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Playing With Gender: Judith Butler and Gender Performativity

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In Judith Butler‘s essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” she writes of her experience preparing to present at the 1989 Conference on Homosexuality at Yale University:

[…] I found myself telling my friends beforehand that I was off to Yale to be a lesbian, which of course didn’t mean that I wasn’t one before, but that somehow then, as I spoke in that context, I was one in some more thorough and totalizing way, at least for the time being.

This is a particularly insightful observation as it reflects a rather important aspect of Butler’s argument regarding the performativity of gender. For Butler, sexuality itself is an unstable construct. Her confusion over her self-identification here is comical, but also very representative of the nature of gender relations. The statement that she is going to Yale “to be a lesbian” is humorous to be sure, but the idea itself is quite rich for dissection. “To be a lesbian” is to play repeatedly the performative role of the lesbian as prescribed by heteronormative values: “it is through the repeated play of this sexuality that the ‘I’ is insistently reconstituted as a lesbian ‘I’.”

By positioning herself socially as a lesbian within the context of the conference, Butler “becomes” a lesbian. This public manifestation of identity is often what forms private identity. In this age of disclosure, the concept of the personal as political can also be extended to that of the personal as public.

This is not to say that Butler had not previously identified as a lesbian or that she had not previously experienced same-sex desire, but rather that the identity of “lesbian” is one she assumes through the performative act of “being” a lesbian. When she does her laundry or washes the dishes, does she remain a lesbian, or does she only become one when she dons the mantle of “lesbian”? One might argue that being a lesbian is an essential characteristic of one’s sexuality, but Butler seems to view lesbianism – and all sexuality – as a set of social constructs that are acknowledged and represented, generally unknowingly (“second nature”), through performative acts of gender. Thus, only through certain acts is one defined as a lesbian.

But where does this social construction of the lesbian originate? According to Butler, the argument “…that there might be a specificity to lesbian sexuality has seemed a necessary counterpoint to the claim that lesbian sexuality is just heterosexuality once removed, or that it is derived, or that it doesn’t exist.” These notions are not necessarily contradictory to her belief in sexuality as a construct. This specific lesbian sexuality that she identifies can exist as a “copy” or “derivative” as long as one acknowledges the notion that all sexuality is essentially a “copy” without an original.

This constructionist viewpoint leaves the commonly held convictions regarding sexuality and gender in a rather tenuous and undefined (and undefinable) state. Butler’s argument effectively demolishes any essentialist notion of sexuality. While some gay and lesbian activists might see this belief as undermining the foundations of their activism, Butler’s ideas accomplish the same goals in theory that activism accomplishes through praxis, although Butler’s ideas are inherently far more radical. While gay and lesbian activists seek to bring social equality to homosexuals, Butler’s constructionism attempts to philosophically erode the power of heterosexuality (and homosexuality with it) and reduce every participant to a level playing field. What makes Butler’s argument more revolutionary is that her theories rob heteronormativity of its normative power. The very nature of the homosexual identity as a site of resistance only exists with the implicit acknowledgement that heterosexuality is a naturally dominant norm.

One can look back towards the Homophile movement of the early-to-mid-twentieth century as an example of this denial of “true” identity. These early gay and lesbian activists saw homosexuality as a pitiable condition – an inversion of the heterosexual norm – and demanded sympathy. Even current LGBT-activism centered around gay marriage silently acknowledged the subordinate and imitative role that homosexuals must play in society. The demand for “equal treatment under the law” carries with it the hidden implication of an essential difference. Arguing that homosexuals should be treated like heterosexuals does little to eradicate the existing constructs of “reality” that construct heterosexual and homosexual as separate and opposed identities.

To return to the core of Butler’s argument as presented here, we must look again at her concept of “repeated play.” In order to establish one’s sexuality, there must be a constant reaffirmation of sexual identity. For a heterosexual, this is extraordinarily simple. This is not to say that maintaining a heterosexual identity requires less imitation and play than maintaining a homosexual one, but rather that the performative actions required in establishing a heterosexual identity are far more “socially acceptable” than those required in establishing the “opposite.” Society is entirely constructed around this principle of heteronormativity; thusly, heterosexual play is never recognized as such. Homosexual play, on the other hand, does not fall in line with heteronormative society. The play required of the homosexual identity does not correlate with what is expected by society. When Butler presents at the Conference on Homosexuality, she does so as a lesbian. This identity, because it does not subscribe to the heteronormative strictures of society, immediately supersedes all other identity. While a heterosexual scholar may be seen as a scholar and nothing else, a lesbian scholar is a lesbian first and a scholar second.

As a straight-identified male, it can be very hard to accept Butler’s thesis. The deeper one looks, however, the deeper one finds constructions of heterosexuality. Each and every individual is practicing various psychologically inscribed roles dictated by society. Simply by the amount of discourse surrounding heterosexuality, one could argue that straight identity is perhaps an even more specific construct than gay or lesbian identity, and it is certainly more specific than the nebulous label (or non-label) of queer. The only reason homosexual identity need exist is because heterosexual identity had been established as an opposing – albeit dominant – force.

If all sexuality is simply performative, however, can we ever find the “original”? Butler recognizes the complexity of this problem. She hypothesizes that “the very categories of sex […] are produced and maintained in the effects of this compulsory performance,” yet also recognizes the difficulty in “[exposing] the causal lines as retrospectively and performatively produced fabrications.” To borrow a bit of logic from Thomas Aquinas, every effect requires a cause. If the distinctions of sex and sexuality are the effects of “compulsory performance,” then what is the cause of the performance itself? Why is there this seemingly innate cultural desire to categorize and label our sexualities? That the importance of maintaining heteronormative values is based on a fear of subversion from the homosexual Other may be offered as an explanation, but even this can only be a proximate cause. This homophobia (or heterosexism) could not have sprung into existence spontaneously; some causal relationship is still required.

If Butler is correct and all gender roles are performative identities created as an effect of “compulsory performance,” there must be some ideal and pure original, free of society’s imprint. But is such an original traceable? There must be a hypothetical “base” upon which the human psyche is constructed, but is it possible to strip away the layers of construction and conditioning and explore this “original” psyche? With gender and sexuality as the most prevalent factors in nearly all social relations, we have allowed these performative roles to establish the basic structure of human society. If Butler’s theory of performativity and construction is correct, which I believe that it is, the implications are immeasurable. Once we have deconstructed the whole of human sexuality, what shall remain?

This article (among others) also appears at Les Faits de la Fiction.

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About Bryan McKay

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    I think Butler is entirely correct about the performative nature of sexuality. My favourite example (best used with a group of Western rugby players after they’ve had a couple of drinks) is to explain how in (at least traditional) Arab cultures, “homosexuality” is a label only for men who take the “passive” role in male-on-male sexual contact. The “active” male is not defined as “homosexual”, simply as being a “normal, red-blooded male”.

    Sexuality without a social context? Well I don’t think that is possible, since usually, as they say, it takes two to tango, and there’s your society.

  • http://bryanmckay.com/blog Bryan McKay

    Very good point, Natalie. I believe the same is true in many Latin American societies. I remember reading Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir Before Night Falls last year and being struck by the fact that Arenas – a homosexual – often had sexual relations with “straight” men. The fact that he was always the “passive” partner made him “homosexual,” whereas the behavior of the “active” partner was (more or less) socially acceptable.

  • Sarah Ober

    Such a great article. Thank you!!!