Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Introduction to Judith Butler

This page gives an introduction to Judith Butler and the arguments put forward in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. Her subsequent publications (see bibliography at the bottom of this page) are covered here less. There are also links to a good student essay on Butler, and some interview extracts (both on this site), as well as web resources on other sites. Our queer theory pages have also expanded -- now featuring reviews and discussion of criticisms of queer theory.

Who is Judith Butler?

Judith Butler (1956-) is Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and is well known as a theorist of power, gender, sexuality and identity. Indeed, she is described in alt.culture as "one of the superstars of '90s academia, with a devoted following of grad students nationwide". (A fanzine, Judy!, was published in 1993).

What has she said?

In her most influential book, Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argued that feminism had made a mistake by trying to assert that 'women' were a group with common characteristics and interests. That approach, Butler said, performed 'an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations' -- reinforcing a binary view of gender relations in which human beings are divided into two clear-cut groups, women and men. Rather than opening up possibilities for a person to form and choose their own individual identity, therefore, feminism had closed the options down.

Butler notes that feminists rejected the idea that biology is destiny, but then developed an account of patriarchal culture which assumed that masculine and feminine genders would inevitably be built, by culture, upon 'male' and 'female' bodies, making the same destiny just as inescapable. That argument allows no room for choice, difference or resistance.

Butler prefers 'those historical and anthropological positions that understand gender as a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts'. In other words, rather than being a fixed attribute in a person, gender should be seen as a fluid variable which shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times.

The very fact that women and men can say that they feel more or less 'like a woman' or 'like a man' shows, Butler points out, that 'the experience of a gendered... cultural identity is considered an achievement.'

Butler argues that sex (male, female) is seen to cause gender (masculine, feminine) which is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender). This is seen as a kind of continuum. Butler's approach -- inspired in part by Foucault -- is basically to smash the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, free-floating and not 'caused' by other stable factors.

Butler says: 'There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.' (Gender Trouble, p. 25). In other words, gender is a performance; it's what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.

Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold (i.e. they have come to seem natural in our culture as it presently is) -- but, she suggests, it doesn't have to be that way. Rather than proposing some utopian vision, with no idea of how we might get to such a state, Butler calls for subversive action in the present: 'gender trouble' -- the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders -- and therefore identity.

Butler argues that we all put on a gender performance, whether traditional or not, anyway, and so it is not a question of whether to do a gender performance, but what form that performance will take. By choosing to be different about it, we might work to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity.

This idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to an 'essence', but instead a performance, is one of the key ideas in queer theory. Seen in this way, our identities, gendered and otherwise, do not express some authentic inner "core" self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances.

David Halperin has said, 'Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.'

It's not (necessarily) just a view on sexuality, or gender. It also suggests that the confines of any identity can potentially be reinvented by its owner...

And finally -- what has this got to do with media and communications studies? Well, the call for gender trouble has obvious media implications, since the mass media is the primary means for alternative images to be disseminated. The media is therefore the site upon which this 'semiotic war' (a war of symbols, of how things are represented) would take place. Madonna is one media icon who can be seen to have brought queer theory to the masses.

This text summarising Gender Trouble is copyright © David Gauntlett, 1998.

Quotes from Gender Trouble copyright © Judith Butler / Routledge, 1990.

Select bibliography

Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (Routledge, 1997).

The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (Stanford University Press, 1997).

Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, co-authored with Seyla Benhabib, Drucilla Cornell, and Nancy Fraser (Routledge, 1995).

Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (Routledge, 1993).

Feminists Theorize the Political, with Joan W. Scott (Routledge, 1992).

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990).

Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth Century France (Columbia University Press, 1987).

What's Left of Theory? - New Work on the State and Politics of Literary Theory by Judith Butler, John Guillory, & Kendall Thomas (Routledge, 1999)

See this 


 comprehensive bibliography.


On this site:

Essay on Judith Butler by Sally Young, a first-year undergraduate (written for the elective COMM1510).

Interview with Judith Butler -- extracts only, from a 1993 interview published in Radical Philosophy.

Madonna and Queer Theory by Reena Mistry.

Queer theory pages -- introduction, books and criticisms.

On external sites:

European Graduate School page about Butler, where she is also a Professor.

Martha Nussbaum's provocative and widely-discussed essay on Butler from The New Republic (February 1999). [This critique is discussed in Media, Gender and Identity(2002)].

Swirl's Judith Butler page.

Judith Butler at the Global Cafe.

Butler's department at the University of California, Berkeley -- this website doesn't reveal much, but who knows, one day it might...

Excitable Speech -- info on Butler's 1997 book

See the resources at Sarah Zupko's very useful Cultural Studies Center.



David Gauntlett
Published Date: 
Political and Public Participation