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Feminist and queer studies: Judith Butler’s conceptualisation of gender

Par Marilou Niedda : Etudiante en M2 - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marilou Niedda le 02/10/2020
This article is an introduction to Judith Butler's conception of gender: central to Butler's theory is the difference between sex and gender and the conception of gender as performance. The article also explores the impact of her work on queer theory.


“Orlando sipped the wine and the Archduke knelt and kissed her hand. In short, they acted the parts of man and woman for ten minutes with great vigour and then fell into natural discourse.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando (126)

Orlando, written in 1928 by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), tells the story of a young nobleman during the Elizabethan era in England. Readers follow Orlando’s love affairs and bold stories until, three quarters through the plot, he turns into a woman while working as an ambassador in Constantinople. The protagonist decides to embrace his/her new life as female by accepting who he/she became without questioning how it happened. Orlando shows the readers that sex and gender are enacted and not fixed by natural determinism. The quote indicates that the Archduke and the main character “acted the parts of man and woman for ten minutes with great vigour” in order to assert for a given period of time their genders, until they make it appear natural (“and then fell into natural discourse”). What is striking here is the fact that Woolf created a character who is challenging what gender and sex are; as a woman, Orlando embarks on new adventures and comes to the realisation that his/her sex/gender are not that important in order to enjoy a fruitful life. In the end, she/he becomes a successful female writer in 1928, which is the year when Woolf finished writing Orlando.

Orlando deals with the questionable essence ((Essence here refers to a supposed universal and fixed set of characteristics that define human beings.)) of gender identity; is gender a core aspect of who we are as individuals, or is it something moveable and enacted? Is gender, by default, the basic foundation for everyone’s identity after and even before birth? Many feminist thinkers tried to grasp the very meaning of gender as a culturally shaped notion in order to explain why women are granted less importance in society than men. Woolf was committed to nurturing this debate with Orlando and advocated in her fiction that gender could be temporary and chosen. We are not born woman nor man, but instead we become one. The gender debate poses certain questions about identity and subjectivity, and about how human behaviour depends on social construct.

In 1990, American philosopher Judith Butler, who teaches rhetoric and comparative literature at UC Berkeley whilst also being a specialist of German and French philosophy, published an academic book entitled Gender Trouble and subtitled Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The book had a tremendous impact on the LGTBQ+ ((Acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Queer people and others (such as intersex or asexual.))) community and many feminist circles right after its publication. Indeed Butler assumes, as Woolf did before her, that gender is not fixed but always enacted within specific social situations. Many theorists agree that gender is socially constructed and culturally informed by whom we interact with and by our habits. Nonetheless, and contrary to many feminist thinkers who theorised gender as a social construct, Butler states that sex is also socially constituted, which could be confusing given that it has always been understood as ‘natural’, biological and untouched by cultural influence. Sex is the basis on which gender is built and not the contrary. This article proposes to explore Butler’s understanding of sex and gender within feminist theory throughout her critical contributions in philosophy on the subject, which greatly impacted feminist studies in various academic fields.

Before going any further, it is important to consider some core aspects of feminist theory. First and foremost, what is feminism? A rather simple definition of the Oxford dictionary states that “feminism is the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; it also is the struggle to achieve this aim”. It is a fact that women have less power than men in every society and suffer more physical and psychological violence. For instance, women are paid £260,000 less throughout their whole career worldwide, according to The Guardian ((COLLINSON, Patrick. 2019. “Women paid £260,000 less than men over their careers – report.” The Guardian. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/28/women-paid-less-than-men-over-careers-gender-pay-gap-report>)), and are much more likely to be seriously hurt and experience higher rates of repeated victimisation than men.

