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Definition: BUTLER, JUDITH (1956–) from Historical Dictionary of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements

Butler's theoretical writing on gender and identity, specifically her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, along with Michel Foucault's work, informs queer theory. Butler writes that gender is socially constructed and privileges heterosexuality. She also writes about how the deconstruction of gender and sexuality leads to gendered beings. These gendered beings, she states, are performing gender based on cultural and regulatory constructs. Butler, thus, legitimates the lesbian and gay subject.

Summary Article: Butler, Judith
from The Politics of Gender: A Survey

Judith Butler’s (1956–) significant contributions to feminist theory are her engagement with the Foucauldian account of the body as the inscribed surface of regulatory discourses, an elaboration of gender as the performative stabilization of sexual difference, and considerations of the exclusion inevitable to any identity category. The popularity of Butler’s work indexes an increasingly philosophically-minded feminism in the Anglo-American academy.

Gender Trouble: The Subversion of Identity (1990) is one of the most widely read and controversial critiques of ‘woman’ as a universal and stable subject grounding feminism. Following Michel Foucault’s claim that juridical systems of power produce the subject they ostensibly represent, Butler argues that the subject ‘woman’, understood to ground the feminist enterprise, is instead a representational product of feminism. This argument and its ethical implication—that feminism must reckon with the exclusions foundational to any prescriptive description of identity—corroborates long-standing social difference critiques of the implicit attributes of the woman supposed to be the subject of feminism (‘able-bodied’, white, heterosexual, middle class).

Butler is best known for her formulation of ‘gender performative’, which articulates models of social life as a series of pre-scripted or ritual performances, with psychoanalytic descriptions of femininity as ‘masquerade’, and philosophical account of linguistic performativity. Employing Monique Wittig and Adrienne Rich’s critiques of compulsory heterosexuality, Butler describes a ‘heterosexual matrix’—a hegemonic, discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility—through which stable relations between sex (‘male’, ‘female’), heterosexual object choice, and gender (‘masculine’, ‘feminine’) are produced and maintained. Compulsory ‘gender performativity’ produces the naturalness of ‘sex’, while gay and lesbian parodies of gender, Butler argues, ‘implicitly reveal the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency’ (Butler 1990, 137).

Though Butler’s target audience is feminist, Gender Trouble has been hailed as a major contribution to the nascent field of queer theory. Popular applications of Butler’s work largely emphasize the theoretical valences of gender ‘performance’, valorizing (queer) texts that denaturalize ‘sex’ (camp, drag). Her Bodies That Matter (1993) responds to criticisms that Gender Trouble evacuates the materiality and historicity of the body, leaving gender simply a matter of choice. Bodies That Matter underscores the constraints upon performative utterance (symbolic intelligibility, for instance), and situates gender performativity in relation to speech act theory.

  • Creet, Julia in Code, Lorraine (ed.), Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories (London, and NY: Routledge, 2000), 69-70.
  • © Routledge 2010

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