feminine/masculine (purported indicia of ‘gender’), on the one hand, and the female/male (alleged indicia of ‘sex’ so-called), on the other.

Her critique is not trifling:
‘Intelligible’ genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire. In other words, the spectres of discontinuity and incoherence, themselves thinkable only in relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, are constantly prohibited and produced by the very laws that seek to establish causal or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted gender, and the ‘expression’ or ‘effect’ of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice. (17)
I’d go however a step further by including coherence/continuity in the indicia of so-called biological sex—internal genitalia, external genitalia, gametes, hormones, chromosomes—all of which take on their purported binary character solely through reference to the gender ideology that they are alleged otherwise to constitute. That is, there is nothing inherent to these anatomical markers to render them male or female individually, and we have instances of their not ‘matching up,’ as detailed in the long head-scratching over so-called ‘hermaphroditism,’ what we might designate now more sagely as intersex, the existence of which should trouble not only primary differentiation, but should rather solicit the secondary differentiation of binary sex, male/female. Butler does not get into these debates very much (though we can always reference Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body for some of the raw data).

Most of the text is working through other theorists’ positions with this set of assumptions in mind. So, for instance, Gayle Rubin is subjected to discipline: her
essay remains committed to a distinction between sex and gender which assumes the discrete and prior ontological reality of a ‘sex’ which is done over in the name of the law, that is, transformed subsequently into ‘gender.’ This narrative of gender acquisition requires a certain temporal ordering of events which assumes that the narrator is in some position to ‘know’ both what is before and after the law. And yet the narration takes places within a language which, strictly speaking, is after the law, the consequence of the law. (74)
All good times. Similarly, “insofar as Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress” (90).

Commentary on Foucault is useful: “he cautions against using the category of sex as a ‘fictitious unity’… and causal principle and argues that the fictitious category of sex facilitates a reversal of causal relations such that ‘sex’ is understood to cause the structure and meaning of desire” (91). He “questions whether the notion of a true sex is necessary” (94). He “engages a reverse-discourse which treats ‘sex’ as an effect rather than an origin” (95). His work exposes “the illusory character of sex as an abiding substantive substrate” (101). All true enough.

Some interesting discussion of chromosome stuff and Fausto-Sterling (106 ff.). The upshot:
The task of distinguishing sex from gender becomes all the more difficult once we understand that gendered meanings frame the hypothesis and the reasoning of those biomedical inquiries that seek to establish ‘sex’ for us as it is prior to those cultural meanings that it acquires. Indeed, the task is even more complicated when we realize that the language of biology participates in other kinds of languages and reproduces that cultural sedimentation in the objects it purports to discover and neutrally describe. (109)
In her analysis of Wittig, author notes quite irresistibly that “‘sex’ imposes an artificial unity on an otherwise discontinuous set of attributes” (114), a “historically contingent epistemic regime” (id.). That last is salient, and suggests the appropriate frame of analysis: Althusser’s theory of the ideological state apparatus--
What are ideological state apparatuses (ISAs)? They must not be confused with the (repressive) state apparatus. Remember that in Marxist theory, the state apparatus contains: the government, the administration, the army, the police, the courts, the prisons, etc., which constitute what I shall in the future call the repressive state apparatuses. Repressive suggests that the state apparatus in question ‘functions by violence’ – at least ultimately […] I shall call ideological state apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions. I propose an empirical list of these which will obviously have to be examined in detail. (Lenin & Philosophy, “Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses at 142-43)
He then lists out various institutions, such as the religious ISA, the educational, the family, the legal, and so on. These institutions “function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they also function secondarily by repression, even if ultimately, but only ultimately, this is very attenuated and concealed, even symbolic” (loc. cit. at 145). The School and the Church accordingly “use suitable methods of punishment, expulsion, selection, etc., to ‘discipline’ not only their shepherds, but also their flocks” (id.). The “ideology by which they function is always in fact united, despite its diversity and contradictions, beneath the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of the ‘ruling class’” (loc. cit. at 146). These institutions “may not only be the stake, but also the site of class struggle” (147). The ruling class “cannot lay down the law in the ISAs as easily as it can in the [RSA], not only because the former ruling classes are able to retain strong positions there for a long time, but also because the resistance of the exploited classes is able to find means and occasions to express itself” (id.). The ultimate aim of ideology: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals [sic] to their real conditions of existence” (162). Ideology functions by means of both illusion of the Imaginary but also allusion to the Real (id.). That is, “What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of real relations which govern the existence of individuals [sic], but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (165).

