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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  • 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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