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Judith Butler is a well-known theorist on sexuality, gender, identity and power. Her contributions to contemporary criticism are noteworthy for its perceptive provocations across a wide range of fields. This ability to engage many diverse issues in an intelligent manner is made possible by Butler’s appreciation that seemingly unconnected intellectual endeavors might be committed and bound to the similar conceptual foundations. The measure of Butler’s criticism style then comes in her tenacious interrogation of the very ideas which assumed necessity tends to free them from enquiry. This essay explores some of the important cases of the foundational excavation in the work of Butler, namely, her investigating of the ontology of gender performativity.

Gender Performativity and Performance

A significant theme within postmodern feminism is that necessity beliefs of women and cultivated inventions of the man subject are troubling and irrelevant elements for feminist political hypothesis and practice. Possibly, no one has furthered this claim with full force than Judith Butler by her use of the performativity idea (Mikkola 2011). In introducing the notion of gender performativity in her book, ‘Gender Trouble’, Butler argues that human sexual identity is merely a display that is constantly acted out. Such performativity includes a broad range of human behaviors from the way they walk, talk, and perform certain rites and so forth. These are acts that individuals keep performing throughout the course of one’s life, and these performances are what consolidate the impression or the meaning of masculine and feminine identities (Butler, 1990). On the contrary, it is a different thing to say that gender is a performance. This is because when gender is referred to as a performance, it generally means that some role has been taken on or one is acting in some manner and that this particular acting or role playing is essential to the one’s gender and also that gender that one presents to the world (Osborne & Segal 1994, 70-75).

Sex and Gender

 According to Butler (1990), our sex, gender and ego are the results of publically regulated performativity. She asserts that forces which operate upon the subject create an illusion of hetero completeness, that is, the mythos according to which an individual born with specific genital organs forms a particular gender identity, and has sexual desire directed toward the opposite sex. The impression that there may be some truth of sex is produced through the regulative practices, which generate consistent identities while utilizing the matrix that represents consistent gender norms. Hetero-sexualization of desires institutes and necessitates the yielding of asymmetrical and discrete opposition between the masculine and feminine, and these aspects are presumed as representations of expressive properties of male and female (McKay 2006).

This perception, for Butler, assumes that there exists congruity between sex- male or female, gender identity- man or woman, and the object of concupiscence. Butler goes on to ask if indeed this congruency is natural or whether it is stable and consistent. She claims that it is a fantasy in disguise of a natural development law, but is in fact a regulating paragon which forces gender identity on subjects (Butler 1990, 12-25).

 Ordinarily, most people tend to think that gender and sex are conterminous; women are female persons while men are male persons. Historically, many feminists have disagreed and have supported gender and sex distinction. Sex provisionally refers to the human males and females dependent upon the biological features like the chromosomes, hormones, sex organs and other physical characteristics. Gender, on the other hand, refers to men and women dependent upon the social factors like social roles, behaviors, position or identity. The principal feminist motivation behind the making of this eminence was to retort to biological determinism (Benhabib & Fraser 1995, 30-33).

The detachment of sex from gender by different feminist ideologists has the potential to dispute the binary forms within which sexual desires, sexual practices and sexual object options are collapsed with anatomical sex and gender identities. Prying open the causative and continuous relationship took in misogynist, heterosexist frames ‘tween gender and sex should assist in understanding the storming and various combinations of different aspects of  psychic and social life (Butler 1993, 56-60). Gender, thought of as femininity and masculinity is superposed upon the ‘coatrack’ of sex as every society enforces on their existed bodies their ethnical excogitations of how males and females ought to behave. Therefore, in accordance to this interpretation, all human beings are either male or females as their sex is fixed. Sexed bodies are interpreted differently across cultures, and therefore they project dissimilar norms on those bodies, thereby making masculine and feminine persons. Differentiating gender and sex, however, makes it possible for the two to fall apart: they are dissociable in that one can be sexed female and withal be gendered a man or the other way around (Judith Butler).

Gender Social Constructions and Identity

In her Undoing Gender, Butler revisits and as well as refines her performativity notion and focuses upon the motion of undoing normative conceptions of gendered life and sex. Gender identities often seem to define or organize the very procedures by which it takes form itself, thus constituting a ground (Butler 2004, 33-35). After all, cultures tend to virtually arrange every dimension of psychic and social life across sexual differences, as though sex were the cause and core. To contend that sex construction as cause and core should not contradict the coherence or integration that a particular form of sexual dissimilarity, in its articulation with some other aspects of psychic and social life, attains and maintains in individuals over a period of time. Organism and environment interaction produce articulations of which human relations to sexual difference is an important piece, but not a sole cause. Social learning ideologists hold that a vast array of varying influences socializes us as men and women. With this being the case, it is so difficult to rejoinder gender socialization (Benhabib & Fraser 1995, 23-33).