The purpose, of course, is to maintain class rule; Gramsci drew a distinction between coercion and consensus in his Prison Notebooks, noting that coercive practices are inferior to consensus generation at maintaining control of the unruly demos. Althusser picks that up here with a structuralist's interest and adds some precision. (Gramsci's case illustrates it fairly well; the fascists had imprisoned him and yet he continued to write hardcore marxism, whereas the consciousness production performed by propaganda handed down through schools and press and church were much more effective in making goosesteppers.)

I’d suggest that not only are the principles of primary and secondary differentiation fictions (like viramsata in the RSB), but that are part of complex of concepts (sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on) that form the Sex ISA. We know that the state takes an intense interest in this because it tracks statistics as to sex differentiation and requires this sort of information on government forms in the context of which it is completely irrelevant—especially when we have non-discrimination statutes that render the principle of secondary differentiation unlawful in most public contexts. That is, there is actual anatomical differentiation, say, between a testicle and an ovary. No problem, provided that we can identify the anatomical parcel at issue sufficiently to distinguish it. What power, via the ISA, descends at the point we acknowledge this anatomy differential to compel the unwarranted conclusion that the testicle is attached to a ‘male’ person and the ovary is affixed within a ‘female’ person, especially when transgender persons may dispute the conclusion bodily? Not only is the principle of differentiation unwarranted, but it is entirely needless, as eroticism and reproduction can proceed in the absence of this sort of conceptual complex. In short, the entire world is wrong, and has been for thousands of years. QED.

Recommended for substantive persons who are the bearers of various essential and nonessential attributes, readers with a difficult ontological status, and those who expose the illusory character of sex as an abiding substantive substrate.

my initial capsule review (1* in 2014 or so) based on memory of a 1998 reading: "labor intensive, but that's a virtue, as is the progressive gender theory, which 'solicits' gender in the derridean sense (i.e., the title's 'trouble'). is a bad book, however, insofar as it is probably immaterialist."
Profile Image for misael martins.
203 reviews9 followers
March 18, 2023
[...] as categorias de identidade que muitas vezes se assume serem fundadoras da política feminista, isto é, tidas por necessárias de modo a mobilizar o feminismo como política de identidade, funcionam simultaneamente para limitar e constranger à partida as próprias possibilidades culturais que o feminismo presume abrir. É preciso entender-se os constrangimentos tácitos que produzem o «sexo» culturalmente inteligível enquanto estruturas políticas generativas, em vez de fundamentos naturalizados. [...] A desconstrução da identidade não é a desconstrução da política; pelo contrário, estabelece como políticos os termos por que se articula a identidade. [...] Se as identidades deixassem de ser fixadas como premissas de um silogismo político, e se se deixasse de entender a política como um conjunto de práticas derivadas dos alegados interesses que pertencem a um conjunto de sujeitos já concebidos, emergiria decerto uma nova configuração da política das ruínas da antiga. Poderiam então proliferar configurações culturais do sexo e do género ou, antes, a sua presente proliferação poderia então articular-se dentro dos discursos que estabelecem a vida cultural inteligível, o que confundiria o próprio binarismo do sexo e exporia a sua antinaturalidade de base.
Profile Image for Maksym Karpovets.
329 reviews123 followers
April 8, 2019
Абсолютно фундаментальна й поворотна праця для багатьох студій, зокрема ґендерних, культурної критики, перформативної теорії. Основна теза Батлер проста й водночас провокативна: насправді нема ніякої біологічної статі, а є тільки соціальна, яку ми називаємо ґендером. Критики часто зупиняються на цьому моментові, закидаючи Батлер про надмірне абсолютизування ролі суспільства в контролі над тим, що ми звикли вважати чоловічим і жіночим. Мовляв, культура впливає на нас, але вона не може перебудувати нашу анатомію (насправді може, що доводять сучасні медичні втручання). До того ж, констрування ґендеру неможливе суто із чистого аркушу, бо завжди перебуває в тому чи іншому дискурсі.

