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smigliori's picture

"What's the point of it all?"

As class ended on Tuesday, we were in a heated discussion about Butler's theory of gender, and what exactly the point of it all was. I was surprised about the amount of time we had to spend going over what Butler's theory was, and the question that someone asked at the end of class: "so, what's the point of it all?"

This is far from the first time I've read Butler (though I've never read this particular one before), and I was surprised by how easy to read this essay was. Perhaps this was at least partly because of my past experience with gender, but I also believe this one is actually easier to comprehend.

I pointed out in class that Butler's theory is about "gender performativity." In Imitation and Gender Insubordination, Butler says that "gender is not a performance that a prior subject elects to do, but gender is performative in that sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express. It is a compulsory performance in the sense that acting out of line with heterosexual norms brings ostracism, punishment, and violence, not to mention the transgressive pleasures produced by those very prohibitions." In class someone asked if it was possible to "not perform", but because the performance of gender is the expression of the self, to exist is to be classified within the gender binary, and therefore one is performing gender all the time.

If gender performance is not a choice, then what's the point of it all? Why does Butler's theory matter? Butler's theory points out the inadequacy of the gender binary. It shows how sex and gender do not follow from each other. It paves the way for new ways of thinking about sex and gender and sexuality. The understanding that gender is categorized by the ways in which we are socialized to behave based on the genitals with which we are born is important. The fact that some people deviate from these norms even with this socialization points to the fact that gender is a social construct, with no real basis. This is not to say that "women" cannot be feminine and "men" cannot be masculine, but that "men" can be feminine and "women" can be masculine. Or, maybe eventually, that people can be masculine and/or feminine.

This, to me, is why Butler's theory is important. This is perhaps also why large numbers of "feminists" (I use quotations to show that this is how these people define themselves, not because of my personal beliefs on whether or not they are) dismiss Butler and other postmodern feminists, claiming that their work is too abstract, among other arguments.


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