There are practical aspects to feminism as a political theory concerned with the recognition of women’s experiences of oppression, because many activists strive for material solutions in order to prevent women from getting hurt and being dehumanised. For instance, some charities and NGOs provide safe spaces and specific facilities in order to improve women’s lives, especially in countries with unstable political situations. However, in order to fully tackle those injustices, it seems mandatory to highlight social, historical, economic and cultural mechanisms that have led to women’s inferior status in every society. For centuries, many feminist thinkers from different backgrounds have been condemning women’s situations of oppression thanks to poetry (such as Christine de Pizan, in the 14th century in France), religion and philosophy (Juanas Inés de la Cruz, in the 17th century in Mexico), literature (Virginia Woolf, in the 20th century in England) in order to verbalise women’s living conditions worldwide.

The role of philosophy is crucial in order to understand why women are underestimated in comparison to men, despite a man-oriented structuring of the discipline. As a philosopher, Judith Butler formed new concepts in order to fully grasp the numerous problematic aspects that characterise women’s life experiences. During the 20th century, a plethora of feminist thinkers - such as French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) - brought forth the idea that sex is a biological matter, contrary to gender which is informed by social norms that people live by in order to evolve within society. Women have been told they are emotional and must be more passive, and are relegated to roles of wives, mothers, daughters or sisters, instead of being active individuals capable of free-will. Gender is an expected destiny that women have to follow. On the contrary, sex is seen as an unalterable factor because everyone is born with reproductive organs. However, the divide between the two is not as clear as it seems: Woolf, by changing the sex and gender of her character, shows that sex is not that immutable. Indeed,

  1. Saying that gender is culturally shaped means it is informed by a certain social and cultural background
  2. If sex is biological (fixed) and informs gender (humans born female/male with typical female/male sexual characteristics have to become women/men)
  3. It therefore means that gender is also fixed because of the supposed immutability of human sexual features

As a philosopher and an activist, Butler discusses those premises in her work Gender Trouble and re-conceptualises the gender/sex divide by shifting her analysis not only to women but also to other individuals who are questioning the complex relationship between sex and gender.

History of feminism

There have been three waves of feminism. Whether we are currently witnessing a fourth one is being discussed in order to characterise the novelty of the #MeToo movement.

  1. First wave feminism is the original period of concerted feminist activity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It focused on political gender inequalities, primarily that of the right to vote, but also promoted, among others, property rights for women. First-wave feminists were also opposed to ownership of married women by their husbands. The suffragette movement was particularly active in the UK and used civil disobedience as an important political strategy, as well as law-breaking actions. Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett were key figures of that movement.
  2. The second wave (1960-1980) is characterised by the fact that women were not merely focusing on legal rights, given that some had already been acquired. Women did talk about “women’s liberation”, which designates freedom from patriarchy, since men are considered dominant in every sphere of society. Feminists demanded legislated and easier access to abortion and contraception, but also called for a sexual liberation. Many feminist activist organisations emerged at that time, such as African American feminist groups. Rather than a political revolution, women were looking for a cultural one.
  3.  Third-wave feminism (1990s) is also quite heterogeneous in terms of demands. Women were not necessarily fighting to end sex difference anymore (meaning to make the female/male categories disappear), but rather to emphasise their particularities. Some groups sought the recognition of sexual minorities (gay, lesbian etc.) and others racial minorities, like the Chicanas (Latinas). Second-wave feminists were criticised because of their focus on sexist-only violence, which did not take into account women experiencing multiple layers of oppression because of their race, class, or sexual preference: American jurist Kimberlé W. Crenshaw introduced the concept of “intersectionality” in 1989 in order to characterise those multi-level experiences. Intersectionality is a framework which shows that different modes of discrimination can overlap in such a way that it becomes impossible to say if one takes precedence over the others; furthermore, one mode of discrimination can no longer be isolated from the others (Crenshaw, 1991). For instance, it is difficult to apprehend Black women’s experiences if the sole focus is gender and not race, as they are facing both racist and sexist derogatory remarks and/or attacks. The 1990s was also a period when gender was not merely seen as something that needed to be overcome, but rather multiplied in order to broaden the spectrum of gender identities.

