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Judith Butler Elucidates Dangers of Anti-“Gender Ideology” Movement, Doesn’t Sufficiently Answer What To Do About It

It might be unbecoming of me as a critic to admit this, but upon finishing Judith Butler’s new book Who’s Afraid of Gender?, I felt stricken with fear of the shape this review might take. Not because the book is difficult to understand without subsequent rereads and reflection — I’m sure you’ll notice in many other reviews outside of this one that people are praising Butler for the text’s accessibility — but because it can sometimes feel as if a book this urgent and this necessary is beyond the scope of critique and beyond reproach. And the fact that this reality is upheld by the existence of this book, by its ease of accessibility, and by Butler’s thoughtful and compassionate work here only complicates the matter of whether it is successful or not even further.

Butler, who rose to prominence in the early 1990s following the publication of her now seminal book Gender Trouble, uses Who’s Afraid of Gender? to interrogate the anti-“gender ideology” movement, its goals and aspirations, the various characters who push its agenda, and argues that for people in the anti-gender movement, “gender” has become a psychosocial “phantasm with destructive powers […] guided by an inflammatory syntax; that is, a way of ordering the world that absorbs and reproduces anxieties and fears about permeability, precarity, displacement, and replacement, loss of patriarchal power in both the family and state, loss of white supremacy and national purity.”

For anti-“gender ideology” proponents, “gender” collapses a multitude of social issues into one, easy to identify (and scapegoat) issue: the supposed mutability of gender and sex is a destabilizing force that, if left completely unchecked, has the power to destroy our society as we know it. As Butler points out, turning gender into a phantasmic force has given these advocates the ability to argue that “gender ideology” is to blame for a host of issues including, but not limited to, the destruction of the “natural family,” the destruction of a unified nation, and the breakdown of what it means to be a human in relation to other humans. They explain further, “‘Gender’ here is a psychosocial scene, a public way of dreaming, for the past anti-gender proponents seek to restore is a dream, a wish, even a fantasy that will reinstate order grounded in patriarchal authority.” Butler also points out very clearly that the anti-“gender ideology” movement isn’t just an attack on trans and queer people, but also an attack on women more broadly and other marginalized groups who are equally at risk of getting their rights stripped away from them in this “genderless” vision of society.

In order to fully elucidate how we got here and how “gender” has become such a unifying force for people who wish to scapegoat the most pressing issues of our time and strip us of our fundamental rights, Butler takes us through the history of the anti-“gender ideology” movement and the interests of the people and institutions who have worked so hard to create the phantasm of gender in the first place. They use the first half of the book to explore the international, religious, and state-level attacks on trans people, queer people, women, immigrants, and Black people and people of color and, especially, the people who fall into all of these categories at once. In Butler’s view, much of the mainstream anti-“gender ideology” work being done now was incited by the Vatican and Catholic Church in the mid-1990s and has exploded from their original intention of keeping the “natural family” order intact. They explain how the U.S. is not singular in its perpetuation of the phantasm of gender as a catch-all for all of the world’s social and economic problems, and call attention to similar and more widespread attacks happening under Victor Orbán’s conservative government in Hungary, Giorgia Meloni’s neofascist rule in Italy, and Vladimir Putin’s strikes against the European Union (which he, unfortunately, very hysterically calls, “Gayropa). They also provide a compelling study of the Western Evangelical church’s influence on the anti-queer policies that have been put in place in Uganda and Kenya.

From there, Butler sets their sights on the U.S., where they go through the anti-trans and anti-“gender ideology” fervor that has swept through the far-right and the majority of the Republican party in more recent years. These chapters, especially, provide some much-needed context for the larger conversations we’re having about the loss of rights and the loss of bodily autonomy many women and young people are facing in this country right now. Although there is not nearly enough time spent on exploring the connections between the anti-“gender ideology” movement and the anti-”CRT” movement, these chapters and the ones preceding them are the most useful sections in the text in terms of getting down to the material impacts of the policies being pushed forth by these groups. They explain, “The aim of censorship and bans […] is not just to rally the base, but to produce a form of popular support driven by a passion for authoritarian power.” They invoke the examples of the policies being created and implemented in Florida and Texas as proof of this: In the places where people like Ron Desantis and Greg Abbott have become more fervently “anti-gender,” we’ve seen an increased amount of other threats to civil liberties and they’ve been able to capture support for that simply because of their fights against the phantasm of gender.

