Nobody who keeps up with current discourse could fail to notice that gender has become a fraught topic in recent years. This condition can hardly have gone unforeseen by the theorist Judith Butler, who published the now-well-known volume Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity back in 1990. “Everybody has a theory of gender,” Butler says in the new Big Think video above. “Everybody has certain assumptions going about what gender is or should be. And at a certain point in life, we ask ourselves, ‘Wow, where’d that assumption come from?'” Butler’s career has, in part, focused on the search for the roots of these very assumptions.
This experience places Butler well to comment on the heated arguments about gender being stoked even now in the political realm, on social media, and elsewhere besides. “We have a whole range of differences, biological in nature, so I don’t deny them, but I don’t think they determine who we are in some sort of final way.”
As with many controversies — not least philosophical ones — a core problem has to do with differing definitions of words and concepts. At issue here in particular is “the distinction between sex and gender,” achieving a full understanding of which, to Butler’s mind, requires delving into all the relevant history, including the work of theorists like Gayle Rubin, Juliet Mitchell, and Simone de Beauvoir.
According to Butler, the “basic point” of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one, that the body is not a fact.” This possibility opened by de Beauvoir — that of “a difference between the sex you’re assigned and the sex you become” — has been much explored since the book’s publication nearly three quarters of a century ago. Some of those explorations have involved the idea of the “performative.” “We do enact who we are,” Butler says. “There are performances that we do in our lives that are not mere performance; they’re not fake.” Following on that, “what if we were to say that, in acting our lives as a particular gender, we are actually realizing that gender anew?” For many readers of gender theory, this raises a host of thrilling new possibilities, but behind it lies perhaps the oldest philosophical question of all: what, now, will you do?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.