1. The divide between sex and gender

1.1 The interconnections between sex and gender: how to read Simone de Beauvoir

At the beginning of Gender Trouble, Butler discusses the major contributions made by Simone de Beauvoir regarding the divide between sex (natural) and gender (cultural). In her seminal book The Second Sex (1949), the French philosopher brought up the idea that despite the establishment of a welfare State based on universal ideals after World War II in France, women were still considered as lesser knowers ((Being ‘a knower’ in philosophical terms means that someone has knowledge and the ability to be rational. Women are often depicted as lesser knowers than men.)) than men and had to work more because of the internalisation of domestic chores such as cleaning homes or taking care of children. Beauvoir therefore considered that women are shaped in order to please men and not have full existences: they are ‘immanent’, which means they only have a physical presence and do not think as independent and free agents. Because of their immanent roles, knowledge has been shaped by a man’s mind and feminine bodies and minds have been historically moulded in order to be more submissive; however, there is nothing, ‘biologically speaking’, that indicates that they must be less important individuals than men.

Being a woman is neither natural nor pre-determined: there is a divide between what Beauvoir calls ‘sex’ - being male or female depends on chromosomes, sexual organs and other physical features - and ‘gender’, which is a socially constructed category. She expresses her ideas in this famous quotation “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” (Beauvoir, 1997, 267). Women’s identities are shaped by men’s expectations and must correspond to idealised forms of womanhood - how to be a ‘good mother’, a good wife and so on. Men shaped philosophy with dualisms where women represent the negative side of an electric battery while men are the positive side. They do not exist as independent and positive beings but always represent ‘the Other’.

By deconstructing their social conditions, women will be able to challenge men’s views and free themselves. Therefore, Beauvoir states that they should live up to masculine models of knowledge and conditions and free themselves by becoming able autonomous knowers.

By pointing out that gender is socially constituted, Beauvoir provides intellectual weapons in order to question the imbalance of power between the two sexes. Power, understood here as power-over ((Power is a central notion in feminist studies. Theorists try to analyse it by deconstructing the oppressive mechanisms at play and ‘power-over’ is understood here as domination.)), has always been constituted and held by men in Western societies, and is shaped by masculine medical and religious beliefs. Why have women been culturally shaped as less able individuals than men, despite living in more democratic and progressive societies than before? According to Beauvoir, biological determinism shaped by male prejudices has been very coercive for women, especially during the 19th century in Western Europe. For instance, doctors and researchers assumed that women were passive because of their weaker mental states and physical conditions (eg. because of their smaller brains, women are less intelligent). By doing so, men tried to give pseudo-natural explanations in order to justify brutal and condescending behaviours. The epistemological category of gender is de facto fundamental as it shows how various cultural mechanisms shaped the oppression of one specific group.

Beauvoir greatly influenced the whole world with her theory and was particularly popular in the United States, where the feminist second wave was prominent.

Social norms

Social norms are the informal rules that govern behaviour in groups and societies. Because of their informal nature, they are difficult to analyse and can be performed unconsciously by people. They can be formalised by written rules (“Do not walk on the grass”) and social pressure (women are often on diet because they internalised the fact that they should be skinnier). Various constructed social norms exist to dictate the supposed feminine behaviour women must embrace.

1.2 Sex and social construction: Monique Wittig and Judith Butler

Simone de Beauvoir highlighted the fact that women are oppressed based on cultural construct, thanks to her distinction between gender and sex. If we take a closer look at her book’s title, Beauvoir points out that there are actually two ‘types’ of sexes: one is biological while the other is social. Also, by naming her work ‘the second sex’, Beauvoir implies that one sex is stronger than another, but that the same is not true for gender, which is slightly paradoxical since she clearly explains that there is a divide between an immutable and a cultural object. Is biological sex unproblematic then?

