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Judith Butler (b

Judith Butler (b.1956--) 

Gender Trouble: Preface and Chap 3 (excerpt) 

                                  Reported by monisha(Cheng, Meili) 2003/11/4

Notes Added in Green by Kate 2004/12/21 


1. What are the differences between Luce Irigaray’s “mimicry” and Butler’s “parody,” “immitation,” “performance”? 

2. Butler’s theory of gender performativity deals with the crossing-dressing, drag performance…etc, but if imitating the same gender, then what is the difference between, for instance, lesbian femmes and straight women? Macho-gay men and straight men?

3. Butler’s theory mainly focus on gender, but what will happen if the dimensions of class, ethnicity, race…etc. meet with gender?

4. Where do we see Foucault’s influence on Butler, and how are the two different? 

5. Are all types of gender performances subversive? 


Textbook Introduction


Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) is a founding document of queer theory and a key statement of “performative” accounts of cultural meaning.


Arguments : Gender as repetitive performative acts (p. 2500)

Nothing is natural, not even sexual identity. Anatomical differences can be experienced only through the categories and expectations set by the culture’s signifying order. She reveals that the seemingly “natural” is actually socially constructed and contingent. (culturally and historically) (“resignification”)

  cp.  ( sex / gender : biographical / cultural)  

Such alteration does not come easily.

( Fousault: 1) “micro-physics” technology of self and gender; body as the surface with imprint of power and history p. 2491; soul as the prison of body; 2) power of discipline depends on setting up the criminal or the marginal sexuality as scapegoat so that ‘crime’ is used to justify discipline;

(Lacan’s subject formation in language)

(Derrida’s “citation” and “repetition”) (J.L. Austin – referential speech acts performatives)

            Butler sees “sex” and “gender” as citational repetitions

            Deviants are inevitable because that discursive power is never fully effective and any social field is traversed by various discourses. She calls for a loosening of the categories and a coalitional politics to avoid the fights over purity. (against “identity politics” by making evident identity’s construction)   

            Identity is performatively produced by acts.  Drag performances destabilize the naturalized categories of identity and desire.

            She proposes the theory of “gender performativity” 

            Her theory is to create more space for various actions and, in a broader sense, is a general troubling, unfixing of the links between acts, categories, representations, desires, and identities. 

            Preface of Gender Trouble 

            “Trouble” is inevitable and is of ambiguities. Sometimes it euphemized some fundamentally mysterious problem like being a woman in masculinist culture ,or for instance, all desire to Sartre .  (masculine subject /  female other)  

            “female trouble”—historical configuration of nameless female indisposition, which veiled the notion that being female is a natural indisposition (unwillingness).   

            What is the best way to trouble the gender categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality ?  (drag performances) ex. Female Trouble (p.2489) a film in which a woman passes as man, suggesting that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.  (2489) 

            Foucault’s “genealogy” exposes the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power

              “genealogy”–-- an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. 

            When female no longer appears to be a stable notion, feminist theory no need to settle on identity politics, then what are the political possibilities ?  (queer theory , coalition politics)


            Chapter 3. Subversive Bodily Acts


            Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions

            * inscriptions on the bodies, body as a bounded system, like a social system, which is vulnerable at their margins. 

            From 1970s, feminist theory and politics grounds on the women’s identity politics (categories of true sex, discrete gender, specific sexuality), takes “the body” as granted.   

            Butler inquries the construction of “the body”.  

            --Christian and Cartesian precedents (spirit and matter dualism) p.2491 

            --Foucault (body and history) * Body is figured as a surface and the scene of a cultural inscription, the task of genealogy is to “expose a body totally imprinted by history.” For Foucault, history in its essential and repressive gesture. He subscribes to a prediscursive multiplicity of bodily forces that break through the surface of the body to disrupt the regulating practices of cultural coherence imposed upon that body by a power regime, understood as a vicissitude of “history.”   

            --Mary Douglas (body and culture) Purity and Danger suggests that the very contours of “the body” are established through markings that seek to establish specific codes of cultural coherence. (structural-functionism)  

            She takes body as a model to stand for any bounded system. 

            * boundary, margins, danger, taboo, orifices, excrement  

            binary structure of the nature/ culture distinction (structuralism) (p.2493)

            In her theory, the boundaries of the body become the limits of the social per se.   

            ex. Aids (p.2493) 

            --Kristeva  “abjection” in The Powers of Horror uses the structuralist notion of boundary-constituting taboo for the purpose of constructing a discrete subject through exclusion. (p.2494) 

            --Iris Young  “ inner / outer”

              She appropriates Kristeva’ theory to understand sexism, homophobia, and racism. (p.2495)


            From Interiority to Gender Performatives

            * Internalization of control; subverted by drag, which 1) mocks the expressive model of gender, 2) blurs the distinction between inner and outer psychic space; 3) exposes the dissonance between gender and performance.     .   4) exposes gender as a corporeal signification; fluidity of identities that suggest an openness to resignification.  (2489)

            “inscription”  ( Foucault Discipline and Punish ) In the context of prisoners, the strategy has been to not to enforce a repression of their desire, but to compel their bodies to signify the prohibitive law as their very essence, style, and necessity. That law is not literally internalized, but incorporated on and through the body.  (p.2496)  (soul/ body )  

Foucault redescribes the intrapsychic process in terms of the surface politics of the body inspires Butler to take gender as the disciplinary production of the figures of fantasy through the play of presence and absence on the body’s surface. (???) (p.2496) (p.2497 “the play of signifying absences”) 

the gendered body is performative, no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. The very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly public and social discourse….(p.2497) 

She argues that the inner truth of gender is fabrication and a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then genders can be neither true or false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity.   

Drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space, mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.  

Within the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities, the notion of original of primary gender identity is parodied.


Compared to traditional feminist criticizing of drag degrading to women or uncritical appropriation of sex-role stereotype, Butler thinks the relation between the “imitation” and the “original” is more complicated.


In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.  

Gender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin.  

The perpetual displacement (imitating of imitation???) constitutes a fluidity of identities provides an openness to resignification and recontextualization.  

Though in the parodic styles are part of hegemonic, misogynist culture, but as imitations displace the meaning of the original, they imitate the myth of originality itself. 

Cp.  pastiche with parody  (p.2499)

(The original is revealed to be a copy, and inevitably failed one, an ideal that no one can embody.) 

But parody by itself is not subversive… (p.2499) 

Butler suggests that gendered bodies are so many “styles of the flesh”(Beauvoir). These styles all never fully self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities. 

Wittig : gender as the workings of “sex” (p.2500)

(Note: For Wittig, gender in language is the "fictive sex." Linguistic gender marks social convention, she says in an essay entitled "The Mark of Gender," "cast[ing] sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it." Thus, as women are marked by gender in language (particularly French), so are they marked in the social world, always particular, never universal as is "man." [http://www.glbtq.com/literature/wittig_m.html ])

“sustained and repeated corporeal project”, “strategy”  (poststructrualism) 

What kind of performance might reveal this ostensible “cause” to be an “effect”?  As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. And the “action” is a public one. 

Conclusion :

Gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. Gender is also a norm that can never be fully internalized, “the internal” is a surface signification,(???) and gender norms are finally phantasmatic, impossible to embody.

Gender is not an expression but a performance. Gender identity is revealed as a regulatory fiction. Genders can be neither true nor false, genders can also be rendered radically incredible. 

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