What Is Gender Theory? Berkeley Professor Judith Butler Explains

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?

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Judith But­ler on Non­vi­o­lence and Gen­der: Hear Con­ver­sa­tion with The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life

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

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

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Fem­i­nist Phi­los­o­phy of Simone de Beau­voir

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.


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Comments (5)
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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Yet the same peo­ple will tell you “Trust the sci­ence”

  • KYLE says:


  • Glenn Slaby says:

    It’s there not their. And the answer is no on XX and XY. Just research.

  • Art Collier says:

    LOL. Just research all of his­to­ry; only deca­dent mam­mals with sex­u­al per­ver­sions are delud­ed into think­ing there are more than two gen­ders.

  • Daniel Thaler says:

    What’s becom­ing con­fus­ing is strict­ly seman­tic. Unless you are going to try and change the mean­ings of a host of words, it’s basic. When asked what is my sex (peri­od) I would answer male. All of the oth­er issues, delib­er­ate­ly made prob­lem­at­ic to cloud the waters, come under the broad cat­e­go­ry of points of view, and are not med­ical real­i­ties. I don’t care what you want to do or what you ID with. No prob­lem. If noth­ing else, for the sake of med­ical expe­di­en­cy your bio­log­i­cal sex is, and should, is deter­mined by chro­mosones and so entered into med­ical records. A coun­try needs to know who makes up it’s cit­i­zen­ry Every­thing else in regard to all of this mess is up for grabs. Noth­ing about you feels akin to your bio­log­i­cal sex. Well then by all means make your­self feel com­fort­able in your own body. Peo­ple just won’t admit or even acknowl­edge that they are unequiv­i­caly a bio­log­i­cal male or female, but they don’t want to be in that role. They try to make the notion of male/female flawed. It isn’t, at it’s core and very essence. The rest is old hat already. You have the right to do what you want with your body and lifestyle, but deny­ing that one’s true sex is deter­mined by chro­mosnes is a cop out an to my think­ing a demon­stra­tion of shame. You’re queer. OK, let’s move on. If the word queer were not used so much by the L,G,B ETC., com­mu­ni­ty itself I would­n’t use it either, although it suc­cinct­ly sums it al up.

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