The assumption regarding the division between sex and gender has been criticised throughout the 20th century by Western feminist philosophers. Indeed, if women need to be freed from their presumed destinies shaped by the masculine gaze, it means it is also paramount to focus on biology and the assumed normality of sexes too. There are plenty of cases where sex is also constituted and shaped by harmful prejudices caused by the medical body: for instance, it is quite common for wealthy Indian families to pay for an abortion if the baby is a girl in order to not raise a child who will cost money and pay a dowry later for a wedding ((FARCIS. Sébastien. 2012. « L'avortement sélectif en Inde. » Ailleurs, France Inter. <https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/ailleurs/ailleurs-17-janvier-2012>))People put social expectations on sex, and that is mainly why sexism - the belief that the members of one sex are less intelligent and skilful than the other one - is perpetuated. People therefore focus on genitalia in order to discover the ‘true nature’ of an individual.

The French writer and philosopher Monique Wittig (1935-2003) was one of the first to highlight this contradiction because it seems necessary, in order to overcome gender differences, to abolish male/female categories (Robin, 2011, 124-125). By studying the gendered characterisation of French language (the use of the male pronoun to describe the universal), she shows that the ‘masculine’ is always preferred to the feminine. Therefore, a universal and egalitarian society cannot exist if a division based on sex persists. Wittig thinks there is a way to end discriminations between men and women by abolishing all gender and sex categories: there are neither women nor men, neither female nor male, but only human beings.

In the second chapter of The Straight Mind - One is not born a woman ((In French, “On ne naît pas femme”. See also her first chapter entitled “The Sex Category” (“La Catégorie de Sexe”).)) (published in 1992 and based on a speech she gave at Barnard College in 1979), Wittig builds on Beauvoir’s famous quote and argues that sexual characteristics also inform a presumed social destiny. If we consider that someone is born a woman because she has a vagina and reproductive organs, it means we expect her to fulfil an ‘interior essence’ by acting in the way that females are expected to act. Wittig therefore denounces the fact that people are always looking to adjust their gender to what sex entails, meaning that women must perfect their womanhood based on their reproductive organs.

In Gender Trouble Judith Butler argues that Beauvoir’s and Wittig’s theories about the social nature of sex and gender are problematic: indeed, both consider that a ‘universal subject of woman’ exists and must be freed. According to Judith Butler, this premise is wrong because every woman is different: women do not have the same background, age, race and interests, hence the idea that they do not share the same experiences. Therefore, women with various life experiences do not fight back against sexist assumptions in the exact same way, because those prejudices are shaped differently in distinct cultures. As there is no common epistemology, it is impossible to affirm that universal beings exist or that there is a supposed universal sex: just as women have different social experiences, they do not have the same exact bodies. For Butler:

“If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.” (Butler, 1990, 7)

Based on what has been said so far, we can posit from a discursive perspective that the “immutable character of sex is contested” since gender is based on presumed sexual features shaped by doubtful biological determinism. What Butler states is not that sexual organs do not exist but rather that normalised and coercive discourses always shape the meaning of sex.

Sex and gender are intertwined in situations where what is biological - the fact that women can bear children, for instance - is blurred by social expectations: since women can be pregnant, it must mean that they are more nurturing and caring people, which in turn means that they should all become mothers. This results in the fact that some of them are criticised and pressured when they do not want children. Social expectations are shaped by presumed biological traits and people have a tendency to ‘correct’ what is perceived as a troubling situation: for instance, when a child is too young for people to determine which gender she/he is, they often ask quite naturally “is it a boy or a girl?”, as if it were mandatory to know the reproductive organs of a young child in order to understand her/his actions. Butler considers that there is some odd obsession about sexual features, which highlights their social importance.

2. Butler's conception of gender 

2.1 Gender as a performance

“We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us, but actually it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time […]” (Judith Butler, “Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender”)

“Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender". Source: YouTube

According to Butler, people place a lot of importance on sex by implying that there are social expectations behind it. If sex is not just the biological meaning of gender, it means therefore that there is an ‘unnatural’ continuum between the two.

By saying both gender and sex are social, Butler challenges the assumption that there be a core essence to people: according to her, there is ‘no stable essence’ of womanhood to be found. Butler argues that people are constantly acting as if their gender were “an internal reality or something that is simply true about [them]” but as stated earlier in this article, gender seems to be unstable as a result of its coercive nature. The essences of woman or man are non-existent, since gender is moveable, changeable and “is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time”.

