Theorist Judith Butler Explains How Behavior Creates Gender: A Short Introduction to “Gender Performativity”

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” wrote Simone de Beau­voir in one of the most famous artic­u­la­tions of the dif­fer­ence between sex and gen­der. By this, de Beau­voir does not mean us to believe that no one is born with repro­duc­tive organs, but that the social role of “woman” (or for that mat­ter “man”) comes from a col­lec­tion of behav­iors into which we are social­ized. The dis­tinc­tion is cru­cial for under­stand­ing most fem­i­nist and queer the­o­ry and the vari­ety of human iden­ti­ty more gen­er­al­ly, yet it’s one that too often gets lost in pop­u­lar usage of the words sex and gen­der. Biol­o­gy does not deter­mine gen­der dif­fer­ences, cul­ture does.

Gen­der becomes nat­u­ral­ized, woven so tight­ly into the social fab­ric that it seems like a nec­es­sary part of real­i­ty rather than a con­tin­gent pro­duc­tion of his­to­ry. Just how this hap­pens is complicated—we don’t invent these roles, they are invent­ed for us, as Judith But­ler argues in her essay “Per­for­ma­tive Acts and Gen­der Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Gen­der iden­ti­ty “is a per­for­ma­tive accom­plish­ment,” she writes, “com­pelled by social sanc­tion and taboo…. Gen­der is… an iden­ti­ty insti­tut­ed through a rep­e­ti­tion of acts.” For a some­what more straight­for­ward sum­ma­ry of her the­o­ry of “per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty,” see But­ler in the Big Think video above, in which she describes gen­der as a “phe­nom­e­non that’s being pro­duced all the time and repro­duced all the time.”

Still unclear? Well, it’s com­pli­cat­ed, but so is every oth­er facet of human iden­ti­ty many peo­ple take for grant­ed, espe­cial­ly peo­ple whose gen­der expres­sion doesn’t threat­en strict soci­etal norms. For a more thor­ough overview of these con­cepts, see the Phi­los­o­phy Tube video above, which explains Butler’s the­o­ry and a num­ber of oth­er terms cen­tral to the dis­course, such as “gen­der essen­tial­ism” and “social con­struc­tivism.” One thing to note about But­ler’s the­o­ry, as both she and our philoso­pher above explain, is that “per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty,” though it uses a the­atri­cal metaphor, is not the same as “per­for­mance.” Gen­der is not a cos­tume one puts on and takes off, like a Shake­speare­an actor play­ing male char­ac­ters one night and female char­ac­ters the next.

Rather, the tech­ni­cal term “per­for­ma­tive” means for But­ler an act that not only com­mu­ni­cates but also cre­ates an iden­ti­ty. Some exam­ples offered above of per­for­ma­tive speech include say­ing “guilty” at a tri­al, which turns one into an inmate, or say­ing “I do” at a wed­ding, which turns one into a spouse. Per­for­ma­tive acts of gen­der do a sim­i­lar kind of work, not only com­mu­ni­cat­ing to oth­ers some aspect of iden­ti­ty, but con­struct­ing that very iden­ti­ty, only they do that work through rep­e­ti­tion. As de Beau­voir argued, we are not born a self, we become, or cre­ate, a self, through social pres­sure to con­form and through “reit­er­at­ing and repeat­ing the norms through which one is con­sti­tut­ed,” But­ler writes.

As we might expect of any cul­tur­al con­struct, gen­der norms vary wide­ly both inter- and intra-cul­tur­al­ly and through­out his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. And giv­en their con­struct­ed nature, they can change in any num­ber of ways. There­fore, accord­ing to But­ler, “there’s not real­ly any grounds,” as our phi­los­o­phy explain­er puts it, “for say­ing that somebody’s ‘doing their gen­der wrong.’”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Judy!: 1993 Judith But­ler Fanzine Gives Us An Irrev­er­ent Punk-Rock Take on the Post-Struc­tural­ist Gen­der The­o­rist

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Fem­i­nist Phi­los­o­phy of Simone de Beau­voir

11 Essen­tial Fem­i­nist Books: A New Read­ing List by The New York Pub­lic Library

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Ethan says:

    Josh… You can do bet­ter. You feed us two bloat­ed pas­sages that are meant to describe her the­o­ries, and actu­al­ly encom­pass them, but admit that Judith’s the­o­ry is too com­plex to do so ade­quate­ly. Even though you tried. Then you knew you were fail­ing and tucked your lit­er­ary tail between your legs and essen­tial­ly said “screw it” and gave up. “Don’t get? I don’t either,” is all you say for three fourths of this arti­cle. You’re obvi­ous­ly a tal­ent­ed writer. Now drink some cof­fee and don’t be so lazy with the next one.

  • John says:

    This whole the­o­ry is pure bunkum. But­ler her­self, a butch woman, hat­ed the gen­der norms which she her­self could­n’t per­form. The whole the­o­ry is an elab­o­rate ruse based on her own self-loathing.

  • Anon says:

    Damn, it’s iron­ic then that I am here because of a class that includes teach­ing her the­o­ry. A lit­er­a­ture class. This is lit­er­al­ly the link our pro­fes­sor gave us. I’ve read some pret­ty poor­ly writ­ten arti­cles for school before, but this has hon­est­ly got to be the worst one.

  • Leonard says:

    Dit­to folks, I’m here because this arti­cle was a required read­ing for my lit­er­a­ture class. Even if I agreed with the the­o­ry (which I don’t), I would still have to admit that this a poor­ly writ­ten argu­ment and does not make the con­cept seem any more plau­si­ble.

  • Tyler Durden says:

    John, you sound like you came right out of Idioc­ra­cy, the movie. Why do you think she can’t per­form fem­i­nin­i­ty? I don’t think she wants to. Why would she loathe her­self for not embody­ing inani­ty (which is kind of what femininity/trad wom­an­hood is)? Are you for real? Lol

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