A Short Animated Film Explores the Fluidity of Gender in the Thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler

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.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

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

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  • Gerald says:

    Men and women are dif­fer­ent and this is a bio­log­i­cal fact. There are dif­fer­ences in their brains, hor­mones, chro­mo­somes, and (obvi­ous­ly) bod­ies. Vir­tu­al­ly any atten­tive par­ent with male and female chil­dren will observe dif­fer­ences in their natures from the out­set. Social­iza­tion plays some role over time, but to deny inher­ent dif­fer­ences is to deny bio­log­i­cal real­i­ty.

  • Kristian says:

    You’re talk­ing about sex, this arti­cle (and the videos and pret­ty much all of But­ler’s work!) is about gen­der.

    As such, your bio­log­i­cal asser­tions are pret­ty much irrel­e­vant here.

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