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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  • 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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