Butler continues to discuss how gender is performed unconsciously by one, but goes on to mention that the performativity is neither automatic nor mechanical (Butler 2004, 33-35). An example is when parents without awareness treat their male and female children differently. Parents describe their infants using gender stereotypic languages: boys are presumed to be alert, coordinated, and strong while girls are described as soft, tiny, and delicate. These descriptions are further reflected in the treatment of the infants by their parents. Children are dressed in gender stereotypic garments and colors: boys in blue and girls in pink. Even today, girls are still discouraged from playing certain rough sports like football and are given cooking toys or dolls to play with to a greater extent than boys. On the other hand boys are given masculine toys like guns and trucks (Mikkola 2011).

In Butler’s view, human beings have got desires that do not stem from their personhood, but mostly, from social norms. She as well debates on societal norms of ‘human’ or ‘less-than-human’ and however these ideas that are culturally imposed can keep an individual from living a viable life since the fears are normally about whether an individual will be accepted whenever their desires switch from normality. She asserts that one might feel the need to be recognized in order to live, but that simultaneously the conditions for recognition make life unlivable. In her intersex discussion, she references the case of David Reimer, an individual whose sex was reassigned medically from male to female following a botched up circumcision at the age of eighth months. The doctors turned Reimer into a female, but later in his life keyed out as actually male. He married and had three stepchildren. He later on told the story in the “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl”, and in this case, he wrote in collaboration with John Colapinto. In the year 2004, Reimer committed suicide (Butler 2004, 33-35).

Social learning theorists have since stated that children may be influence by what they see and interact with in the surrounding world. This again has made the countering of gender socialization difficult. Children’s books, for one, portray females and males in completely obvious stereotypical ways; for example, males as leaders and adventurers and females as followers and helpers. Portraying males as nurturing and non-aggressive and women in roles that are independent is one way of addressing gender stereotyping in the books for children. Some publishers as TV’s Teletubbies have attempted to make their characters genderless imaginary or gender neutral creatures as an alternative approach. Parents reading story books to their children have often undermined the efforts of the publishers by labeling the genderless characters in a way that describe them as either masculine or feminine. Such socializing influences are thought to send inexplicit messages in regard to how males and females should act or are expected to behave, thus shaping human into masculine and feminine persons (Mackenzie 2008, 5-8).

Gender Performativity

Following Foucault, Judith Butler developed the notion of gender performativity in which “…gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (416).  The construction of gendered identities for Butler is achieved through conventionalized actualization of series of acts over time (Butler 1990, 20-25). Neither psychic life nor gender are wholly states, but rather they are clear marches that gestalt in manners that remain uniform overtime without getting closed or totally insular. Therefore, gender operates at many exquisitely differentiated levels and should not be thought of as one firm kernel. To add to the performativity dimension of what seems necessary or comparatively stable and durable, namely, the outside enfolding that get embodied as they turn psyche, there also exists unconscious gender performativity aspects of humane resistances and defenses and their pleasures as well (Halberstam 1998, 5-8).

In order to emphasize the role played by repetition in performativity, Butler uses the Derrida’s iterability theory to work out a performativity theory in terms of iterability. According to her, performativity is incomprehensible beyond the procedure of iterability as well as the constrained and regularized system of norms. She argues that repetition is never performed on the basis of a subject; such repetition is constituted by temporal condition which facilitates the advancement of the subject (Butler 1993, 56-60). In its unending  absence of determinedness, iterability as to become determinedness is thence precisely that performativity aspect that makes sexed, gendered, hetero subject production possible while concurrently opening up that subject to the likelihood of its contestation and incoherence (Butler 1993, 58-60).

