57 pages 1 hour read

Judith Butler

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1990, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is a seminal work in feminism and a foundational work in queer theory. This study guide is based on the 2006 Routledge edition of Butler’s text. Butler's primary aims in the work are to make a case for rejecting an essential female identity as the basis for feminist practice and to come up with an account of gender formation without recourse to the female body as a natural phenomenon. Butler's theoretical approach in this project is eclectic, drawing from poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, French and American feminism, linguistics, and the history of ideas.

In the first chapter, "Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire," Butler calls into question terms and concepts that are generally taken for granted, including the supposed divide between sex and gender, the existence of a settled feminist constituency called women, and the idea that a viable feminist political program requires such an identity. Butler first of all argues against culturally-constructed binaries that she perceives as a holdover from a masculinist society's way of thinking about the mind and body. Any insistence on using the body as a ground for an emancipating feminist politics is already doomed to reinstate oppression. The concept women is equally tainted because defining it gives rise to the very exclusionary practices feminism claims to reject. The task for feminism, therefore, is to theorize gender and feminist politics without reference to women or the "natural" female body.

In the second chapter, “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix,” Butler engages with psychoanalytic, structuralist, and poststructuralist accounts of gender and identity formation. She rejects the idea that going back to a time before the repudiation of the mother (the founding movement in gender and identity formation in many psychoanalytic accounts) is a viable means of escaping repression. In examining structuralist accounts of gender and most especially of lesbian and gay gender, Butler finds that these accounts also should be excluded as the foundation for emancipation from repression because they have some inherent biases that are the result of heterosexism. In examining the prohibitions that are said to institute the child's identity formation (generally one that results in a heterosexual gender reality), Butler concludes that the prohibition against homosexuality and the resulting repression exercise as much force as the prohibition against incest.

In the third chapter, "Subversive Bodily Acts," Butler examines other theorists' attempts to articulate an account of gender that can subvert the current repressive gender reality. Butler rejects Julia Kristeva's theory of the semiotic because of its heterosexism and the subordination of the semiotic to the prevailing gender order. Butler then turns to Michel Foucault's critique of the repressive hypothesis, which holds that repression always creates the possibility of the thing it seeks to repress.

Butler then examines Monique Wittig's idea of the heterosexual contract and her argument that one must use language to free oneself from the repression of the heterosexual gender reality; Butler's examination of Wittig's fiction focuses on Wittig's destruction of the body, a thematic analysis that supports Butler's argument that the essential female body is a problem, not a solution, when it comes to escaping gender oppression. Butler closes this chapter by reading drag as a performance that gives some insight into how one can best articulate gender: gender is performative, even for heterosexuals, and what we recognize as "naturally" masculine or feminine is really just the congealing of a repertoire of actions, gestures, and self-stylization that have a history.

In the conclusion, "From Parody to Politics," Butler argues that her deconstruction of an essential gender identity in no way forecloses the possibility of effective political organization. Instead, gender as a performative identity opens up new possibilities for organizing.