Gender Trouble Summary

Judith Butler

Gender Trouble

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Gender Trouble Summary

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Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is a 1990 book of gender theory by American philosopher Judith Butler. Butler argues that gender is essentially an improvised performance, forcing both women and men to inhabit roles, and display affectations, and behavior patterns deemed to be appropriate for their gender by society. Butler argues that women are often forced to sublimate their identity and their personal interests in service of appearing appropriately “feminine”. Exploring themes including sexism, what it means to be a woman, and ways to break down the societal stigma towards women who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, Gender Trouble is one of the most influential modern contributions to gender theory and queer theory. It became very influential both inside and outside of traditional academic circles, and it is still frequently assigned as college reading in women’s studies courses. Following its release, it inspired an intellectual fan magazine titled Judy! It was released in a second, expanded volume in 1999.

Gender Trouble opens with Butler’s observation that many feminists have come around to defending the idea of a concrete feminine identity because they believe it’s important for the advancement of women. After all, without a clear conception of what a woman is, there would be no foundation for feminist identity politics. However, Butler states that postmodern theory provides many reasons to query the idea of concrete identities and conceptual boundaries. Thus, the central question of Gender Trouble is whether feminist identity politics can survive without a clear feminine identity. In her attempt to answer this question, Butler explores the construction of feminine identity. The book is divided into three chapters, each serving as a gradual critique of the idea that the feminine identity must have a concrete form.

Chapter one is titled “The Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire”. It begins by reviewing the argument that “Women”,as a strictly defined category, are not the proper subject of feminism. Rather, Butler argues, feminism doesn’t have a concrete subject. This leads Butler to look into the relationship between sex and gender. Most individuals are born “sexed”and are assigned a gender by way of their biological sex, but Butler believes that doesn’t necessarily provide a full picture of the person’s identity. She argues that while gender is partly connected to sex, there is far more to a person’s identity than that. She argues against a strict binary association between sex and gender, as well as between gender types. If gender identity is complex, especially in its relation to sex, Butler argues that feminists must embrace this complexity and move further away from traditional western gender roles and the social mores they encourage.

Chapter two is titled “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix”. In this chapter, Butler looks into the nature and origins of the concept of gender. Using structuralist perspectives, she portrays gender as a sort of masquerade that, she argues, is inherently absurd. She looks at past philosophers who have written about gender roles, including Lacan, Riviere, and Freud. Ultimately, Butler rejects the idea that there must be a total overhaul of power structures and cultures to enable a less repressive mode of gender identification. Rather, Butler says that gender identification needs a social structure in order for performing gender to be an achievement. Thus, there needs to be a slow de-emphasization of the importance of gender roles.

Chapter three, “Subversive Bodily Acts”, is the longest chapter and primarily focuses on Butler’s assessment of other experts in the field and her analysis of their work. The first to come under her magnifying glass is French-Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva, who was an early feminist philosopher and has written extensively from structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives on gender. Butler also explores the journals of 19th century intersex woman Herculine Barbin, which were published by Foucault and are considered among the earliest works questioning gender norms. The chapter also explores the works of Monique Wittig and her support for subverting traditional gender norms through drag. The book ends with a conclusion, titled “From Parody to Politics”, where Butler argues that feminist politics do not need a concrete feminine identity to survive, and that accepting that such an identity is a construct or fantasy will make feminist solidarity and organization easier. The book ends with a call for the deconstruction of feminine identity through parody.

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist who is considered one of the biggest names in third-wave feminism, as well as in the development of queer theory. She is viewed as the defining theorist on the concept of gender performativity. Currently a high-ranking professor at both the University of California, Berkeley and the European Graduate School, she is best known for Gender Trouble, as well as its 1993 follow-up Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Politically active in gay and lesbian rights as well as various left-wing causes, Butler has written six major works over her career and currently lives in Berkeley with her partner and son.