Усе ж, Батлер наполягає: усе те, що ми звикли називати чоловічим і жіночим, є соціальними конструктами. Звісно, ніхто не скасовує біологічного тіла й наших органів, але це лише основна для наступних перформативних утворень. Справді, культура починає опрацьовувати наше тіло ще до народження, називаючи та одягаючи його, модифікуючи відповідно до тих чи тих соціальних стандартів. Для Батлер ґендер теж є своєрідним одягом, який "накидає" культура на наші тіла. У цьому вона вбачає панівний, деспотичний характер сучасного суспільства, продовжуючи логіку Мішеля Фуко, де задіяні владні практики контролю та дисциплінування чер��з різні інститути: медицину, армію, школу, повсякдення.

З іншого боку, Батлер далі актуалізує макрсистську теорію, адже переконана, що тіла все ж таки можуть перформативно протистояти біовладі, обираючи власні стратегії життя. Наприклад, жінки можуть не використовувати косметику, протиставляючи індустрії та скасовуючи стандартизований образ жіночого тіла (мій приклад, але він суголосний тому, про що пише авторка). Вже пізніше вона більш ретельно розвине цю думку у ширшому соціальному контексті, убачаючи в революціях і протестах найбільш ефективний спосіб "ламання" влади. Попри це, робота Батлер складна, провокативна, але влучна й навіть футуристична у багатьох повідомленнях, зважаючи на всесилля конс'юмеризму й віртуальності, що посилюють нашу соціальну, ґендерну, політичну ідентичність, залишаючи далеко позаду питання про свободу й вибір.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,989 reviews699 followers
October 31, 2009
OK, so gender is chiefly performative. This seems reasonable. And at the beginning of the book, I was on her side-- hell, "androgyny is a cultural imperative" was a mantra to me in my college days. But I think Butler goes a bit overboard with the idea, attributing a degree of fluidity to gender that seems more prescriptive than descriptive. I agree that mid-century French feminists were more essentialist than they cared to admit, and I'm impressed with the way that Butler cleaned house in regards to theory. The problem arises when she seems to be more interested in generating a radical vocabulary than elucidating an argument. Boooo. Also, the Lacanian section in the middle bordered on unreadable.
Profile Image for Ana Lacuesta.
298 reviews90 followers
September 3, 2018
Es todo sobre lo que alguna vez leí en todos los lugares que visité o leí citas de esta mujer y sus ideas, pero finalmente desde la fuente. No es fácil de leer, cuesta mucho y terminas visitando guías de lectura para que te faciliten lo que dice o quiere decir citando tal o cual autor o situación.
Realmente es muy difícil de leer, pero a quienes les interese leer "la fuente", que se arme de paciencia y lo lea con calma para poder entender lo que quería decir.
70 reviews16 followers
August 24, 2017
Given all the hype that surrounds it, Gender Trouble ended up being a very underwhelming read. Maybe this book hasn’t aged well because this kind of social constructivist argument at this point is pretty passé and honestly completely pointless, but all I found was a not particularly innovative application of basic concepts from French structuralism/post-structuralism onto sex/gender.

But before addressing the arguments themselves, a preliminary comment on the supposed difficulty of Butler’s prose. Although Butler definitely could have written this text in a way that was more accessible, this book is actually incredibly lucid. Despite being constantly told how obscure this book is, this is the easiest piece of “theory” I’ve read all year.

