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Judith Butler and Performativity

What are Gender Roles?

In what is considered to be her most important publication, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity”, Judith Butler criticised the “restricted meaning of gender to received notions of masculinity and femininity”. Gender goes beyond those traditional binary definitions.

She also argued gender stereotypes are “compelling social fictions” rather than some sort of natural fact. This “stylized repetition of acts” follows socially established rules and the performances are repeated so often, they “produce the appearance of substance” or the “illusion” they are “stable”.

The various acts of gender create the idea of gender.

Judith Butler

Since gender is performed, the “bodily gestures, movements and styles” that are used to signify gender identities will be determined by the ideology and customs of that particular society. In other words, definitions of gender can change depending on the historical and cultural context. Judith Butler called this process performativity.

Gender and Socialisation

Many theorists believe we are not born with a gender. We learn the roles through the imitation and repetition of behaviour we see, for example, on television and in our social media feeds. The symbolic modelling aspect of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory supports this idea of young people copying what they see on television. You might be interested in our summary of David Gauntlett’s views on gender which has a section on this fluidity of identity. He suggested gender representations are not fixed and do change over time.

Butler compared gender to a social drama. In her analogy, men and women are the protagonists in the narrative and we are all expected to perform our roles. We learn and interpret our lines through a process known as socialisation. In media studies, we also use the term enculturation.

Of course, if you change the script, the new story is “recirculated” through society and the gender identity is revised. For instance, if lots of young boys started wearing dresses tomorrow, our view of what is normal will begin to change. In fact, the terms “gender-neutral” and “non-binary” are being used by more and more fashion outlets to describe some of their clothes.

Butler concluded gender is not a stable signifier but is “open to intervention and resignification”. Put simply, gender is a social construct, or performative.

Interestingly, she argued gender is not something we can internalise because it will always remain a performance.

Like a Girl

The idea that boys are more athletic and competitive than girls is a sexist perspective that has been promoted by the media for generations. You might be familiar with the phrase “like a girl” which is used on the playground to insult a boy’s strength or sporting skill. But it also denigrates women because it suggests they are weak and ineffectual. This can have an incredibly damaging impact on a young girl’s identity and confidence.

The following promotional video fights against that negative stereotype.

This advertising campaign is a fantastic attempt to intervene and change the gender roles that limit our identity and potential. If the script really is to change so that “run like a girl” means “run as fast as you can”, the media has to support the message by broadcasting more elite women’s sports and celebrating their achievements.

Group Discussion

  1. Stereotypes are used to describe groups of people or places. However, these generalisations can be very harmful because then tend to exaggerate or oversimplify certain characteristics. When someone uses the phrase “like a girl”, what are they trying to say?
  2. What does the phrase suggest about gender and equality?
  3. How would you feel if someone made fun of your efforts and abilities?
  4. Can you think of any other phrases or terms that are cruel and hurtful? Try to explain the meanings behind the representations and why they might be inappropriate.
  5. Has the campaign made you re-evaluate some of the stereotypes you use to describe people and places?

Performativity and Bluey

Supported by BBC Studios in the UK, “Bluey” is an Australian cartoon targeted at young children. The story follows the wonderful adventures of Bluey – a puppy with an inexhaustible imagination. Like a lot of television shows, the narrative focuses on a nuclear family and their relationships.

In the first episode, Bluey’s dad freezes her in space and time with a magic xylophone and it is up to Bingo, her four-year-old sister, to save the day. In the second episode, doctor Bluey has to operate on her dad to rescue a cat from his tummy. With such heart-warming stories, it is no surprise “Bluey” is a commercial hit with children around the world.

However, many parents are surprised to learn that Bluey is a girl. Maybe we make assumptions about her gender because blue traditionally signifies masculinity. The programme also avoids gender stereotypes. For instance, Bluey does not really play with princess dolls and, instead, invents her own games that would appeal to both girls and boys. Perhaps there is an expectation that a sitcom with two children should feature a son and a daughter in the narrative.

In most media texts, colour codes are used to define gender, but young people are watching “Bluey” and not decoding the “blue is for boys” convention. If more programmes, games and films depicted a broader range of representations, it would be possible to break free from the old gender stereotypes.

Debates

Butler (1999) also reviewed some of the contemporary feminist ideas regarding gender constructs. She questioned the assumption that “the term woman denotes a common identity” and drew attention to the fact traditional feminism has ignored the tremendous diversity of women around the world. This perspective is shared by bell hooks who, for example, wanted to see a “broader, more complex vision of womanhood” in Hollywood films beyond the narrow representations traditionally depicted on the big screen.

Definitions of gender were not always compatible with Butler’s own experiences in the lesbian and gay community in America. She dismissed the idea that “the feminine belonged to women and believed gender was a “free-floating artifice”. The “splittings, self-parody, self-criticism” and “hyperbolic exhibitions” of gender drew attention to their “fundamentally phantasmatic status”. In other words, any representation of gender outside the traditional binary highlighted the fact gender was a social construct. Disruptions to that illusion caused what she referred to as gender trouble.

Promotional material for RuPaul's Drag Race
“RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Judith Butler was also interested to what extent “identity” was simply a descriptive feature of experience. If gender is a construct, can we construct it differently?

French Feminist Theory

Finally, Judith Butler carefully compared two French feminists and their thoughts on gender. First, Luce Irigaray who claimed there was only a masculine identity which “elaborates itself in and through the production of the ‘Other’”. By contrast, Monique Wittig argued only the feminine identity was defined because the masculine remained “unmarked and synonymous with the ‘universal’”.

Although these two critical perspectives seem very different, they are both based on the structuralist concept of binary opposition. In terms of traditional gender identities, binary opposition suggests a pair of ideas can only be understood by their relationship to each other, so gender masculinity and femininity are defined by their contrast.

Importantly, there is often an imbalance of power between the two concepts. According to the post-structuralist thinker, Jacques Derrida, “one of the two terms governs the other”. Both Irigarary and Wittig acknowledge this disparity between masculinity and femininity, but disagree on the process which produces the difference.

These two perspectives are certainly worth further consideration so try to apply them to your own experiences.

Your Behavior Creates Your Gender

Judith Butler brilliantly explains her views on gender and performance in a piece for Big Think. If you want to develop your understanding of the important concept, you have to watch this video.

Butler, Judith (1999): “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity”.

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