(Mis)Understanding Gender Performativity

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

Judith Butler first developed the theory of performativity in Gender Trouble (1990). Performativity is the view that social constructs and the identities that depend upon them are based in repeated imitations of social norms, and do not exist prior to or independently of repeated imitation of these norms. Performative approaches to identity radically reframe what it means to “be something” (e.g., a man/woman, straight/lesbian, etc.) by showing how identities are effects of repeated behaviors instead of internal qualities that are expressed through behaviors.

Butler discusses performativity in the context of gender. From a performative perspective, gender identity is not an internal essence that is expressed through behavior, but is instead an effect of repeated behaviors that imitate gender norms. For example, “a man” from a performative perspective is someone who repeatedly imitates masculine gender norms. This view contrasts with normative perceptions that gender identity is something that exists prior to and independently of behavior, and that gendered behavior is an expression of a pre-existing gender identity.

For example: if I am a man, then this is typically thought to mean that I am a man “on the inside” first and that because of this I then act like a man “on the outside” as an expression of inner “manness.” In other words, “acting like a guy” is thought to express a pre-existing masculine gender identity that is performed by masculine gender roles. Performativity switches the order of operations by claiming that one first repeatedly performs masculinity by imitating masculine gender norms, and then perceives themselves as a man as a result of their repeated imitation of these norms. Performative identity is thus an effect of repetition and imitation, and is not something that exists prior to or independently of repeated imitation.

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.

Imagine a skilled mime who realistically imitates being trapped within an invisible box. They crash into its invisible surfaces, and you watch with amusement because even though you know that the box is imaginary, the mime’s movement is so believable that you perceive that the box actually exists. The mime’s movement is a realistic imitation of an encounter with a structure that lacks material reality (i.e., the walls of the invisible box), but as a result of the mime’s movement you perceive that the box is actually real. This kind of perceptual encounter is how performative imitation affects material realities through imitation of norms that exist on immaterial ideological levels.

In the case of the mime and the box it is obvious that this is “just a performance,” and that there isn’t really a box, and that the mine is just performing. What if, however, instead of a single mime imitating being trapped in a box there was an entire group of people imitating being trapped some other imaginary structure? This is where performativity becomes a useful theory for understanding social behavior, as Butler argues that gender is an imaginary structure that is repeatedly imitated by human social behaviors. Men, for example, collectively and repeatedly imitate what it is to be a man, and in doing so create the reality of masculine gender. Men who move and communicate in similar ways by performing masculinity are imitating a masculine gender norm, and in doing so are creating the reality of that norm. This is like the mime who imitates being trapped within the box, but instead of mimes we have generations of men who are repeatedly imitating being trapped in what Mark Greene aptly describes as the Man Box. Dostoevsky was also catching on to gender performativty when he said in Notes from the Underground (1864):

…it seems to me that the whole meaning of human life can be summed up in the one statement that man only exists for the purpose of proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not an organ-stop!

Man, in other words, is the human who repeatedly pretends to be a man instead of just a bag of flesh.

There is nothing essential about being a man, for “being a man” is based in repeatedly imitating masculine gender norms that designate what it means to be a man. Performative reasoning applies to “being a woman” as well, and parallels Simone de Beauvior’s claim in The Second Sex (1959) that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Gender identity is not an internal essence that exists prior to gender expression; it is an effect of repeated actions that imitate gender norms which are upheld by ideological structures.

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.

Have you ever heard a male person who doesn’t act like a man be called a sissy or a faggot? This happens because the person is male but not imitating masculine gender norms, which threatens men who do repeatedly imitate masculine gender norms by showing them that they don’t have to do it. Masculine men therefore taunt non-masculine males by assigning a negative value to them in virtue of not imitating masculinity. This is because masculine gender identities and the norms to which they pertain depend on repeated imitation, so anything that disrupts repeated imitation will threaten to expose the norm as a fiction as real as the mime’s box. This is why gender and other social structures require repeated imitation, and why those who do not repeatedly imitate norms are targeted for extinction.

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.

Individualism is the the view that identities are separate from the world instead of integrated within it. Individualism is a problem because it presumes that context either does not matter or can be controlled for by asserting human agency. The command to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is physically impossible but is nevertheless a maxim of the American dream that is used to justify unequal treatment of social groups who fail to defy the laws of physics.

