Judith Butler 101: One Is Not Born a Queer Theorist, One Becomes One

Ladies and otherwise identifying persons, today I would like to talk to you about Judith Butler.

Sweet mother of pearl WHY, you ask? Because she is THE hero/ine of difficult-to-understand contemporary critical gender theory, and therefore VERY IMPORTANT to the radical lesbian feminist agenda and also to impressing that cute girl with the alternative lifestyle haircut who is always talking about the patriarchy. Also, she’s a lesbian, and there is a rule that says lesbians must always care about other lesbians. Here at Autostraddle, we are all about Lesbian Feminist Revolution and also impressing cute girls, so we want to help.

Chances are that you have heard of Judith Butler. Maybe you saw that she was included in the epic list of books to fulfill your feminist desires. Maybe you saw that she recently (and badassedly) turned down an award for Civic Courage at Berlin Pride saying that it should go instead to local feminist and queer organizations that promote anti-racism. Maybe, like me, you had a total nerdgasm over the description of Judith Butler as “the MacGuyver of queer theory.” Maybe you do/did feminism/women’s/womyn’s/gender/queer studies in college and enjoy arguing with strangers who try to hit on you about gender theory. If this is the case, we should probs hang out, just sayin’.

So here is the thing about Judith Butler: she is incredibly hard to read. Maybe you saw Gender Trouble on the Feminist Reading List and thought to yourself, “I find gender troubling, so I should obviously read this” and then you opened it up and were confronted with sentences like the following one:

Juridical notions of power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms – that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, control and even ‘protection’ of individuals related to that political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice.

That kind of a sentence probably gave you some feelings, and in this YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I am a bigtime Butler fangirl, and I don’t find the experience of reading her particularly pleasurable. I alternate between being amazed/challenged by her ideas and wanting to throw the book at the wall.

So why do people bother to slog through it? Because Judith Butler’s ideas REVOLUTIONIZED the way we understand sex and gender. Gender Trouble was published in 1990, and all critical theory regarding gender since then has taken it into account.

So, what’s the big screaming deal? Performativity, my friend. Butler argues that there is no “prior truth.” It’s the repeated performance of gender which actually constructs the physical condition of sex while simultaneously hiding that construction. I know, I know, not that straightforward, but bear with me and I’ll try my best to explain.

To start, we’ll need to go right back to the basics, which means definitions:

SEX: the reproductive, chromosomal and hormonal organs and processes that place a body in the categories of male, female or intersex.

GENDER: the set of processes and practices that shape our understanding of sexed bodies; the way a sexed body becomes socially intelligible, that is, a “man” or a “woman,” “masculine” or “feminine.”

Whereas “sex” means having a particular kind of body that falls into one of two categories, male or female, “gender” is the way sex gains social meaning – the behaviors and processes that define someone as a man or a woman or somewhere in between. Implicit in these definitions of “man” and “woman” is the idea that society’s dominant understanding of masculinity and femininity is the normal and natural way for particular bodies to play out gender based on their sex.

Being male or female inevitably leads to the expression of a SPECIFIC KIND of “manliness” or “womanliness” – you know, “boys will be boys”? And it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that these rigid understandings of masculinity and femininity don’t really fit everyone so perfectly. Everybody knows girls look HOT in menswear.

I know this is probably old hat for many of you, but language is SUPER IMPORTANT to Butler’s theories so we all need to be on the same page. Butler is heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault (author of History of Sexuality) and other post-structuralist philosophers who argue that language is more than just a medium through which we understand the world; the world we understand through language is actually CREATED by the process of describing it in language. In other words, reality is discursively constructed, and there is no prediscursive reality – that is, there is no “reality” outside of its construction in language.

In Gender Trouble, Butler challenges dominant understandings of the relationship between sex and gender that view gender as naturally emerging from a sexed body. She argues that sex is always already a gendered category:

“Gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established.”

Gender, she argues, is the lens through which we understand the body. Our ideas that link penis with male and vagina with female are already gendered – they’re part of a binary system that divides human bodies into two distinct types of beings. We can’t, Butler argues, understand or relate to our human bodies outside of the central system of gender; therefore, bodily sex cannot exist prior to gender, as sex must be gendered in order for us to understand it.

Butler argues that since gender is a social construct and not a natural part of existence – and since we understand biological sex in terms of gender (male and female genitalia, for instance) – biological sex isn’t “real” either, at least not in the way we usually assume it is. Like gender, sex only exists as something that we create through language.

Is your brain hurting yet? Have a look at this cute kitten and process for a minute:

Okay! Let us continue along the path to brain explosion (the good kind, I promise).

So! If sex is always gendered and therefore can’t exist prior to gender, then it has to exist concurrent with or after gender – those are the only options left.

