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Web Event #3: Performativity and Feminism Unbound

pialamode314's picture

            It took me a while to really understand the concept of “feminism unbound,” and alas I am sure there is still much more to learn and understand about it. What does it mean to unbind feminism? In the simplest sense, “feminism unbound” is feminism after we have problematized the ideas of sex and gender, after we have realized how difficult it is to define the category “women,” after we have acknowledged that sexism affects everyone in infinite ways and that feminism is not a movement for women, but for humanity. There are many places one can look to find and promote feminism unbound, but I would like to focus in on one particular place: the theater.

            I’ll start by discussing the notion of performativity and how Judith Butler sees the concept as it relates to gender. The general concept behind this performativity is that it reverses the idea that a solid inner identity is the source for one’s behavior, speech, and actions. Instead it reasons that people “act” in their outward expressions and this “acting” produces reality in the actor – it begins to construct an identity. This idea can be easily applied to gender identity. As Butler states in an interview: “to say that gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start” (Your Behavior Creates Your Gender). As we have discussed full well by now, our society is governed by a dominating gender binary. If we say that gender is performative, individuals construct their own gender identity then by imitating certain aspects of each of these “ideal” genders – the “ideal man” and the “ideal woman.” For example, a person may reproduce what society sees as typical behaviors of feminine women, and this action could contribute to the construction of a gender identity as a feminine woman. Or, in another sense, a person may reproduce typical behaviors of both society’s ideal man and woman, and end up constructing a gender identity that is somewhere in the middle – such as a masculine woman, a feminine man, or gender neutrality. “Butler’s radical proposition, therefore, is that gender is a discursive formation that fundamentally shapes, or produces, the sexed body, that is, gender (and other) norms actually ‘materialize’ the body” (Morison 566).

            How does this concept connect to feminism unbound then? How might we unbind the notion of gender performativity? Well, if people are constructing and constantly changing their identities based on what parts they are playing in their lives, how can we as humans be defined as stable beings in any sense of identity? If we are not stable, but just picking the most comfortable parts and playing them for ourselves and for others, we find that defining a “we” in feminism is quite indeterminate. Feminism then isn’t just working for “women,” a hard enough category to define – but it is working for everyone, people of all genders and all ages and all stages in life, so that no matter what parts they play or how those parts change in life, they may be treated as equal human beings. We can see how gender performativity connects directly to feminism unbound in a sense, but we can take it even further. We can expand upon the idea of performativity, including it’s connection to performance and theater, by altogether deconstructing the gender binary and demolishing the socially constructed masculine/feminine behavior binary that performativity – gender construction through imitation of these “ideals” – relies on.

            In talking about performativity, it is important to also talk about how it relates to and differs from performance, and in this case, the theater. The term performance typically implies enactment, while performativity suggests the constitution of regulatory impressions and their effects on the performer’s reality (Brickell 28). However performance “is an essential element of performativity and paying attention to performance provides a way of studying gender construction and troubling” (Morison 567). I can relate the connection between performance in the theater and performativity to my own experience as an actor this semester. I took on the role of Prince Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, where I played a rather “manly man,” you might say. Taking on that role, one I’ve never taken before, I realized that by acting out this persona and imitating a masculine gender ideal, a new part of my gender identity was being constructed. By exploring a more masculine side to my own gender, I began to realize that there was more to my gender than just being a woman. As Morison states, “What the notion of performance allows, then, is the possibility of considering specific re/enactments of gender within particular contexts, including those that may cause ruptures in the sanctioned gender scripts and, over time, serve to change these” (Morison 570). Cross-dressing in the theater is a perfect example of an upset of gender scripts. Me playing a male role and imitating the behaviors/motion/language of society’s ideal male role was a gender troubling moment for me and caused me to begin to break the boundaries between male and female simply in my own self and gender. The next step is translating those experiences to the world and allowing for that kind of recognition of gender as fluid and unstable. Further, certain enactments, especially parodic, can trouble gender by emphasizing the great disjunction between the sexed body and performance, thus highlighting the imitative nature of gender itself (Morison 567).