Individualism also undergirds victim blaming, for if one is truly an individual, then all that happens to them is their responsibility, which means that if someone is in poverty, then it is their fault for being lazy, and if someone is wealthy, then it is their reward for being hardworking. Individualism prevents understandings of privilege and structural oppression, and it is important for our survival that we begin to understand these concepts. Performativity challenges individualism by showing that identity is based in repeated imitation of ideological norms, which subsequently means that identity is a relational engagement with structural forces instead of an isolated property that belongs to individuals. This is a critical intervention that performativity affords, which is one reason why it should be more widely understood.

Essentialism is the view that identity is an intrinsic property that exists independently of behavior. A belief in essences underlies perceptions of inherent differences between groups and homogenizes variance within groups. This is a problem because humans are complex creatures that are made mostly of water, which means that we are always in motion and take the shape of whatever space we inhabit. Human beings contain multitudes that essentialism tries to eliminate.

Essentialism installs commitments to norms by creating perceptions of what it means to be a particular thing. For example, if being a man is “essentially” based in maintaining a perpetual state of “hardness”, then “hardness” becomes the norm imitated by those who perform masculinity. Essences are what get imitated because they are perceived to be the quality that constitutes instances of a particular kind of thing.

If someone is “essentially” a particular kind of thing, then this means that they cannot change, and that they have no agency in determining who they are. Essentialism is why transgender women are excluded from second-wave feminism, for the trans-exclusionary racial feminist (TERF) perspective holds that having a penis is essentially what makes someone a man. Transfeminine experience shows that this is not true, but through commitments to essentialism transfeminine experience is erased and excluded from feminism.

If someone is essentially different from someone else, then there is no way for mutuality to be realized between these two people. Perhaps you’ve heard that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” If this is true, then men and women are essentially different in ways that cannot change. This is a problem because human beings are all of the same species, and we have much more in common with one another than social constructs like gender lead us to believe. We are led to believe in our essential differences in order to maintain social structures (e.g., nuclear families, heterosexual relationships, etc.) that benefit dominant groups. This is oppressive, but socialization makes it seem normal.

Essentialism is also used to invalidate the perspectives of those who are perceived to be inherently defective. Intelligence, for example, is thought by some to be an essential quality of humans that scientists have gone through great lengths to measure. The term “moron” comes from the work of Henry H. Goddard, who developed intelligence tests that were used to deny “mental defectives” entrance into the US during the late 1800s. A belief in essentialism therefore justifies unequal treatment of marginalized groups who are thought to be inherently inferior in the eyes of dominant groups.

Performativity challenges essentialism by showing that identities are by no means static or intrinsic properties that belong to humans, but are instead effects of repeatedly-enacted behaviors. With performative approaches to gender we can see how essences are effects of behaviors, not the causes of behaviors. This liberates us from boxing one another into structures that we did not create and that do not aim for our collective fluorishing.

Performativity is a tool that can be used to examine how identities are maintained by reference to norms whose ideological content oppresses more than it liberates. With performativity we can realize that identity is always a work in progress, and that the work that is done to maintain identity introduces more problems than it solves. Performativity is a concept that can be used to intervene on behaviors that imitate oppressive ideological norms. Performativity provides an explanation for how identities form and are maintained by everyday behaviors whose ideological content is otherwise unintelligible. We can use performativity to understand how we are animated like puppets by social norms that we did not create and nor do we truly benefit from. By shifting from individual identities based in perceived essences toward repeated imitation of social norms, performativity draws attention away from individuals and toward structures that animate how humans behave. Social justice should aim toward these structures instead of the people who imitate them, but the people who imitate them should also be held accountable for whatever oppressive behaviors these imitations entail.

Shifting attention from individuals toward structures is an important aspect of the collective consciousness transformation that needs to take place if we are to continue thriving as a species. We need to realize that we are all implicated in and animated by social structures that ultimately do not aim toward human flourishing, but instead maintain systems of domination and subordination that keep us invested in having power over another to protect our sense of who we think we are.

As Alan Watts insightfully illustrates in Psychotherapy East and West, just as the equator can be used to understand the concept of earth’s circumference without being mistaken for an actual line painted around the earth, so too can identity (i.e., “the ego”) be understood as a concept that refers to who humans think they are without being mistaken for a thing that exists in actuality. With performativity we can begin to realize that gender is far too simple a construct to account for who we are, and that we need not imitate norms in order to matter.

queer theorist and affect alien

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