To the extent that people do not have inner essences, gender is something that people do. It is enacted on a daily basis and repeated through specific series of actions: for instance, for some women, putting makeup on in the morning is a kind of ritual. They tend to think that their identity relies partly on this habit, which is something they perceive as essential in order to feel like a woman. Hence, individuals believe their gender is natural, because such transmissions from the social environment are reinforcing this idea.

Butler states that gender is something that is constantly learnt: what individuals perceive as a natural given is in fact an unconscious and continual gendered performance. A gendered performance implies an audience, which will (in)validate someone’s acts. For instance, when a man is prejudiced against women who do not wear makeup and says to his girlfriend that she ‘should’ wear some (which means she is not acting as expected if she does not), he is invalidating her way of being a woman. There therefore seems to be a gendered script to follow based on social conventions: any action that goes against this script must be corrected. For instance, when a woman mistakenly goes to the men’s lavatory, her act is perceived as wrong and must be corrected: she has to go to the right one. It indicates that gender is ephemeral because it needs to be repeated and learnt throughout an entire life and those recurring mistakes prove it.

The performance metaphor helps to fully grasp the social nature of gender and sex but it also functions well as a parody of it. A parody is here understood by Butler as an exaggerated gendered act. Thus, she considers drag as the ultimate parody of gender, because someone consciously impersonates a character from a different gender than his/her own. Butler goes even further by considering that drag impersonation is more than a parody and calls it a “subversion” of gender identity since it questions feminine/masculine norms.

In order to understand the parodic nature of a gendered performance, we can refer to the movie Brokeback Mountain (2005). The film tells the story of two gay cowboys who fall in love after working together: the main actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, are not gay in real life, which shows that the performance metaphor could be temporary without actually troubling gender. However, in order to fully grasp Butler’s philosophical contributions to feminism, the performative nature of gender, and how it goes beyond a simple parody, must be explained.

2.2 Gender as performative

“[…] To say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.” (Judith Butler, “Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender”)

In Butler’s understanding of gender, saying something is performative is slightly different from saying it is a performance; indeed, she insists on the fact that “nobody really is a gender from the start” but through coercive social norms, people are convinced their gender is real or ‘true’ and goes beyond a simple performance. Social norms sometimes appear natural to us, and to this extent, gender is performative because it produces a specific reality people are complying with. In Orlando the main character states she/he still is the same person even though he/she became a woman. However, she/he is shocked by the changes of attitudes, especially those of men, after she became female; she is not able to travel alone anymore and needs a man’s approval for everything she/he wants to do. Orlando also feels that men are violent and pernicious towards women, and even if she/he is still Orlando in her/his head with a masculine socialisation, people are forcing him/her to get into a new social role. Gender is performative in this very sense, as it creates social norms that appear natural but are potentially coercive.

There is a continuum between a performance and what is performative, between the parody of reality (playing a gay person even if the actor/ress is not), and what people consider as reality. Therefore, gendered acts shape social life and impact other people, especially children even before they were born.

If gender is performative, not only performed, it means gendered actions generate social norms and deeply impact social reality. Consequences can be far more serious than performing on a stage: for instance, tomboys can be bullied violently at school, as they do not conform.

In order to explain the concept of performativity, it would be of interest to look at John Austin’s theory which inspired Butler. John Austin (1911-1960) is a British philosopher who argued that language is not merely descriptive, but impacts reality. For instance, when someone promises something to somebody, the promise should be honored and it can prompt physical movement in order to uphold the agreement. Thus, if you promise you are going to buy a phone for your friend, you must walk to a shop. According to Butler, gender works the same way, because it is enacted through a series of repeated acts based on belief about biological determinism, and those assumptions trigger a specific social reality.