Although lucid, there is no doubt that Butler’s writing is academic and mostly unreadable without knowing the intellectual tradition she’s building on. Most importantly, reading Butler requires a familiarity with French structuralism/post-structuralism – Lacan and Foucault are really key here as the explicit references, but Butler also has an enormous debt to Althusser that is unstated in this text. This is the tradition that is most central to Butler and if you have it down ahead of time, Butler will not only be quite simple, but even banal and not particularly enlightening. In addition, it’s useful (but probably not necessary) to have a basic familiarity with feminist theory (Beauvoir, Irigaray, Wittig), psychoanalysis (Freud and the aforementioned Lacan), and Nietzsche (the Genealogy in particular, but his general project as well). If you get all this under your belt, then Butler becomes an easy breezy read.

I have the suspicion that Butler developed her reputation for difficulty because she’s one of the few academics who has actually broken into the mainstream (for which she should absolutely be congratulated). But more problematic is her audience of upper-middle class college freshman who prioritize “relatability” over developing a solid educational foundation for critical thinking. Too many young students take post-1968 “theory” as the beginning, and the end, of their philosophical education, and thus have no idea how to situate or contextualize the works they’re reading. Often they don’t even know the terminology that authors like employ, rendering these texts literally unreadable. For her popularity outside of the academy and among these kinds of liberal arts students, it’s no wonder she has her reputation of obscurantism. In short, Butler is easy to read if you’re immersed in the world of continental philosophy, but nearly unreadable if you’re outside of it. Hopefully this motivates her to write for a more popular audience in the future, but given that Gender Trouble was written for the academy, I don’t think we have a right to criticize her prose.

But even though I don’t take issue with Butler’s prose, I do have a problem with her defense of her prose. In the preface, she claims that typical notions of grammar institute the kind of subject/predicate relations she’s trying to overcome and other power blah-blah-blahs. While her point about the potential existence of modalities of power in grammar and language is completely accepted, what she and similar authors who use the same defense never explain is how the particular way in which they write is somehow challenging these power structures. Sure, power might exist in grammar, but how the hell is writing in a really obscure way subverting that in any way, shape, or form? I'm not even asking for the claim that they're completely escaping it because one probably can't, but how does obscurantism contain any degree of resistance? Honestly, this defense is almost as lame and unconvincing as Kant’s claim that bad writing is the mark of good philosophy and should be completely rejected.

Now that all the preliminary stuff is out of the way, I can address the real substance of the book. The main point of Butler's argument is that gender does not follow from an original essence of sex, but that sex and gender always exists within a social discourse, which in more precise Lacanian terms is a Symbolic Order. For Butler, genders that we consider unorthodox are actually produced by the very Symbolic Orders that outlaw them. In other words, the taboo that rejects sexualities and genders outside of the usual heterosexual “male” and “female” produces the very genders it rejects. The restrictive Law actually creates the very genders and sexualities that subvert it. This statement that sex and gender always-already exist within social discourse is really the basic thrust of the book.

Even though this statement is the base of the book, the problem is that there isn't a whole lot on top of that base. Although some of Butler's critiques of Beauvoir, Irigaray, and Freud are fairly interesting, most of them boil down to a very tedious repetitive restatement that X author assumes a prediscursive pre-Symbolic gender/sex ontology when there is none. Most of her critiques are summaries followed by this statement – over and over and over again.

While quite useful in analyses of class and race, the typical post-Nietzschean wand wave of denying any prediscursive non-socially constructed ontology doesn't work so effectively in discussions of gender and sexuality. No matter what fancy social theory anyone uses, there is a prediscursive aspect of gender and sexuality and that is biology. I, as a man, have a penis and testicles and more testosterone than the average female. Regardless of what social theory has to say, this will have certain effects on the way I act and constitute a form of difference between me and individuals who do not possess this biological similarity. Whether this form of difference consolidates into an identity is mostly a social discursive question, but the denial of this difference is impossible.

