American philosopher Judith Butler is professor of comparative literature and rhetoric at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. Butler has written more than ten books about gender, identity and power. Her gender theories have had a huge impact on the development of feminism.
Butler, who is considered one of the most influential political voices, is also an activist who supports the LGBT movement and her work has contributed to the creation of queer theory.
Her first and best-known work, Gender Trouble (1990), revolves around the assumption that gender is not innate, but socially constructed. According to the philosopher, gender is performative, which means it is created through language. Although our gender identity can differ from our biological sex, for most people these two are the same.
Judith Butler has denounced traditional notions of gender that perpetuate the domination of women by men and the oppression of homosexuals and transgenders. In a lecture to a group of international high school students, Butler explained how gender is created through what she calls “performativity”, the difference between sex and gender, and all the implications this can have on one’s life.
Judith Butler (American accent): What does that tell us? It tells us that in the beginning of your life none of us come into the world as persons, as simple persons. You’re not a little infant person. You only become a person, you become recognizable as a person, you can be addressed as a person once your sex is assigned. So the sex assignment makes you into an understandable person. “Oh, what is it? Is it a boy, is it a girl?” Otherwise, we don’t know. And if it’s not quite a boy or not quite a girl, or if you have ambiguous genitalia, let’s say you’re intersex, then, in fact doctors are not always able to answer that question.
Butler points out that when our sex is assigned to us we receive a whole set of expectations of what our lives will be like.
Judith Butler: When you’re assigned a sex something is communicated to you, a certain set of expectations about what your life will be like. “Oh, it’s a girl. Great! Let’s put a certain colour on the girl. Let’s imagine the future of the girl.” There are gendered assumptions about marriage and job, all of those. And these are social. They don’t come from whatever biological facts characterize your body. Let’s say that that’s your sex, okay? And when we assign sex we’re simply naming a biological difference that for the most part holds although there are many exceptions.
And she goes on to clarify the difference between our biological sex and our gender, which is imposed on us by society.
Judith Butler: But the minute we start imagining the social life of the person, that is to say, your life in society, we’re talking about your gender. Because gender can be defined as the social meanings that sex assumes in a life. It’s one thing to be born with certain primary sexual characteristics, but that doesn’t say who you’re going to love, it doesn’t say what you’re going to look like, it doesn’t even say anything about how you will feel about having that body. And neither will it tell you anything about whether you will be married or what kind of job you will have, or whether you will want to stay with that sex assignment.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
Although no one actually embodies the ideal of a woman or a man, such notions can have a big impact on how we imagine and then live our lives. For that reason, Butler says, we need freedom to explore different options.
Judith Butler: Because we are always assigned a sex by others and their expectations also come through that assignment, so people are imagining our future way in advance of our being able to imagine our own future. Somebody else is imagining your gendered life way in advance of you being able to imagine your own gendered life. So as one moves into adolescence, as one moves into one’s own life, you see that there are more choices that you have.
While many people do feel to feel at ease with their gender, she says, others do not accept it or even suffer from it.
Judith Butler: And that suffering can take different forms. Sometimes it’s simple ambivalence, “I want to be accepted. I want to look a certain way. I don’t want people to see another side of me that doesn’t really conform with being a girl, or doesn’t really conform with being a boy, so I have to suppress that side of me in order to be acceptable.” And sometimes the entire idea of being a girl is not okay, and one really wants to change. One wants to be free to choose another sex assignment. You can go to the law, you can make a petition. So this is a complex terrain. And I wonder whether, as we think about it and we think about homophobia and transphobia, we think about the kinds of insults, of discrimination and violence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, non-gender conforming and trans people receive in this world. What are the roots of that violence and how can we combat [it]?
THE NEED TO REDEFINE
According to Butler we need to challenge power and redefine gendered roles.
Judith Butler: I think there are some profound fears about feminism. I think some men fear feminism because they think that women will take their place at work, or that women will cease to be feminine, women will cease to want to please them, women will cease to be subordinate in the household, so they want women to be distinctively feminine but they also want them to be distinctively subordinate. And they like that organization of life and they fear equality for many reasons but mainly because it would mean a loss of dominance. And unfortunately, many people, men and women, prefer dominance rather than equality. And for some women they prefer subordination rather than equality. I mean, what surprises me more are the women who don’t like feminism, who think that they will be pushed into work, or lose their femininity, or that the traditional household will fall apart in ways that they don’t want to happen, or that they will become somehow unattractive but in fact that’s not true. I mean, you could still be in a traditional household, you could still be a very, very feminine woman, and you could be a feminist who believes in the equality of the sexes and equal pay for equal work. That’s not a contradiction, people imagine that it is, but it’s actuallynot.