Gender is also performative when there is an audience. Because of the series of effects it produces, a certain view of the world is created that is not merely descriptive. The way people walk, talk, dress, is informing gendered reality. Individuals are constantly reinforcing theirs by repeating their identity through attitudes and clothes in front of people. As we have stated above, something performative can trigger coercive social norms and harmful stereotypes. That is the case when women are suffering because of men’s prejudices but also because of other women’s. The paradox lies in the fact that, according to Butler, subjects are necessarily dominated: it is because they think some norms are natural that they reckon they are free, but since they depend on habits that can be insidious in order to constitute their self, they are dominated. The fact that we have to constantly ‘repeat’ a gender through a series of actions means there are discrepancies between one subject’s will and social expectations. Performances can be flawed - because gender is not fixed - and some people can suffer psychological and physical violence if they do not respect ‘the norm’: in her introduction of Undoing Gender (6), Butler refers to the sordid case of a gay teenager named Mathew Shepard, killed for being too ‘feminine’ by his classmates who had appointed themselves judges of appropriate gender norms.

Cross-dressers ((According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a cross-dresser is a person “who sometimes wears clothes associated with the opposite sex, as a form of self-expression”.)) , for Butler, epitomise the fact that gender can be parodied, performed and questioned at the same time. The frontier between what is masculine and what is feminine is blurry, but in extreme situations, not observing this female/male divide can lead to death. It is for example the case in Iran, where homosexuals can risk the death penalty.

John Austin’s speech acts: How to do Things with Words (1962)

John Austin (1911-1960) is a British philosopher of language. He assumes that language can be “performative”, by impacting social reality, and is not merely descriptive: certain social situations are enacted through specific linguistic actions. For instance, a marriage between two people is effective when the mayor/priest announces the validity of the union. Performative language is also called a “speech act”. Austin developed into three points what he calls “performative utterances”:

Locutionary act: language is a game formed in individuals’ minds and translated through grammar. For example, when someone plays Scrabble, words are coming into reality.

Perlocutionary act: it refers to the causality of the utterance. Those utterances have repercussions on the world. Words have the power to bring about some feelings when someone offends or congratulates somebody.

Illocutionary act (or speech act): an utterance poses social conventions by triggering movement. For example, when someone promises something to another person, it means that that person has to act in order to fulfil the agreement. Speech acts create reactions and expectations.

Butler is directly influenced by Austin’s work and mixes performativity with a phenomenological approach of subjects (bodies and minds are physically and historically grounded). Gender is an act “that people come to perform in the mode of belief which has been rehearsed much like a script” (Butler, 1988, 526), and is informed by nonverbal communications (corporal acts) and language. It forms someone’s gender identity.

3. Butler's impact on queer theory

What is queer theory?

Queer theory is a pluridisciplinary field which emerged in the 1990s in the United States and had a major role in third-wave feminism. The adjective ‘queer’ signifies weird, odd, and it was used to designate non-heteronormative ((‘Heteronormative’: denoting a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the preferred sexual orientation.)) sexualities and insult gay and lesbian people at the beginning of the 20th century. It was first used as a slur towards effeminate gay men in a letter written by John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, who denounced the liaison between his son and Oscar Wilde. The term was then widely used by people who refused to take part in the heteronormative group in order to counter the stigma. Indeed, heteronormativity pertains to a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the ‘normal’ sexual orientation and also implies a strict gender division. Queer theory states that people should not necessarily define themselves according to binary norms: since gender is not fixed (and the same goes for sexuality or sex), it can be multiplied. Instead of demanding the abolition of gender, queer people advocate for the multiplication of genders.

Queer theory has been heavily influenced by the work of French authors such as philosopher Michel Foucault, who highlighted the fact that sexual orientation and gender are constructed on problematic coercive norms that produce subjects. According to Foucault in History of Sexuality (1976), sexual preferences are social constructs based on the heterosexual/homosexual divide in order to discriminate gender non-conforming individuals, i.e. people who do not conform to binary gender roles. The debates within the trio sex/gender/sexual orientation are prominent in queer theory.

In the 1980s many US researchers inspired by feminist studies started to form what is called nowadays ‘queer theory’ from various disciplines. The main question is about subjects and identity; how is a sexual or gendered identity formed? Why do certain norms about gender division and heteronormativity seem to be more accepted than others? Many theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Segdwick, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich and Diana Fuss have fed this intellectual movement: Butler became the non-official ‘leader’ of queer theory, through her academic work, most notably Gender Trouble.