An important yet sometimes missed part of Butler’s argument pertains to the role of sex in construction of coherent sexuality and gender. Butler explicitly disputes the biological accounts of bilingual sex, reconceiving the excited body as culturally constructed itself, by regulative discourse. There is the most literal form of performativity expression of gender, a willing dramatization in action, say of conquest; and there exists the Real of sex difference that also an illusions of command, mastery and knowledge. It exerts its force constantly on some relation to what the psychic is in the process of incorporating (Lamberth 2011). Unmasking of gender performativity on whichever level does not erase gender or gender identity; however, it has the potential to make gender less commanding, but only if simplistic supposition that it has a totally imperial grasp on the mind in the first place is abandoned. In other words, queer deconstructionism of gender cannot perform all the earth-damaging work they appear to promise, since gender identity is just part of psychic life and not the whole. Nevertheless, this does not mean that that deconstructionism is insignificant (Halberstam 2005, 12-18).

Gender as a Drag

In her Gender Trouble, Butler gives an example of a cultural phenomenon that according to her exposes gender performativity- drag queen. For Butler, drag raises some serious questions concerning gender identity. One asks themselves whether the man appearing in a woman’s clothing is basically a man, a tradition with only an outside woman’s appearance or whether it is that overt femininity he displays that proves that after all his essence is feminine despite his male body. For Butler these dubieties  reveal the instability that exists between gender and sex, and manifests the performative nature of feminine or masculine identity (Osborne & Segal 1994, 70-75). Gender identity construction is produced by the way of repetitive performances of physical stylistic expressions, behaviors, without which the distinction between man and woman has no sense (McKay 2006, ).

 The aim of drag performance is to destabilize the ‘truth’ of gender and sexual identity by pointing out the fact that there exists no obliging reason that calls for constant mimicry of performed identity. What is more Butler perceives the drag parody as a phenomenon that points out that since there is no initial or essential basis of gender identity, it can thence be disrupted, broken, undermined, altered, resisted or entirely become a subject over which to engender gender trouble (Butler 1990, 18-22).

Practices of Femininity

In every society, the obvious biological distinction between women and men is used to vindicate for placing them into the different social roles and functions which shape and limit their behavior and attitudes.  That is to say, none of the societies is content with the natural dissimilarities of sex, rather each insists on making gender cultural difference an addition to it. Therefore, the mere physical facts always become related with complex psychological characters. It is never enough for a man to be male; he has to appear masculine as well. A woman, on top of being female, has also to be feminine (Mackenzie 2008, 5-8).

 Sex differences are thus used to create gender differences which in turn bring gender differences in roles within the patriarchic societies. From the very beginning males enjoy a dominant social position. Boys, from an earlier age are hence assisted to acquire masculinity that will enable them take over and maintain that status. By the same token, young girls are learned to cultivate a subservient femininity. The ensuing difference in the female and male character is then used to support the existent power arrangement and is described as inborn. In social settings showing a lot of emotions or crying is not expected of a man, while for women it is natural. Some other times, it is regarded contemptuous if a woman does no display emotions at important events such as weddings or funerals. A man has to go out to seek a woman; it is now appropriate that a woman selects a man that she likes and pursues him with relationship intentions. Generally, gender roles and perceptions vary greatly from culture to culture (Lamberth 2011).

Normativity Argument

According to Butler in Lamberth (2011), masculinity and femininity are not permanent or fixed, but rather, fluid in nature. Although they may appear solid, in reality they are constantly remade on an instant basis. In particular they are reproduced discursively through language and speech unique to the two genders. Some identified kinds of word choices and speech reinforce distinct gender stereotypes. For instance, speech makers as emotive language, frivolous adjectives and tag questions are more often related to female speech as compared to male speech. This connotes some kind of fluffiness, and lack of authority and clout, hence preventing a person who uses the terms from being seriously taken as an individual (Judith Butler 2012).

She further asserts that these particular kinds of speech and behavior have come to be regarded as masculine and feminine on account of the social responses that the individuals receive whenever displaying these speech and behavior. Although individuals have the freedom of trying out with new versions of exemplifying masculinity, it is not guaranteed that new forms will be accepted socially. In most cases, they are deemed undesirable and defiant. Therefore, individuals tend to be reliant upon the social constructions that existed beforehand- those which evoke positive social acceptance and response. Thus, the social stereotype of however men should behave originated from the historical repro of certain kinds of masculinity (Butler 1997, 34-35).

