Tristan Potter

Judith Butler – Gender as a performance

Nov 27th, 2020

This post was originally published on Apr 6th, 2018 as part of a larger work titled “Gender: Flip the script”

The idea that gender isn’t tied to a persons biology is becoming more widely accepted in society. This was first postulated by French philosopher Simone De Beauvoir in her work “The Second Sex”. Building off of the work done by Beauvoir, Judith Butler1 expands this into the theory that gender is a flexible and changing expression of the self, instead of a stable identity.

An ongoing performance

In her model, our experience of gender as a fixed trait is an illusion produced by repeating actions.

gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.

(Butler, Gender trouble: Subjects of sex/gender/desire, pp214)

For example, a man might identify as “manly” which he believes leads him to do traditionally masculine things. Butler suggests that the reverse is true; it’s the repeated manly actions (and the expectations of others that he act manly) that gives him the sense he is a man.

Regulating ourselves

Discrete genders are part of what “humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right.

(Butler, Gender trouble: Subjects of sex/gender/desire, pp213)

We use and regulate our bodies to convey our gender (among other things). In this way, our bodies are a medium: a channel (or mode) of communication and artistic expression. This medium is regulated politically and socially.

Our bodies are politically regulated by the rules enforced by the state, for example (non-exhaustive):

Our bodies are socially regulated by the retribution we endure and expect from other civilians. This includes harrassment, assault, bullying, etc for (non-exhaustive):

In Western society, we enforce the gender binary regularly, often ridiculing or violently subduing/disciplining people who don’t conform to societies expectations of man/woman. One doesn’t need to look far to see this; men who act too feminine are often ridiculed and attacked, as are women who act too masculine.2

“Natural” gender

Since it is essential to our safety and position in society, the performance of gender must be consistent and repeated. Through self-surveillance3, we enforce the consistency and apparent naturalism4 (biological-ness) of our gender.

Gender is […] a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions — and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction “compels” our belief in its necessity and naturalness.

(Butler, Gender trouble: Subjects of sex/gender/desire, pp213)

The public enforcement of gender, combined with the conscious and unconscious self-policing of our gender expressions leads to the regular, rigid, and predictable expressions of “maleness” and “femaleness” that makes gender seem biological, or as Butler often says, ‘essential’.5

In this way, the perception of a concrete and objective gender reality is created by:

  1. the constructed story of gender that we perform, combined with
  2. the ways that it is naturalized4 and enforced by those around us.

In a nutshell

Butler argues that gender is a changing expression of self, instead of being a stable part of someone identity. It is a performance that we use to communicate with the people around us (i.e. the construction of gender), and we use our bodies (which are a politically and socially regulated medium) as the essential prop to convey our gender.

If we are “bad at gender” we are punished and policed by ourselves and others to fulfil the gendered expectations of Western society. Avoiding this punishment causes gender to be a repeated performance that creates predictable expressions of gender that appear biological (or “essential”). These everyday forms of gender expression position us (by ourselves and others) in the Western gender hierarchy.

More reading

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.

Thank you to Sam Yoon, Eli Lee, and Brigitte Dreger for providing early feedback.

  1. Butler is a Fellow of the British Academy and a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. 

  2. A some-what continuous example of this is the outrage from main-stream media whenever a popular masculine figure wears a dress. A recent example is the cover of Vogue that features Harry Styles wearing a white dress. More extremely, the victimization rates for sexual and gender minorities are also much higher than the general population. 

  3. Self surveillance is the act of monitoring and adjusting our own behaviour due to the possibility that another person might be watching.

    This is demonstrated in the architectural design of the Panopticon, which can be used as a metaphor for the self-consciousness of our current society. 

  4. Naturalism in this case is referring to metaphysical naturalism, which is the argument that a trait “related to consciousness and the mind are reducible to, or supervene upon, nature.”

    In this case we are making a distinction between a biological trait and a sociological one.  2

  5. Sometimes, the term “born this way” is used as an argument for people’s rights. This is ultimately a mistake. Instead of basing rights on whether something is “natural,” we should listen and do our best to understand each other – regardless of our ability to explain or relate to those experiences within our own personal realities.