Judith Butler

I wailed as tears cascaded down my cheeks!  It just couldn’t be true.  I sat on his lap a week ago and stroked his big, fluffy beard.  I saw the empty plate where I left cookies.  My whole childhood world was rocked!  If the Santa example does not hold any significance for you, take a second and think of how you felt when the Great and Powerful Oz was reduced to a mere unimpressive mortal.  Things are not always what they seem!  Our minds have been influenced to conceive many ideas that indeed may not be true.  We are constantly molded and formed by many forces including social norms and our social locations; we are repeatedly inundated with input from a variety of media.  Judith Butler [1] impacted the world by arguing that we have been deceived in regards to sex and gender.  She offers a new understanding of these concepts and urges us to trouble the oppressive, commonly held norms of sex and gender.

Butler maintains that one of the foundational assumptions of feminist theory is erroneous.  She challenges the understanding of the category of women, asserting that there is much more intricacy to the category women than is commonly represented by the term.[2]  People, categorized as women, have varying experiences and face different degrees of oppression based on their contexts.  Butler argues, “If one is ‘woman’ that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities”.[3]  Consequently, the term women, as used by feminist theory, is inadequate because it essentializes a gender binary.  Not only is the term deficient, but Butler further suggests that sex and gender are social constructs[4].  She disputes the popular argument that sex is biological.[5]  To her, sex is a construct which is attributable to the creative power of scientific discourse.  As humans, we frequently put our trust in the orthodoxy of science, but this orthodoxy is deceptive.  For example, David Page of MIT and his colleagues influentially claim to have found the “master gene” that determines sex. They labeled it “TDF” (testis determining factor);[6] in contrast, Butler asserts that it is “precisely the designation of male and female that is under question and that it is implicitly already decided by the recourse to external genitalia”.[7]  Page and his colleagues affirm the oppressive, heteronormative assumption that genitalia determine male and female.  Butler emphasizes the illogicality of the “master gene” study because she posits: “If external genitalia were sufficient as a criterion by which to determine or assign sex, then the experimental research into the master gene would hardly be necessary at all”.[8]

Furthermore, Butler also states that our ideas of gender are culturally influenced.  As a result, there is no true understanding of man or woman.[9]  Feminist theory often strives to reclaim what it means to be a woman.  Butler addresses Julia Kristeva’s theory that claims maternity is how women subversively rediscover themselves and understand themselves in a patriarchal world.  Butler draws on Michel Foucault who maintains that Kristeva’s theory is a product of discourse.  Butler explains: “Insofar as Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, she fails to consider the way in which the very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress”.[10]  In short, to Butler, patriarchy heavily bombards our assumptions of gender.

Another concept characterizes Butler’s views on Gender; she defines gender as performance, maintaining: “My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed”.[11]  Performance determines gender and not biology or imposed social guidelines.  Butler argues: “The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects”.[12]  An individual’s repetitive performance ultimately impacts and determines their gender; regularly performing as a male, female, or both determines gender. Biology fails to determine gender and gender does not have to follow the assigned heteronormative roles of our hegemonic world.

Butler calls for the ignition of trouble!  She asserts we “should think through the possibility of subverting and displacing those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power, to make gender trouble”.[13]  She calls for the achievement of this goal through the “mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place”.[14]  The oppressive, phallogocentric categories of our world need to be taken to the curb with the rest of our garbage.  Though the task of deconstructing hegemonic gender norms appears impossible, Butler maintains its attainability. Through the process of the “repetitive signifying”, a “subversion of identity becomes possible” that can “contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms”.[15]  Butler explains, “loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity, and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: ‘man’ and ‘woman’”.[16]  Hegemonic gender roles are an overwhelming source of oppression; we have a duty to deconstruct them to eliminate gender troubles.  Deconstruction of heteronormative gender roles is an important task because these categories “seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity”.[17]  This deconstructive concept is poignant because people focus on fulfilling prescribed gender roles.  Hegemonic gender roles are fallacious, serving to impede growth and happiness as they limit human possibility.

It is baffling to think of how many people experience enforced limited potential or suffer mental health devastation as a consequence of contemporary gender illusions.  We are indoctrinated in our gender experiences and often hold on to them as truth.  A substantive portion of humanity may never question the gender norms that a phallogocentric world imposes on them.  Santa is not coming down your chimney, so light a fire under the mantle of your soul that burns consistently for the betterment of humankind through debunking the oppressive gender myths of the world.

Anonymous Student

[1]Author of Gender Trouble (1990); Bodies that Matter (1993); Undoing Gender (2004)

[2]Judith Butler. Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 2.

[3]Ibid., 3.

[4]Ibid., 7-8.

[5]Ibid., 8-10.

[6]Ibid., 145.

[7]Ibid., 147.


[9]Ibid., 5-6.

[10]Ibid., 122.

[11]Ibid., 195.

[12]Ibid., 198.

[13]Ibid., 46.


[15]Ibid., 198-199.

[16]Ibid., 200.

[17]Ibid., 46.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.