Rather than doing what occurs naturally, they do what they think works best for them. In turn, this has led to naturalization of behavior- the more the men who adopted such conventional kinds of masculinity, the more proficient they became at those particular habits while losing touch with their other behavioral and linguistic facets. For instance, men tend to forefend showing the image of emotional humans. Nonetheless, as a result of adopting this image constantly, some may find it hard to portray themselves as beings that are emotionally capable when situations call for it (Benhabib & Fraser 1995, 25-28). An example to illustrate this is a man who was apprised by a marriage counselor to be a bit expressive of his feelings and emotions toward his wife and did so by assisting her in washing her car. From this case it can be deduced that when it comes to the expression of certain emotions and feelings, men are literally rusty. The perpetual indulgence in reinforcing masculine behavior thence cements these conventional kinds of masculinity misconstrued and second in nature due to essentialist reasons (McKay 2006).

Just like in Lamberth, Butler shares the same perception in Mari (2011): unique and distinct gendered characteristics are invariably made and remade based on day to day lives. As time goes by, and society cycled through the varying iterations of culture, these social categories shift as well. During the past, wearing of pants was regarded as something unfeminine and undesirable. Femininity originated from a woman’s gentleness, demure carriage, long hair, shy demeanor and modest dresses. Nowadays, what is regarded as feminine has changed; pants are no longer thought of as unfeminine, assertiveness and boldness as male realm exclusive characteristics and short skirts as indecorous. That being said, today’s society still maintains their set of cultural norms that guide the excursive reproduction of both genders (Mikkola 2011).

 Although the image of career women is no unprecedented anymore, there still exists an expectation of them to be genteel, understanding and caring wives to their husbands. The stigmata attached to display of emotions by men still exists, and so is the intensions attached to the use of ornate, frivolous words in conversations. Intrinsically, it is clear that gender nowadays is still much a performance- certain behavior, gendered objects, clothing, gestures, are all part of human continuous gender performance within the society. Notwithstanding, that does not imply that these classes or its makers are fixed, in fact, they are very flexible. Nearly anything can be set aside as a feature of gender performativity, but it has to elicit a positivistic response and affirmation from the society which recognizes it as one (Gender and Gender Identity 2012).

Feminine Stereotypes

Some certain kinds of sports can be used to explicit gender performativity and how the society views it. As is commonly known, a sport is a cultural and social process in which social expressions of femininity and masculinity play a primary role. Traditionally sports are associated with masculinity (Halberstam 1998, 5-8). Even in today’s society, where gender equality in sport seems to be present; there still exist some sports which according to the Singaporean society cannot be performed by women, especially when it concerns the changing of femininity image, an example being the body building. Joan Liew is a female bodybuilder in Singapore. She involves herself in hours of training in order to build huge muscles and tanning to make her skin appear darker in order for the muscles to shine during competitions. Though Joan Liew has been representing Singapore in numerous body building competitions and made her proud by the many victories, she still is not that long familiar and is seldom featured as her body image may actually bring intense aversion to many people (Felluga 2002).

Butler’s Critique of Feminism

In her highly influential book, Gender Trouble Butler argues that a mistake had been made by feminism by trying to affirm that women were a group with mutual interests and characteristics. That approach, she says, performed an ignorant reification and regulation of gender relations- reinforcing a gender relations binary view, in which humans are divided into two clean-cut groups, men and women. Instead of opening up possibilities for an individual to choose and form their own identities, thereby closing down the options. Butler observes that feminists rejected the thought that biology is fate. But then again developed a vindication of patriarchal culture, which presumed that feminine and masculine genders would be constructed by culture inevitably upon female and male bodies having the same destiny even as inescapable. That argument leaves no room for difference, choice or resistance (Butler 1997, 45-50).

 Butler conceives that feminists ought not to attempt to define women and instead focus on offering an account of however power functions shape human understanding of womanhood in feminist movements as well as within the society at large. Finally Butler targets to break the so called links between gender and sex so as to make gender and desire to be free floating, flexible and not caused by some other stable factors (Butler 1997, 45-50).


What has come to be experienced by man as their relation to sex difference, their most profound sense of gender are, partly, the results of cutting down a complex band of articulations to a fictive unity under the sign of sex. The end then should not be to get rid of gender, as if that was possible, or to leave it integral as though it was a state, or to overrule or contradict it with our nomadic desires. Rather, we may value it as an aspect of personality uniqueness without allowing it to control and bind behaviors, experiences and qualities that the culture splits up transformative, whenever the claims constituted in their name depend on concepts of gender and psychic life as either so fixed and punitive so that they have to be dodged or so fluid that it becomes irrelevant. Indeed, Butlers claim that 'There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results’; (Butler 1990, 25) is true.

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