Butler argues that gender structures and creates the notion of biological sex, but how does it do this, exactly? Through a  process that Butler calls “performativity“: a repeated series of acts, words, and discourses that create and define the notions of masculinity and femininity.

Gender is not something you are, it is something you do.

In Butler’s words,“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.” The repeated performance of gendered expectations – everything from little things like the way you sit or walk to highly gendered practices like breastfeeding  – cements these expectations as “normal.”

It’s this repetition that actually constructs the idea that gender is something you are: I am a woman, therefore I walk a certain way. Butler wants you to turn that on its head: I walk a certain way, therefore I am a woman.

It’s not quite as clear-cut as that, though. We’re exposed to gendered performance practically from birth, so it’s very difficult to exist in this world without adhering to some kind of gendered expectations. I’m a big Judith Butler fan, and I believe her argument, but it doesn’t change my understanding of myself as a woman; gendered identity is so structuring that I don’t know if it can ever be totally escaped. I certainly don’t think that I can escape it, even though I understand “woman” to be a social construct much like “homecoming queen” or “Jersey Shore.”

Let’s recap for a second, shall we? According to Butler,

1. Sex does not exist outside of gender. Our understanding of the sexed body is created by gendered language and expectations that separate bodies into two categories, male and female.

2. Gender is “performative.” “Masculinity” and “femininity” are actually constructed by the way we play out those terms with our own bodies. Gender itself doesn’t create the performance; it’s the performance that creates gender. In other words, “gender is an imitation for which there is no original.”

photo by arfism

Butler takes these notions a step further and argues that the ways that we perform gender “create the illusion of an interior and organising gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality.”

In English, this means that the repeated performance of gender allows the sexed body to be understood within the framework of gendered expectations, while simultaneously creating the notion that sex is the basis for gender, and that our differently shaped bodies inevitably lead us to perform particular expressions of femininity or masculinity.

And THAT, my friends, is performativity! Round of applause for JB!

But before we go, we need to talk about the magical world of drag! Judith Butler thinks drag is awesome and that we should all get our drag on. Seriously! Drag is a great example of what Butler talks about, because it involves a dislocation between anatomical sex, gender identity and gender performance. She argues that drag “reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as it’s contingency.”

Drag contests the system of gender through consciously subversive performances of it, using the techniques of parody and pastiche to challenge the dominant notions of identity that structure our society.

So start queering gender in your everyday lives! Judith Butler says so! You’ll be helping to dismantle the patriarchy AND challenge heteronormative gender ideals. And doesn’t that sound like FUN?

(It is.)

Has your brain exploded? Are you hungry for more? You can buy Gender Trouble as well as her follow up, Bodies that Matter. If that’s not enough light reading for you, check out Foucault’s History of Sexuality as well!

Julia has written 4 articles for us.


  1. What a great translation of Butler! Needed this in first-year women’s studies. I’m curious to see what your opinions are on JB’s inaccessibility? The fact that we NEED a translation. Shouldn’t feminist theorists, in an attempt to liberate us from all sorts of oppression, make their books understandable to the average joe (re: non-academic, professorial types).Just my musings and I’m glad my love/hate relationship with JB isn’t just me. BTW – during my grad studies we affectionately called her “Judy” when referring to her impenetrable texts.

  2. Pingback: You are what you do | Creative Philo

  3. I think I need a whole course just to understand her; I was also flummoxed by the dense prose.

    Just wanted to add one thing: I think any post which discusses “Performing Gender” really needs to at least mention the pioneering 1987 article “Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman (http://gas.sagepub.com/content/1/2/125) where they claim that gender is something that people “do” rather than something they are.

  4. Thank you very much for making this much easier version of Butler’s gender theory of performativity. I was reading some Butler’s work which became the main source for my undergraduate thesis on queer theory which earned me bachelor’s degree last June 2014 and now I am teaching one session on the feminism class about Butler. I can definitely link this source for them to learn.

  5. The theory of discursive/linguistics based construction of reality as the underpinning of JB s gender performance, omits the inputs derived from the non linguistic conscious perception of our own physical/biological structure, as created through genetic/epigenetic mechanisms any role in the process of forming our reality.

    I think her theory is likely to be either surpassed or integrated into a more complete theory of gender as future better knowledge of the role of consciousness and perception in all aspects of our understanding of reality emerges.

    The lack of our ability to understand how perception works (what creates the difference between a burning sensation and an ache anyway? Do those sensations change as we learn more language?) leads us to too much separation between mind and body in our theories of psychology. To ignore that connection imperils any psychological theory.

    Does anybody think animals without Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition tool evolve without an innate sense of gender or are born a tabula rasa?

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  7. Pingback: Judith Butler: A Post-Structuralist Public Intellectual – An Exploration into Isa’s Thoughts

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