Out of the Norm

Amy Hollywood

In Review | Shelf Life Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, by Judith Butler. Routledge, 221 pages, $22.95.

In a recent essay, Judith Butler returns to the inception of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990): "I wrote it for a few friends of mine, and I imagined maybe one or two hundred people might read it."1 As it turned out, few recent academic books have been as widely read—and frequently misread. From Susan Bordo's account of Butler's putative "discursive or linguistic foundationalism" (in which changing your gender would be as easy as changing your name) to Martha Nussbaum's charge of "hip defeatism" (there may only be "language," but we can do nothing to change it), critics have stumbled over themselves and each other to get it wrong.2 Yet for me, in 1990, as for many other graduate students, academics, and theoretically minded activists, Gender Trouble was the book for which we had been waiting, the book that described everything that was wrong—and right—about prevalent forms of feminism, the book that provided the catalyst for new ways of formulating our scholarly, theoretical, and political projects.

In 1990, I experienced feminism, intellectually and politically, as both vital and painfully constricting. Much feminist theory and politics seemed mired in assumptions about the nature of woman—even when spoken of in plural terms as women—that were at odds with the complexities of women's experience in the United States and around the world. As a white woman, I was intensely aware of and sympathetic to critiques proffered by women of color of the putative universalism of the subject of feminism. Now I realize that, while my concerns about white racism and privilege were real, I was also masking my own refusal to submit to feminist conceptions of femaleness and femininity behind claims to racial solidarity that were more legible to the feminist mainstream. The dissertation I was writing at the time dealt with late medieval mysticism, but even here I was as interested in demonstrating the ways in which the writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete did not fit within contemporary feminist accounts of "women's experience" as I was in articulating the specificities of their theological visions. So what was I using all of these other women, past and present, and the irreducible particularities of their experience, to resist? And how might the ethical agendas of this resistance to feminism be articulated?

The power of gender lies precisely in the effacement of its own constitution through the practices by which we enact it.

As Butler presents her own position in the years she wrote Gender Trouble, her resistance to feminist theory lay in its normativization of heterosexuality. She was interested in those lives—of lesbians, gay men, drag performers (and she now would add trans- and inter-sexed persons)—who trouble stable gender categories and the heteronormativity on which gender norms rest. Much of Gender Trouble is an analysis of the pervasive heterosexism within feminist theory, one that demonstrates the close links between the category of sex, gender, and sexuality. What was—and remains—most exciting about Gender Trouble, however, is that it refuses to remain satisfied with critique. It isn't just that gay men and lesbians, drag queens and transfags, gender queers and sex radicals, disrupt normalizing accounts of gender and heterosexuality, but that the very gender trouble instantiated through their lives itself elicits pleasure and desire. Butler not only wanted "to imagine a world in which those who live at some distance from gender norms, who live in the confusion of gender norms, might still understand themselves not only as living livable lives, but as deserving a certain kind of recognition," but also "to disturb—fundamentally—the way in which feminist and social theory think gender, and to find it exciting, to understand something of the desire that gender trouble is, the desire it solicits, the desire it conveys."3

This desire—for something other than the normalizing accounts of subjectivity proffered by androcentric philosophies, theologies, and political projects—was precisely what made second-wave feminism so exciting in the first place. And it was the tendency, within parts of that second wave, to replace the putatively universal male subject with a putative universal female subject, that Butler and those who read her with such excitement in the 1990s resisted. Many of us, like Butler, looked to other generalizable matrices of human experience— race, class, and sexuality most prominent among them—to articulate this resistance and the desires begotten by and from it. But the refusal of the universal should not—and in fact cannot—be reduced to these categories. Although Butler gets there through an analysis of sexuality, the brilliance of Gender Trouble lies in its demonstration of the ways in which each of us lives in ways irreducible to the norms by which we are constituted.

Butler's now well-known analysis of drag performance, then, concerns not only, or even primarily, a challenge to heteronormativity. Even more fundamentally, "drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylizations of butch/femme identities" parody the conception of "an original or primary gender identity." Arguing against those feminist theories for which such parodic identifications either degrade women (drag and cross-dressing) or represent an uncritical appropriation of masculine heterosexual norms (butch/femme identities), Butler shows that such critiques themselves depend on naturalizing conceptions of sex, gender, sexuality, and the interplay between them that fundamentally restricts the range of bodies and desires recognizable by feminist theory. Rather than imagining as yet unarticulated utopic futures, Gender Trouble begins with what is already in play—a range of cultural performances of gender that refuse constrictive categories of gender (and the heteronormativity that goes with them).

As Butler shows, these performances play on "three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance." By enacting the mismatch between these domains of bodily experience, drag "reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency. Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary. In the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity."

The pleasure of drag does not lie primarily—or at least not only—in its reinscription of normative femininity and heterosexuality, as feminist critics charge, but in a resignification of femininity irreducible to its putative tie to the female body.

