In hindsight, it seems like a very different world when I first read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in college in the 90s. (Mash together all your stereotypes about college campuses in the 90s and you’ve pretty much got the picture.) For one thing, columnists in major national newspapers and magazines weren’t writing controversial, or simply explanatory, articles about gender fluidity. The concept did not exist in the mainstream press. It seemed both hip and rarified, confined to theory discussion groups, academic seminars, and punk zines.
As radical as Butler’s ideas about gender seemed, she acknowledged that she did not originate the critique. She found it first articulated in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which the French existentialist feminist wrote, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”
In the short film above, Devenir (To Become), by French filmmaker Géraldine Charpentier-Basille, Butler describes her reaction to reading the passage. “I wrote something about this problem of becoming. And I wanted to know: does one ever become one? Or is that to be a woman is a mode of becoming… that has no goal…. You could say the same of gender more generally.”
As the images illustrating this extract from a 2006 interview with Butler show, the goalposts of feminine and masculine identities move all the time, from year to year, from culture to culture. Gender is a pastiche of representations we inhabit. It is produced, performative, Butler thought, but we can never get it “right” because there is no true referent. The idea descends from the existentialist insights of de Beauvoir, who wrote about and dramatized similar problems of the personal and social self.
De Beauvoir extended Sartre’s claim that “existence precedes essence” in her pioneering feminist work—we come into the world, then acquire identities through acculturation, social conditioning, and coercion. Butler extended the argument further. “For her, writes Aeon’s Will Fraker, “gender wasn’t predetermined by nature or biology, nor was it simply ‘made up’ by culture. Rather, Butler insisted that gender resides in repeated words and actions, words and actions that both shape and are shaped by the bodies of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. And crucially, such repetitions are rarely performed freely.”
From our earliest years, we are trained how to behave as a gender, just as we are taught to perform other identities—trained by the expectations of parents, teachers, religious leaders, advertisers, and the bullying and social pressure of our peers. Hear Butler explain further how gender, in her theory, functions as “a phenomenon that is produced and is being reproduced all the time…. Nobody really is a gender from the start. I know it’s controversial,” she says. “But that’s my claim.” It is one that poses complicated questions more broadly, notes Aeon, about “the pursuit of the ‘authentic’ self” as a meaningful idea—questions Western philosophers have been asking for well over half a century.