Judith Butler (1956—present) is an American academic and activist, who has made considerable contributions to philosophy, literature, gender and feminist studies.  

She is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley and holds the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School in Sass Fee, Switzerland.

Although Butler has an impressive number of publications to her name, she is best known for her book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1989; 1990).

Gender Trouble

Gender Trouble explores the traditional understandings of sex and gender in feminist theory. Butler argues against the view that gender is based on (or follows from) our biology, claiming instead that gender is produced by performance – that we construct gender by behaving and expressing ourselves in certain ways.

This “gender performativity” has been interpreted in different ways. Some have taken performativity to mean that gender is determined by society and therefore completely outside of the individual’s control (i.e., you are the gender you have been assigned).

Others have understood performativity to mean that gender can be chosen or changed at will, since it has no biological basis. Members of the trans community have critiqued this understanding, saying that conceiving of gender as something that can be changed voluntarily makes it seem superficial or fake and risks undermining how important someone’s gender identity can be to their sense of self.

More recently, Butler has clarified her own understanding of gender performativity, stating:

“We are formed through gender assignment, gender norms and expectations. But we’re not trapped. We can work and play with them [and] open-up spaces that feel better for us or more real for us.”

Butler’s understanding of gender performativity lies somewhere in between the two previous views. For Butler, gender is not something that is fixed by society and unalterable on an individual level, but it is also not something superficial that can be changed like a piece of clothing. Instead, gender is created through sustained practices that make gender appear as though it’s something natural or internal to us, but really these practices are influenced and regulated by society and culture. By recognising this, Butler says, we can collectively start to change gender norms so that we can each find a way to live more authentically.

Though the term ‘non-binary’ did not exist at the time Butler published Gender Trouble, in recent years Butler has changed her legal gender to non-binary and uses she/they pronouns.

After Gender Trouble

Gender Trouble had a profound influence over the development of feminist theory and is widely considered to be one of the founding texts of queer theory. Since its publication in 1989, Gender Trouble has been translated into 27 languages and has become a staple text for feminist and gender studies courses all over the world.

As a result, Butler has achieved a fame that transcends the academic community – and it hasn’t always been positive.

For some people, Butler’s views are considered dangerous or threatening to the traditional way of life. In 2017, evangelical Christian protestors burnt an effigy of Butler outside an academic conference she was attending in Brazil, while chanting “take your ideology to hell.”

Despite this, Butler continues to write and speak about gender, feminist and queer issues and is active in the resistance against the anti-gender movement – an international movement that opposes gender equality, LGBTQIA+ rights and sexual and reproductive freedoms.

Butler has, for many years, been a vocal advocate for the rights of marginalised people and has been active in anti-war and anti-racism movements.

Her most recent book, The Force of Non-violence: An Ethico-Political Bind (2020), argues that social inequality cannot be separated from our understanding of violence. For Butler, violence is not just swinging fists and wielding weapons. Violence is any action (or inaction) that harms another – including public policies and institutional practices that create social inequalities.

In response to this kind of violence, Butler advocates nonviolence. Importantly, however, Butler does not understand nonviolence as something passive. Nonviolence requires an aggressive commitment to radical equality and an “opposition to biopolitical forms of racism and war logics that regularly distinguish lives worth safeguarding from those that are not.”

Butler wants us to recognise that we are all in this together and build a world that is reflective of this – a world that is committed to radical equality.

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Is gender performative?