Throughout these early chapters and in the later chapters on the ever-increasing amount of evidence we’re uncovering about the mutability of sex as well as the impact of colonialism on how we define sex and gender, Butler continuously reminds us that the arguments and agendas pushed forward by the people at the head of this movement are completely devoid of any actual logic. They explain that the complex webs of inconsistencies featured in their rhetorical moves are, in fact, a feature of the movement, not a bug like some seem to erroneously believe. Here, the most obvious fact of why it’s so difficult for us to fight these forces comes alive: We’ll never be able to out-discourse them no matter how hard we try, because they’ve made their arguments impenetrable since they’re not actual arguments at all.

So, my major question upon finishing the text is: Why does Butler spend so much time trying to refute these illogical suppositions in the first place? This problem is most obvious in the chapter on the UK “anti-gender” wars and TERFs, more specifically. Butler spends practically the entire chapter trying to prove how they can’t possibly be feminists if their gender politic is exclusionary, which is true, but doesn’t help us understand how to best fight against the force of their rhetoric and anti-trans “activism.”

Early on, they say our “task is to help produce a world in which we can move and breathe and love without fear of violence, with the radical and unrealistic hope in a world no longer driven by moral sadism as morality.” And obviously, this is an easy enough ideal to agree with. That is our task as human beings and as radical leftists more broadly. But as you move through the text, it becomes less and less clear how Butler thinks we should be doing the work of accomplishing this task. I certainly don’t expect one theorist to hold all of the answers to this. Actually, I don’t even think that’s the purpose of theory overall, but much of what Butler does here complicates and obfuscates some of what we need to be focusing on when we’re thinking about how to reorient these conversations to be more focused on the actual threats on our lives as a collective and, ultimately, stop these attacks on our rights.

Butler does acknowledge some of the very real and sometimes extremely gruesome material impacts of the anti-“gender ideology” movement’s rhetoric and policy making, but overall, the book often feels like less of a defense of the fact that gender and sex are mutable and that we all have a right to live our lives free of violence and more of a defense of the field of gender studies itself. In placing such heavy emphasis on the effect of the anti-“gender ideology” movement — that is, turning gender into a specter with which the movement’s proponents can continually externalize and scapegoat their anxieties about the future — we miss a larger conversation on the fact of its purpose for those in power.

Butler says, “To think of the anti-gender movement as a ‘culture war’ would be mistaken. The movement is clearly responding to economic formations that have left many people radically insecure about their futures, sensing that the conditions of their lives are deteriorating.” And that is true for the people who buy into the anti-“gender ideology” movement’s messaging, but what about the members of the ruling class who are perpetuating their anti-ideology ideology? Butler says the ruling class is trying to use it to “foment hatred” but doesn’t explicitly name the purpose of the fomentation. In fact, there are areas of the text where they seem reluctant to call these powers fascistic in their intent, an odd feature they attempt to reason away by saying we are too quick to call intent fascist in the current moment. I realize that the argument could be made that stating very plainly that the ruling class’s intent is to consolidate power so they continue finding ways to strip us of our rights and expand their rule to every inch of our individual lives. But given that neoliberalism and its rhetorical attacks on our lived realities have made it arduous, at best, and damn near impossible, at worst, to get most people to see what is really happening right in front of them, it feels more imperative than ever to name it and keep naming it. Without a more direct materialist analysis of the function of their intentions, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with Butler’s arguments except ask more questions. And that might be the point, though one would anticipate a book as urgent and necessary as this one might leave us with something a little more concrete to carry forward with us.

I will admit it is possible my own biases are breeding frustrations with this text that others might not experience. As a queer and trans organizer and educator in Florida who has not only had a front-row seat to the destructive policies Butler examines in the book but who has also had attacks by far-right parent groups and my own school administration launched against me and my curriculum, the impacts of this movement go far beyond the dialectical for me. And I think it should for everyone.

