Gender Trouble

A recent Facebook quiz, “Which Theorist Are You?”, informed me that I am, in fact, Judith Butler.

According to the quiz: “You know how to take what you’ve learnt and apply them to what matters to you. You are concerned with deconstruction (sic) the current state of the world, particularly the politics of sex and gender. You are not the most original of thinkers, you rely heavily on Foucault and …Derrida, but that does preclude the possibility of you being the most influential. You write in difficult, sometimes unintelligible prose. The mark of a true theorist.”

I was a little miffed that I didn’t get Foucault, but there might be some truth to the quiz result.  At least, I’d like to believe that I’m able to “take what I’ve learnt and apply [it]” and I am definitely “concerned with the deconstruction of the current state of the world, particularly the politics of sex and gender.”

Judith Butler, in a nutshell, theorizes about performance.  Gender as a performance, self as a performance.  We take on these roles and attitudes, even ways of moving and physically being present, and perform them.  There’s nothing set or solid, no “core” from which our gender flows.  She writes a lot about drag and subversive performances of gender that can undermine the perception of a set and “natural” binary.

I really do love Judith Butler.

One issue I have with her, though, is that the idea of performance can be very exclusive.  Taken at face value, the idea of performance assumes that all people have the option of performing a subversive or alternative gender role.  It assumes a level of freedom that is simply not there for a lot of people.  Rejecting labels is great and feels wonderful – if you can do it.  If it’s safe, if you have the economic means, if you have the social support and resources available to you to do so.

Every time I start thinking about Judith Butler, and about the trouble with gender, and about performance, I stall.  I love, I absolutely love the idea of gender as a social construction and as a performance and as a choice.  That feels right, to me.  It feels just… good.  It fits.  When I think it, there’s a reverberation of agreement all through me, because it means so much freedom and it’s so hopeful, and it does feel right.


When I think about it further, I’m not so sure.  Post-modern theorists have been accused to being complicit with the patriarchy because individuality and choice can be interpreted as putting all of the responsibility on the individual woman without recognizing the system-wide oppressive forces.  It’s the same issue I was thinking about regarding gender neutral language.  Is the idea of performance something that is beneficial to most women?  Certainly for me, with all my privilege – financially secure, in a post-secondary environment that is not totally hostile to alternative gender representations, with a fairly androgynous body – it is beneficial.  I can play with it.  I love playing with it.  But I hesitate to say that this theory that works so well and feels so good for me is the best way to approach gender trouble.

It needs further thought.  (Which is not to say that Judith Butler needs to keep thinking – I couldn’t even begin to claim to understand her theory fully.  Further thought it required on my part.)

It’s too easy to ignore the advantages that privilege offers.  Financial, socio-cultural, biological privilege all impact my ability to perform, which impacts my perception of the theory itself.  If I were struggling to make ends meet, forced to work as a hostess in a restaurant with a strict dress-code, would “performing my gender” really have any solid meaning for me?  Probably not at work.  If I had a body that was more visibly gendered, would dressing up as a boy have the same result, the same feel?  Maybe not.  I don’t know!

I’m not unhappy with my quiz result, but I think I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about performance before I come to any really solid conclusions.  (Except that I’m lying – my solid conclusions have already been formed and they absolutely do believe in performance!  Absolutely!  So I guess a more accurate way to say that would be “I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about my instinctive reaction to the idea of performance before I can accept the conclusions I’ve come to.”)

And on the topic of privilege, go read this –  It is brilliant, and gave me a lot to think about.

~ by Gloom Fairy on May 7, 2010.

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