For example, Butler claims: “Pleasure are said to reside in the penis, the vagina, and the breasts or to emanate from them, but such descriptions correspond to a body which has already been constructed or naturalized as gender-specific. In other words, some parts of the body become conceivable foci of pleasure precisely because they correspond to a normative ideal of a gender-specific body.” Really? Sexual pleasure has nothing to do with the nerve cells on the penis or the clitoris? How can someone make this claim without any discussion of the neurological phenomenon of pleasure? This is just one of the examples in which Butler's claims are just ridiculous due to the omission of any biological discussion.

I understand the danger of reifying the biological. But to write off this dimension in a rather irresponsible application of structuralism is theoretically insufficient. Simone de Beauvoir took this problem head-on in The Second Sex by making biology the subject of the book’s first chapter and locating a major source of women’s oppression in the burden of childbearing – a topic she constantly returns to throughout the course of her immense magisterial text.

Although Butler does engage with biology for a whole six pages of this book, most of her argument is just a sociocultural critique of scientific practice. Even though the natural sciences are obviously steeped in certain sexist socially marked practices that mark the interpretation of biological information, that still doesn't mean there is no prediscursive biological object and that this object has no influence on this interpretation. The other part of this brief section is an appeal to a biological study that shows that males with XX chromosomes and females with XY chromosomes exists, troubling the typical biological binary we create. Although this does challenge a black and white view of male/female, it actually reinforces the very binary that Butler seeks to subvert. By claiming that there are cases in between the typical male XY and female XX pairing, this means that these typical cases are the endpoints on a linear continuity. In other words, the claim that there are middling points also means that these points exist on a line that connects two binary poles. Therefore, although Butler uses this research to reject an either/or dualism, these gray zones of exceptional cases still do not escape the logic of binarism and in some ways actually reinforce it.

Her refusal to engage with the biological is all the more problematic given her own refusal of the commonly accepted division of “sex” as biological and “gender” as sociocultural. Butler argues that a notion of a prediscursive natural “sex” is a retroactive construction of the social discourse of gender, meaning that no division between the biological and social can be made. If this division were maintained, then at least she could at least claim that her arguments apply to social gender in a way that is independent from biological sex. But if the distinction between sex and gender is collapsed, then our only recourse is either accepting that there is a prediscursive biological that exists in this new ontological category that doesn't distinguish between sex and gender (Butler claims that she isn't constructing a new ontology, but she unavoidably does), or that there is no prediscursive biological component at all, which is an absurd claim. Butler's theory of gender performativity (which, although unstable, is a new ontology of gender) doesn't allow any room for the influence of the biological. If gender is completely performative and if we can't claim a divide between sex and gender, then we're reduced to the laughable claim that there is no biological outside of performance.

My argument is not one of biological essentialism in that I do not believe that some inner biological essence deterministically and linearly causes a sociocultural gender. But even if the biological is not the central essence, there is no doubt that it has an effect in the constitution of gender and sexuality – an effect that actually does have an existence independent of the social world and cannot be reduced to the Law or discursivity.

The occlusion of the biological from gender studies has immanent consequences for the lives of LGBT individuals and the discussion of the political issues that directly impact their lives. Let's take as an example the committee on Planned Parenthood at the end of 2016. Many women responded that a panel filled with old white dudes had no right to adjudicate on questions of woman's health and a woman's right to her body. However, if we reject the idea of a “woman's body” and a biological difference between men and women, then why can't women complain that men are deciding whether or not they have access to health services specific to women? Although I'm sure other justifications can be formulated, all I'm trying to do here is point out that we have to ensure a theoretical rigor in the way we combat sexism in order to avoid contradicting ourselves.