Butler concludes the text with a somewhat opaque call to action: “Releasing radical democratic potentials from our own expanding alliances can show we are on the side of a livable life, love, and freedom, making those ideals so compelling that no one can look away, making desire desirable again in such a way that people want to live, and want others to live, in the world we envision, where gender and desire belong to what we mean by freedom and equality.” Again, an easy enough ideal to agree with, and one that is perhaps an attempt to infuse hope into what feels like an ever-expanding, all-encompassing, rather demoralizing attack on the future of humanity. In that way, Who’s Afraid of Gender? is a welcome salve in the face of everything we’re up against. I just think we need a little more than that.

Who’s Afraid of Gender by Judith Butler is out now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.


  1. What’s Autostraddle’s answer then? Because lately all this publication seems to do is criticise other people.

    Butler is a philosopher and academic, not a sociologist or politician. What to do about transphobia is *literally* not their job. Despite that they’ve been active in LGBTQ, feminist & anti-war movements for decades.

    So maybe instead of going after one of the very few academics coherently – and bravely, at personal cost – refuting the specious arguments of the dangerous TERF movement, y’all could focus on practical activism tips.

    If you and Autostraddle think we ‘need more’ than an intelligent, accessible book refuting the anti-trans movement, *do it*, rather than going after a ground breaking non binary academic.

    God. If Judith Butler isn’t doing enough, what can any of us do?

    • I don’t know, I didn’t read this review as intensely critical of Judith Butler.

      I relate to the disappointment and frustration Stef is expressing here; in the current socio-political moment, I’ve noticed myself getting excited and then feeling let down when thinkers I respect and admire don’t hit the nail on the head, or meet the moment with what I think it needs. Everything is incredibly dire, and missing the mark with one’s message feels devastating.

      I don’t think it’s unfair of Stef to write about their feelings on this, especially given how much of a boon Gender Trouble has been to our collective understanding of gender. A feeling of deflation and dissatisfaction makes total sense in this context, where a work doesn’t meet the moment or meet expectations, as well as another once did. I also think Stef is incredibly upfront about how their own experiences are likely influencing their perspective on the work.

      Your challenge to Autostraddle is equally fair, though–ironically, this review left me with a similar feeling of aimlessness to what Stef describes after reading Who’s Afraid of Gender! Who says the review couldn’t respond radically with the author’s thoughts *and* a gesture to concrete steps forward. That goes beyond the scope of a retrospective on a piece of literature, but *is* a form of energizing and creative journalism that I think is worth exploring in this tough period.

      Anyway, that’s all I’ve got here. Yammering over.

      • All fair points. My comment is influenced by my general frustration with Autostraddle at present. Every review seems to be negative, every editorial seems to be hopeless and I feel like there could be a lot more focus on things they like and enjoy.

        There’s just no point in every cop show review being about anti-carceral politics, or complaining that the gangster drama featured a lot of violence. There are plenty of other shows to review.

        I’m at the point where reading Autostraddle just makes me frustrated and angry. Maybe it’s just time for me to move on.

  2. “Why does Butler spend so much time trying to refute these illogical suppositions in the first place?”

    Because people believe they are true.

    Also. I respect and admire teachers, and I know Florida is brutal right now. But I would argue that as a lifelong and current activist, a non binary academic in the public eye, and a person who has been fighting this fight for decades, Judith Butler has experienced more ‘attacks’ in her 68 years than you have.

  3. Although others are quite down on this review, it’s made me want to read the book.
    I imagine that Judith Butler went into a deep dive on what Stef saw as basic points because as a person in their exact position JB thinks that readers won’t come to the text with this background, which is unfortunate and sad, but also maybe they are being pragmatic here.

    • I would even add to this that I don’t necessarily even think it’s unfortunate or sad that many readers are coming in with a different education around or understanding of gender, it’s just a fact of the vastness of the overlapping cultural spaces people exist in.

      I haven’t read “Who’s Afraid of Gender?” yet (I’m currently #34 on my library’s hold list) and I’m in Canada (and specifically in Southern Ontario), so the political immediacy isn’t as strong here as it would be in Western Canada (never mind Florida, Hungary, Uganda, etc), but I can absolutely see a market for a somewhat more “popular” or basic take that explains what’s going on in more theoretical terms over in academic gender philosophy.

      For example, I work with a very progressive-leaning charity (dealing with food insecurity among newcomers) where that I lead a volunteer team made up largely of folks in their 50s and 60s, with a diverse set of languages and heritages. And these are people who I suspect (not having read the book yet myself) would do well with this kind of information.

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