3.1 Gender fluidity and intersex people

Shaped by theorists such as Judith Butler, third-wave feminism does not merely define two types of subjects who are ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. The fact that gender and sex are social constructs broadens the perspectives of gender. Gender Trouble is subtitled Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which hints at the fact there are many ways in which someone can challenge binary standards by playing with gender norms. In this respect, in Undoing Gender (2004), Butler talks about non-conforming people such as drag queens/kings ((A drag queen/king is a person who dresses in drag and often acts with exaggerated femininity/masculinity and in feminine/masculine gender roles. They can be entertainers, but some people dress as drags on a daily basis.)) and transgender people ((People are trans when they consider that their gender identity differs from their biological sex (what is expected from the sex there were born with). Cisgender people, on the contrary, consider that their gender identity matches their biological sex. Most people are cisgender people. The prefixes ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ both come from Latin: ‘cis’ means “this side of”, and ‘trans’ means “the other side of”. For some people, their gender and sex are on “the same side” and for others, their gender and sex are not aligned.)) .

Drag queens/kings are indeed performing specific gender roles while also making them performative, because they disturb binary models by existing in the gender model they choose. The same thing could be argued about trans people, who are evidently questioning models of femininity and masculinity by transitioning from a gender to another.

Instead of only focusing on violence against women, Butler highlights other assaults perpetrated by people who deeply believe in a fixed, binary gendered system: because those people are convinced that gender is ‘natural’, they try to punish and ‘correct’ others. However, she insists on the fact there is no need to do so given that “there is no original or primary gender a drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (cited in Fuss, 1991, 21). According to her, the problem lies with people who think gender is innate. By subverting their gender, queer people are playing with norms and taking some distance. That is why third-wave feminism and queer theory advocate for a plurality of genders, a system that could be fluid rather than binary. People can experience a broad spectrum of genders by playing with masculine/feminine standards at the same time.

Still in her book Undoing Gender, Butler argues in favour of intersex ((Intersex people are individuals born with none of the several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals. Intersex people, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies”. Source: Wikipedia)) people. In her chapter “Doing justice to someone: sex reassignment and allegories of transsexuality” (2004, 57-74), she focuses on the case of a young boy, David Reimer, who was raised as a girl after being mutilated by a doctor who burnt his penis after his birth. A sexologist named John Money considered that his parents needed to raise him as a girl in order to integrate gendered social norms since the child did not have a penis anymore, and should have a vagina instead. Money informed what is called the ‘nature-nurture debate’; indeed, some people believe that before a certain age, someone’s behaviour can be changed easily and so can their gender, contrary to prenatal characteristics or genes, which cannot be changed regardless of the social environment. By thinking that the child was too young to ‘realise’ he was a boy, Money considered that everything would go smoothly if he became a woman. Doctors are therefore not oblivious to the fact that there are sexual and gendered norms, and their goal is to ‘normalise’ and correct sexes. After his teenage years, David Reimer decided to live his life as a man but he tragically committed suicide at the age of 39.

Even though David Reimer’s case is specific - he was not intersex at birth - his situation speaks for a lot of non-conforming people with ‘abnormal’ sexual characteristics. Many intersex people do not give their consent before surgeries; most of them are performed when they are very little. They also speak out about the fact that they are pressured into conforming to gender roles in order to adapt to society, whilst cisgender ((Cisgender people consider that their gender identity matches their biological sex.)) women or men are not asked to be ultra-feminine/masculine all the time in order to live their gender. Since the 1990s, the intersex cause has grown and these cases definitely show that sex is not immutable. Even ‘nature’ cannot be reduced to a binary system.

Gender stereotypes

Gender stereotypes can be defined as preconceived ideas whereby females and males are assigned - through social conventions and habits - characteristics and roles limited by their supposed gender. These stereotypes can be harmful, physically and psychologically, especially when you are non-gender conforming (a trans person for example).