Does this mean, as a host of early critics argued, that Butler denies the material weight of embodied existence and the ways in which we are constrained by gender and sexual norms? Can we put on and take off our genders the way the drag queen puts on her resplendent garb (as if that is all there is to drag)? The answer, of course, is no. As Butler makes clear, even if we understand gender as "so many 'styles of the flesh,' . . . these styles are never fully self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities." We live within compulsory systems of gender. From the moment we are born, we are embedded within networks of power—familial, medical, educational, social, political—by whose regulatory ideals we are constituted. To depart from these ideals, as do drag queens, butch/femme lesbians, and cross-dressers, is to enact forms of gender (mis)identification always subject to punitive consequences.

Precisely because genders are not natural, gender is "a construction that regularly conceals its genesis." The power of gender lies precisely in the effacement of its own constitution through the practices by which we enact it. As Butler explains, "The tacit agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions—and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction 'compels' our belief in its necessity and naturalness." "The abiding gendered self " is constituted through "repeated acts that seek to approximate the ideal." Drag, then, is one moment in which the unnaturalness of gender, the discontinuity between sex (itself always already performative) and gender identity and performance, is exposed. For Butler, "the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmatic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction."

Butler's arguments here rest on her understanding of signification and resignification, one drawn from Jacques Derrida's reading of J. L. Austin's account of speech acts as performative.4 Butler's innovation is to understand identity itself as a signifying practice and hence "to understand culturally intelligible subjects as the resulting effect of a rule-bound discourse that inserts itself in the pervasive and mundane signifying acts of linguistic life." Put a bit more clearly, Derrida's account of signification—how signs carry, constitute, or perform meaning—is not only a theory of language narrowly understood, but also an account of practice insofar as practice itself signifies. For Butler, sex, gender, and sexuality are themselves signifying practices. We become who we are—as sexed, gendered, sexualized, and in a host of other often not fully specifiable ways—through the practices that constitute us as recognizable subjects. And the regulatory ideals that govern the society in which we live determine what kinds of practices will render us legible, legitimate subjects.

Derrida's account of signification, however, emphasizes not only how meaning is constituted through the interplay of sameness and difference that constitute the sign, but also how, to use Austin's terms, the performative misfires. For Derrida this misfiring is not antithetical to signification, but a function of its operation. For a signifier to be meaningful, it must not only be recognizably the same as a previous mark (or performance), but it must also differ from that mark (or performance). That spatial and temporal difference is the site not only of meaning but also of the possible slippage between signs. Against the charge of "hip defeatism," then, it is crucial to see that Butler locates the possibilities for agency within this gap:

In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; "agency," then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition. If the rules governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility, i.e., new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms, then it is only within the practices of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible. The injunction to be a given gender produces necessary failures, a variety of incoherent configurations that in their multiplicity exceed and defy the injunction by which they are generated.

Our lives are governed by regulatory ideals, ideals that determine the range of possible practices constitutive of our subjectivities. Yet Butler insists that practice can—and very often does—misfire.

In 1990, Butler's aim in Gender Trouble was to provide the conditions for philosophical, theoretical, and political recognition of those who live gender-otherwise. These resistant agents, she insisted, were already occupying the interstices and margins of culture in the United States—in gay bars, drag balls, and other sites then as yet unfrequented by the mainstream. To the question, "why drag?" Butler responds:

Well, there are biographical reasons, and you might as well know that in the United States the only way to describe me in my younger years was as a bar dyke who spent her days reading Hegel and her evenings, well, at the gay bar, which occasionally became a drag bar. And I had some relatives who were, as it were, in the life, and there was some important identification with those "boys." So I was there, undergoing a cultural moment in the midst of social and political struggle. But I also experienced in that moment a certain implicit theorization of gender: it quickly dawned on me that some of these so-called men could do femininity much better than I ever could, ever wanted to, ever would. And so I was confronted by what can only be called the transferability of the attribute.5

I was a straight girl, reading Meister Eckhart by day and, when I managed to get out of the apartment at all, going to rock shows by night. Back in the late 1980s, at least, similar revelations were available in these venues. (For one thing, the United States' independent underground music scene was scattered with boys in dresses.) "The attribute"—in this case femininity—was definitely transferable; it was also the site of desire and resistance. Best of all, one didn't have to perform it to be a feminist. Instead, the political power of feminism lay in the multiple and conflicting—even intermittent—ways in which each of us lived our sexed, gendered, and sexualized subjectivities. Butler's genius was to see this and to name it: gender trouble.


  1. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2005), 207.
  2. Bordo, unlike Nussbaum, also gets quite a bit right, astutely and appreciatively analyzing Butler's denaturalization of key categories within feminism, what Bordo calls a salutary "genealogical therapy." See Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight (University of California Press, 1993), 291. Also see Martha Nussbaum, "The Professor of Parody," The New Republic, February 22, 1999.
  3. Butler, Undoing Gender, 207.
  4. See Jacques Derrida, "Signature, Event, Context," in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  5. Butler, Undoing Gender, 213.

Amy Hollywood is the Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at HDS and author, most recently, of the book Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History.

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