Refusing to engage with the biological is incredibly dangerous because it leads to things like the contentious divide between transfriendly feminism and transphobic feminism that we see today. The transphobic side often invokes the biological to justify their position. This side argues that trans-women will never experience certain aspects of the feminine experience that cis-women do such as menstruation, childbirth, and the risk of pregnancy, i.e. issues of women's health that constitutes an important site of political struggle for feminism. Because trans-women will never have aspects so fundamental to the feminine experience, these transphobic feminists see them as a threat to their solidarity. Again, not talking about the biological component of sex and gender can never help us bridge this divide.

Unfortunately, I have to cut this discussion of the biological short due to space constraints and move onto the political problem of Butler's argument. Butler's de-ontologization of gendered categories also runs the risk of dissolving the unity that every political movement. It's no wonder that feminists like Germaine Greer take issue with Butler's argument because it threatens the political solidarity that the second-wave feminists worked so hard to build in the 60's and the 70's. Butler explicitly and directly posits this when she speaks of her suspicion of unities and her rejection of the feminist “we.” What we have left is a politics that pokes and prods at the Symbolic Order and sees the sites of struggle as pronouns, drag, semantics, etc. The effectivity of this politics is incredibly limited and cannot pose a real challenge to the objective material structures that perpetuate homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice targeted at LGBT individuals. The problem with this rejection of unities is that it moves us towards a fetishization of marginality. Although we should absolutely always consider the marginalized, politics is ultimately always about power and the marginalized by definition lack power. An atomized approach that tries to fight on the limited level of individual linguistic and cultural practice is bound to fail because it can never acquire the power needed for an effective politics. Although Butler claims that “the point is not to stay marginal,” her rejection of political unities doesn't seem to offer a way out of marginality.

In conclusion, Gender Trouble does have a lot to offer, but it's contributions are outweighed by the dangerous confusions it poses in its omission of the biological and rejection of collective politics. My criticism of Butler is not meant to be sexist, homophobic, or transphobic, but rather to highlight the deeply important theoretical issues that Butler too simply elides here. Without a serious and rigorous engagement with these questions, we cannot develop a politics that offers a real form of power which gives the marginalized the agency and autonomy that has been denied to them. Post-structuralists are all too ready to give up Enlightenment universality, but this universality is the only way that we can create an egalitarian society that accepts all genders and sexualities.

EDIT: A friend has directed me to research that shows that biology is in fact not prediscursive and directly marked by culture. While this means that my claim of a prediscursive biology is wrong, my more fundamental contention is that Butler doesn't seem to give any amount of relative autonomy to biology. Even if this autonomy isn't prediscursive, it nonetheless requires the consideration I argued for above. Therefore, when reading this, take "prediscursive" to mean "autonomous" or "semi-autonomous." Even though I was wrong about prediscursivity, my argument is more or less the same with this slight semantic shift.
133 reviews4 followers
November 8, 2007
It's incredibly difficult to get past Butler's writing style, which is notoriously dense. (We're talking Ghengis Khan levels of "notorious".) Ultimately this makes the reading experience so frustrating that it's hard to appreciate or understand the theory.

I also found Butler's writing to be extremely repetitive. She tends to restate the same concept in a variety of ways, without really doing anything further with it. Ultimately, I think she could benefit from an editor, but many academics seem to think that this all just means she's more brilliant. (Possibly proving, yet again, that academics are really susceptible to costuming.)

Her arguments about gender performativity may be interesting and compelling, but in the year 2006, they're fairly well saturated into the worlds of Gender and Queer Studies. (Although, perhaps not in the world of Women's and Gay & Lesbian Studies.) Given that they weren't all that new or shocking it makes it hard to find reading these texts worth the pain any misery. You could just read Mansfield's Subjectivity for a decent recap.

Having said that, I'm a big fan of the idea of rearticulating performances in order to create change. Again, these probably aren't the newest ideas to folks who've taken rhetoric, marketing, PR, etc., but after reading Butler, I now have some fancy academic buzzwords to throw onto these things.
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