Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter

Judith Butler's biggest contribution to the field of gender theory is without a doubt her definition(s) of performativity. She first introduced this term in 1990's Gender Trouble, when she began to assert that feminism's central reliance on the category of "woman" was problematic because it relied on the established school of thought that maintained though gender was socially constructed, sex was biological(11). Butler disagrees, saying that both categories are the result of social construction, but also that it's more complicated than that. Things we consider as fixed categories may have carried different connotations not much earlier in our history, like pink for girls and blue for boys.In the Victorian period, the color associations were actually reversed, as blue was considered calm amd pink was considered a lighter, age-appropriate version of the masculine red. Because of this arbitrariness, Butler says identity politics should be abandoned in favor of politics that ask where sex and gender come from (21). That's the first chapter.

The second chapter critiques the notion of patriarchy, with its primary argument being that notions on which we depend in order to say that patriarchy is a norm against which feminism should rebel (such as Levi-Straussian kinship theory and Freudian Oedipalism) are also social concontructions, and by using their oppositional structures as a jumping off point for feminist response (in establishing either woman-dominant or separatist communities), we as feminists are unknowingly accepting presuppositions with which we disagree. The third chapter deals with the political implications of the work of Wittig and Kristeva. I'll discuss this chapter when I deal with The Lesbian Body (Wittig) and Powers of Horror (Kristeva), both on my prelims list. The last chapter questions whether gender-neutral pronouns (ze, zir, etc.) might be a way out of the problems Butler sees with conflation of sex and gender.

Then, in 1993's Bodies that Matter, she had this to say on the subject of how sex and gender are constructed:
Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that 'performance' is not a singular 'act' or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance. (95)
In saying that performance of gender is a conscious act that appears or becomes naturalized through repetition, Butler bridges the theoretical gap between feminists who claim gender is wholly socially constructed (cf. deBeauvoir's The Second Sex--"One is not born a woman, but becomes one.") and those who rely more on the existence of the innate and the bodily to determine femininity (cf. Irigaray and Cixous). In making performativity about simultaneous consciousness and reiteration, Butler seems to suggest that seeing social construction and biological essentialism as binarily opposed concepts is to oversimplify both theories. Instead, she provides a grey area that enriches both sides.

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