3.2 Gender identity and non-binary people

In order to complete Butler’s analysis regarding gender performativity, the case of non-binary people, who consider they do not have one gender, but several, should be mentioned. Their gender identity is not limited by a binary system: they can be a mix of the two genders, between the two, or none of the two. Non-binary people consider that fixed gender norms are problematic, but instead of getting rid of them - which is almost impossible - they multiply their gender identities.

In English, the pronoun used for non-binary individuals is the gender-neutral form ‘they’, whereas in French, the contraction between ‘il’ and ‘elle’ (ul, iel) had to be created. ‘They’ could be considered as more accurate because it implies the existence of a gender plurality; however, some grammarians argue that the usage of a plural pronoun is incorrect to refer to individuals. This argument could be easily dismissed since in 14th-century British literature ‘they’ had a singular form which was used in the writings of Shakespeare, Chaucer or Dickinson ((MANION, Jen. 2019. Opinion: The rightness of the singular ‘they’. Los Angeles Times. <https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-12-15/they-singular-grammar-transgender-history>)). In comparison, ‘you’ was considered as plural until the 17th century.

What it means to be non-binary. Source: YouTube.


Judith Butler’s research in gender and queer theory has been of great influence as she was able to address the experiences of gender non-conforming individuals, such as drag, intersex, non-binary or trans people. Her discursive understanding of gender and sex allows us to fully understand certain specific oppressive acts within patriarchal societies and invites us to be more critical of supposed natural gendered traits. Virginia Woolf’s quote in Orlando seems to illustrate Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity quite well. Indeed, the two characters are constantly enacting their genders and making them appear natural in order to perpetuate certain normalised acts. Woolf’s novel and Butler’s theory both show that people’s identities are far more complex than the binary standards imposed on them and that women are not a unified group with stable feminine characteristics. Sex is not the biological meaning of gender and is already socially constructed by norms, just as gender is an ongoing performance. Through her work, Butler makes us aware of the underlying mechanisms that fuel certain patriarchal incentives and feeds our critical knowledge of binary categories, based on supposed natural masculine or feminine traits. Conversely people’s particularities should be valued and complexified with queer contributions to point to the multiplicity of gender identities.



AUSTIN, John L. 1962 (1955). How to do Things with Words. London: Oxford University Press.

BEAUVOIR, de Simone. 1997 (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage Classics.   

BUTLER, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.

−. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: A Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, Theatre Journal, volume 40, n°4, pp. 519-531. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3207893>

−. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York and London: Routledge.

CRENSHAW, Kimberlé. 1991 (1989). “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, volume 43, pp. 1241-1299. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039>  

FINLAY, Toby. 2017. “Non-Binary Performativity: A Trans-Positive Account of Judith Butler’s Queer”, Laurier Undergraduate Journal of the Arts, volume 4, pp.12-25. <https://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1051&context=luja>

FUSS, Diana. 1991. Inside/Out. Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York and London: Routledge.

ROBIN, Kate. 2011. “Beyond Sex: The Utopian Project of Monique Wittig”, Association française des anthropologues, volume 124-125, pp. 71-97. <https://journals.openedition.org/jda/5279>

WITTIG, Monique. 2007 (1992). La pensée straight. Editions Amsterdam.

WOOLF, Virginia. 2016 (1928). Orlando. London: Penguin.

Further reading

BICCHIERI, Cristina, MULDOON, Ryan and SONTUOSO Alessandro. 2011. “Social Norms”, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-norms/>

HALL, Jack. 2016. Tracing the history of the word ‘queer’. Dazed. <https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/32213/1/tracing-the-history-of-the-word-queer>

MIKKOLA, Mirai. 2008. “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/#BioDet>

Pour citer cette ressource :

Marilou Niedda, "Feminist and queer studies: Judith Butler’s conceptualisation of gender", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2020. Consulté le 25/10/2020. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/feminist-and-queer-studies-judith-butlers-conceptualisation-of-gender