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Judith Butler and Gender Performativity


Judith Butler encourages the theoretical approach that gender is not a natural phenomenon but rather a cultural destiny ordained by our interactions with hegemonic structures of power. Drawing from assertions from predominant feminist theorists, notably the declaration by Simone de Beauvoir that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (Butler, 2011, p. 1), Butler discusses gender as a product of cultural and political contexts. Whilst it would be correct to speak of sex concretely as a natural and biological fact, gender slips into the premise of cultural representation. In her understanding, gender does not simply occur or exist without action. Gender must be done, but it also must be performed. Butler asserts that it “is clear that one becomes a woman, but always under a cultural compulsion to become one”. Her insistence on the performative nature of gender identity is significant because for too long gender has been overrepresented as a natural phenomenon.


The overrepresentation of gender as natural has political implications that can be extremely repressing to the reversal of damaging binaries that function within the systems of hegemonic patriarchal power which serve to uphold the otherization of the woman. Exposing the performative nature of gender, then, also serves to expose the cultural construction of those systems which operate to represent the category of women to their own political intent. Drawing heavily on Foucault, a foundational thinker in the workings of power, Butler (2011) discusses how “judicial systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent” (p. 7). Butler elaborates on the cultural construction of gender within this production, discussing how women are ”regulated by such structures” and also “formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures” (p. 7). Butler’s theory of the construction of gender is significant in overturning the assumption that the hegemonic processes of power have an innate or natural basis. Sarah Salih (2007) elaborates on Butler’s interpretation of the cultural construction of gender, arguing: “all bodies are gendered from the beginning of their social existence (and there is no existence that is not social), which means that there is no natural body that pre-exists its cultural inscription” (p. 55).


Figure 1: Judith Butler (Wikipedia Commons, 2013).

If gender is never separate from the social, cultural, and political contexts within which it is produced and maintained, how does Butler perceive its creation? In the first chapter of Gender Trouble, Butler interprets gender as:


“the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Qtd in Salih, 2007, p. 55).

Butler’s interpretation of “the repeated stylisation of the body” (p. 55) illuminates much of her understanding of the ways in which gender is constructed. It is important to note the emphasis on “repeated”, which serves to enlighten the ways in which categories of gender become overrepresented as a fact of natural, biological existence. By consistently conforming to the binaries of gender and acting as a woman in the way that cultural powers insist, gender becomes indistinguishable from natural representations of the body. However, Butler is keen to establish the nonsensical nature of this representation since gender is not a stable notion and has not been such throughout history. Drawing on the differences in gender representations across temporal and cultural contexts, Butler ascertains that gender is not a fixed, innate phenomenon but rather the causal result of an act of doing, prescribed by the hegemonic inscription of how gender should be “done” within a specific temporal or societal context.


Figure 2: Women (Melo F., n.d.).

Butler’s attention to the performative nature of gender – the ways in which the subject performs their gender in repeated acts – is significant. It is also important to understand that the category of woman does not exist without this repeated act of creation. Li He (2017) elaborates:


“the concept of performance assumes an anterior subject. A subject is in the performance. The most ordinary people think the Subject exists before the performance. But Butler wants to express a reverse logic, namely performance precedes the subject, and the subject is endowed with meaning in the process of performance. This fits into the interpretation of “gender” as a kind of process” (p. 683).

Through her clarification of gender as a performance, Butler (2011) insists that “the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and […] a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies” (p. 136). If gender is a consistent act of creation in which cultural expectations are repeatedly manifested onto the body, then it is clear that gender exists solely as a construction, free from biological or innate implications.


Drawing attention to the performative nature of gender allows feminist theory to denaturalise the assumptions of women as the other. If gender identity is definitively a constructed entity, the oppressive cultural assumptions of the woman as weaker and naturally the “other“ to the hegemonic masculine power become easy to dismantle. Indeed, Butler (2011) explores the ways in which it might be possible to “act that gender in ways which will draw attention to the constructedness of heterosexual identities that may have a vested interest in presenting themselves as essential and natural” (Salih, 2017, p. 57). In this argument, gender is a form of parody, a performance of cultural assumptions that become inscribed onto the body. If gender is a parodic performance, then there are ways to perform gender to expose the constructed nature of the assumed natural expression.


Figure 3: Drag Queen (Dany Sternfeld, 2021).

The term “drag” originated in the 19th century as a way to describe the act of men dressing in women’s clothing. In the 21st century, drag is a popular expression, featuring artists who identify as male, presenting themselves in exaggeratedly feminine ways in performance. Popularised by entertainment media such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race, drag is a significant parodic expression of gender that exists to liberate. For Butler, drag has significant potential in exposing the performative nature of gender, arguing “in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency” (p. 137). Drag becomes a subversive act, a way of exposing the constructedness of gender as it exaggerates female expression. Heller (2020) speaks of the “generative and rich potential” of drag to subvert assumptions of gender as natural, exposing gender as a solely performative act through its “glamorous doing of hyper femininity” (p. 2). Challenging gender identity as a natural phenomenon, the parody of drag seeks to destabilize the assumedly natural binaries of man and woman by both deconstructing and exposing their performative and culturally founded reality.

While the subversive and positive effects of drag cannot be understated, it is significant to consider that drag still operates within the very hegemonic constructions of gender it seeks to dismantle. As Heller (2020) understands, “the tools we use to name and define” drag’s “potential directly reference the assumed biological mandate of” sex and gender (p. 4). In this assumption, the fact that drag operates within the cultural constructions of gender in its act of performance limits the extent to which we can argue for drag’s success in subverting the expectation of gender as a natural identity. Despite this, Heller (2020) clearly emphasises “the great potential of theatrical gender-bending to reveal how identities are not biological mandates but rather cultural ideologies that we do - and thus can undo or do differently” (p. 4).


The act of undoing prevalent assumptions of gender is clearly an ongoing process. However, the popularity of the discussion of gender as a performative construct is significant in exposing the unreliability of the assumption that gender is a fixed and stable entity. Parodies such as drag are crucial for exposing the constructedness and cultural fabrication of gender, showcasing the non-natural basis of gender in the way it exaggerates gender as a performative act.


Bibliographical References

Butler, J. (2011). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Press.


He, L. (2017). The Construction of Gender: Judith Butler and Gender Performativity. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, vol. 124, Atlantis Press.


Heller, M. (2020). ”What’s in a Name?: Redefining the Discourse of Gender-Bending”. In Queering Drag: Redefining the Discourse of Gender-Bending (pp. 1.-39). Indiana University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvtv93wm.5


Salih, S. (2007). ”On Judith Butler and Performativity”. Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life, SAGE.


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Wikipedia Commons. (2013). Judith Butler [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JudithButler2013.jpg


Figure 2: Melo, F. (n.d.). Women Illustration [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://99designs.com/inspiration/illustration/women


Figure 3: Sternfeld, D. (2021). Drag Queen [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://thesocietypages.org/trot/2021/07/07/doing-drag/


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