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The performative gender theory of Judith Butler

The performative gender theory of Judith Butler

July 19, 2024

The theory of gender performativity of the American philosopher Judith Butler was proposed in the 1990s under the context of contemporary feminist theories and movements.

Through this theory, he questions in an important way the apparent naturalness of the binary gender / gender system and analyzes its effects in terms of power. Broadly suggests that, in the dominant binary system, the genre is created through a series of acts deployed through categories such as "man" or "woman".

This has represented one of the most relevant and controversial works of the end of the century in social sciences as well as in philosophy, politics and activism. We will see below what is Butler's theory of gender performativity and what are some of its repercussions at a theoretical and political level.

  • Related article: "Margaret Mead's gender theory"

The contemporary context of feminist theories

In the framework of "postmodernity" it becomes relevant the break with traditional ways of understanding identity , who used to present it as something fixed and stable. In this same framework, the "universal truths" of Western society are strongly questioned; among them the binary logic of understanding bodies and sexual difference: woman / man; and its cultural correlate: male / female.

These were "universal truths" because these sex-gender dimorphisms have historically established reference models to define us in one way or another (and in a way that is apparently stable, unquestionable and unique).

At this time, a part of feminism begins to focus on the analysis of the "mechanisms of power" , which are the coercive forms that are presented to us during socialization, and that allow us to cling defensively to a specific identity (Velasco, 2009). The question is not so much about the type of identities prescribed by patriarchy, but through what power mechanisms we end up clinging to these identities, and how this is a way to keep us safe from exclusion, rejection or marginalization ( ibid).

Among these questions emerge the proposals of Judith Butler, who has been one of the central theorists of contemporary feminism . In his studies he returns from the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Witting and Rubin, to the critical theories of Michel Foucault, Lacan and Derrida, going through different philosophers and feminists.

At the same time it establishes important critiques to the theories of feminism that had settled in binary and heterosexual gender models. And, finally, it defines gender not as an attribution of man or woman, but as a mise-en-scène (a performance) that can be as diverse as identities are.

  • You may be interested: "The feminist theory of Simone de Beauvoir: what is woman?"

Performativity in the theory of speech acts of Austin

To develop the theory of performativity and explain how it is that the staging of the genre ends up giving shape to the same genre, Butler retakes the theory of speech acts of the philosopher and linguist John Austin .

For the latter there is an important distinction between the different types of statements we use when communicating. On the one hand there are declarative statements, and on the other hand there are realizing or performative statements.

Austin argues that, far from the only task of issuing a statement is to make known the truth or falsity of a fact (note); There are statements that can have another function: Beyond describing things, these statements do things .

One of the classic examples is that of pronouncing affirmatively before a marriage: saying 'yes I want' in the setting of a wedding implies an act beyond a verification, insofar as it has effects at the individual, relational, political, etc. level. Another example is the commitment that entails those statements formulated as a promise, a bet or an apology. According to the context in which they are stated, all of them can change the situation, attitudes, emotions, and even identity and / or the behavior of the subjects.

Butler's gender performativity theory

Returning to the above, Judith Butler says that with sex and gender the same thing happens: by naming a person "man" or "woman", even before birth, what happens is not a verification but an accomplishment (in this gender case).

This is so because said enunciation displays a series of rules on relationships, identifications, desires, interests, tastes, ways of speaking, dressing, of links with "the opposite sex", and so on.This translates into a construction of the body itself based on the dominant gender norms.

In the words of Butler (2018), although we live as if "woman" and "man" were made with internal reality, and therefore unquestionable; it is the behavior itself that creates the gender: we act, we talk, we dress in ways that can consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman .

Gender then is not an unquestionable and internal truth. It is rather a phenomenon that occurs and reproduces constantly. Thus, to say that gender is performative implies that no one has a given gender from the beginning, but that this occurs during a constant implementation (that is, in the daily repetition of gender norms that tell us how to be or not be men, or how to be or not be women).

In the same sense Judith Butler makes a distinction between "gender is a performance" (the staging, an act), and "gender is performative". The first case refers to what we do to introduce ourselves to the world under the label of a genre, commonly binary (woman or man), while the second term refers to the effects that such performance produces in normative terms (of becoming a norm).

The institutional power

All the above is monitored, legitimated and protected especially by the action of political and institutional powers of different types.

One of them is the traditional family , fundamentally based on a model of hierarchical and heterosexual gender.

Another is psychiatric instruction, which since its inception has pathologized gender expressions that do not conform to dichotomous and heterosexual regulations. And there are also other practices, informal and daily, that constantly pressure us not to get out of gender norms. An example of this is verbal bullying due to gender diversity , which is a way to insist on compliance with the normative values ​​associated with men / women and masculine / feminine.

So, the problem is that the former produces different forms of daily violence and even ends by conditioning opportunities and access to rights .

Negotiation of power and resistances

This leads Judith Butler to question: how is it that these norms are established, even at the institutional and political level? And, on the other hand, given that not all people feel comfortable in the gender that has been assigned to them and the identity is diverse and continuous, what types of violence generate these norms? What is the best way to subvert or overcome the political power related to this?

From the above, Butler defends that the gender is formed or built culturally , but not only that. Agency and personal freedom are fundamental elements to understand the identification, subversion and forms of resistance to violence imposed by gender ideals.

In short, gender is seen as a device of power, insofar as it is a crucial mechanism for socialization, that is, to become competent members of a society and assign specific desires and functions within it. But, for this device to exist, it has to be acted by a body, whose will and identity are built in constant tension and negotiation with the dominant gender norms.

In these tensions and negotiations opens the possibility for its deconstruction ; issue that has been fundamental in the development of contemporary feminist movements and in different struggles to counteract the violence and vulnerabilities legitimized by the hegemonic sex / gender system.

Bibliographic references:

  • Amigot, P. & Pujal i Llombart, M. (2009). A reading of the genre as a device of power. Sociological, 24 (70), pp. 115-152.
  • Butler, J. (1996). Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's second sex. Yale University Press, no. 72, pp. 35-49.
  • Butler, J. (2009). Performativity, precariousness and sexual policies. AIBR. Magazine of Latin American Anthropology. (4) 3, pp. 321-336.
  • De Mauro, M. (2015). Bodies on scene: Materiality and sexed body in Judith Butler and Paul B. Preciado. Egal: Barcelona.
  • Jones, J. (2018). Theorist Judith Butler Explains How Behavior Creates Gender: A Short Introduction to "Gender Performativity". Open Culture. Retrieved October 1, 2018. Available at //
  • Velasco, S. (2009). Sexes, gender and health. Theory and methods for clinical practice and health programs. Minerva: Madrid.

Judith Butler's Theory of Gender Performativity (Final) (July 2024).

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