(Mis)Understanding Gender Performativity

Judith Butler is an American philosopher whose work critically (re)examines gender and sexuality.

What is meant by “imitation?” This makes it seem like gender is not real!

Gender performativity is commonly misunderstood to mean that gender is “just a performance” and is therefore as inconsequential or arbitrary as a performance on stage. This (mis)understanding of gender performativity invalidates the material reality of gender by presuming that gender is not real, or is as flippant as a staged drag performance. Gender is certainly real, and it is a misunderstanding to believe that Butler is claiming gender is immaterial or inconsequential because it is based in performative imitation. Butler’s claim is not that gender is a performance, but is instead that gender is performative. This is a subtle and important difference that should be delineated.

Why do people imitate norms to begin with?

That’s a great question! Someone who doesn’t imitate a norm but is expected to do so (e.g., someone who is male and is therefore expected to “act like a man” but doesn’t) threatens to expose how the norms upon which the identities depend are only as real as the mime’s box. This is an upsetting thought for people who devote their lives to living up to gender norms, which is why those who do not participate in repetitive imitation of these norms are often punished for it. The scandal exposed by gender non-conformity is that gender is non-essential, and that we depend on it for reasons that were put in place by socialization processes. We give up a lot of our lives in deference to norms that were not created by or for us, and it is the work of socialization to obscure that this is happening. Trans people receive the brunt of this hostility because trans experience shows that there is no necessary relationship between genitalia (i.e., “assigned sex”) and gender identities. Trans people are murdered because transgender embodiment shows that gender is non-essential, and social systems require that gender is perceived as essential in order for people to willingly play along with their rules.

What’s the point of explaining all this?

With performativity we can use identity as a conceptual bridge between individuals and social structures, which I think is an important next step we should take when trying to understand human behavior. Performativity can specifically help undermine cultural investments in individualism and essentialism that undergird normative perceptions of identity, which I think are two concepts that uphold many social problems.

queer theorist and affect alien

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