            As we explore this notion of performativity and the role performance plays, we can begin to see its unbinding nature in gender. In order to unbind this notion of performativity entirely, however, the next goal would be to completely eliminate gender roles and these “gender ideals.” In Butler’s discussion of performativity and gender, she talks about existing gender roles and ideals constructed by society, and having the freedom to explore and move amongst them. What if we did away completely with these roles? So instead of associating certain behaviors or actions with one of the two gender ideals, masculine or feminine, behavior is just behavior and we construct our gender by imitating what we see people do, not necessarily what we see women or men do. As Brickell states, “…performativity involves subsequent repetition or citation of gender norms. This citation takes place under conditions of cultural constraint or regulatory regimes, which compel some appearances of masculinity and femininity while prohibiting others” (Brickell 26).  By completely eliminating gender roles we could begin breaking those cultural constraints and allowing for even more freedom in gender exploration. Further, it would get rid of the notion of being “more” or “less” of a woman. What I mean here is, for example, I am a woman, I identify fully as a woman, but at times I take on very masculine roles – however, that does not mean I am any less of a woman or any more of a man in those moments, which unfortunately is how that sort of thing is often perceived in society. In a society where gender roles didn’t exist, expressing gender like this would be normal and acceptable for everyone.

            We can even go one step further in unbinding the notion of performativity – by applying this idea to all aspects of identity. Gender is just one aspect to identity, but there are so many other equally important components that construct an individual’s whole identity, even if they are just little things. So many times we see society opposed to change in people. For example, in society we put so much emphasis on finding yourself or finding your true calling or your true love. However, as we have shown with gender and can apply to the rest of identity, we are unstable beings – we are constantly changing based on where we are in life and what we are experiencing. Butler talks about uniting all humans under the fact that we all die, but even in that sense, we all have such different views on death and those views change, and often there are more important things to us than death. What if instead we united under the fact that none of us are really stable in the world or know 100% what we are doing? We are all constantly changing and just doing our best with what we have; we pick our roles and we play them, and as we grow older our identities become more complex and change.

            I never thought much about my gender or my changing identity before this year. I remember going home once and having a friend from high school tell me rather disappointedly that I had changed. Of course I have changed though – I am at a different part in my life, experiencing different things, taking on new roles, looking at my own gender in different ways. Humans are dynamic beings, and to not acknowledge that is to constrain people’s freedom to explore their own identities, whether it be their gender or other parts of their identities. I know the notion of completely demolishing gender roles is radical and would take a very long time and a lot of hard work and change, but if we could only do away with these gender ideals and allow free exploration of gender and behavior and identity as a whole, we could begin to see humans as changing individuals instead of separate, hierarchical groups. Thus, could feminism unbound fight for every individual to be recognized and appreciated as unique and worthy of society’s acceptance and love.


Works Cited

Brickell, Chris. "Masculinities, Performativity, and Subversion: A Sociological Reappraisal." Men and Masculinities (2005): 24-43. SAGE Journals. SAGE. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. < html>.

Felluga, Dino F. "Introduction to Judith Butler, Module on Performativity." Gender & Sex. Dino F. Felluga, 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <>.

Morison, Tracy, and Catriona Macleod. "A Performative-Performance Analytical Approach: Infusing Butlerian Theory Into the Narrative-Discursive Method." Qualitative Inquiry (2013): 566-77. SAGE Journals. SAGE, 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. < html>.

Morris, Rosalind C. "All Made Up: Performance Theory and the New Anthropology of Sex and Gender." Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 567-92. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

Your Behavior Creates Your Gender. Judith Butler. Big Think. N.p., 19 Feb. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2013. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

“We are unstable beings”

you several times here use the phrase (or a version of the phrase) "performativity unbound," which I don't quite understand. What I do understand is your using the notions of both performance and performativity to "unbind" conventional expectations of stable gender roles and identity: "certain enactments, especially parodic, can trouble gender by emphasizing the great disjunction between the sexed body and performance." Very nice.

Of particular interest to me here is your testimony to your own experience of playing a very "manly man" in Henry IV; I'm actually curious to hear more about that, whether taking on a very masculine role affected @ all your sense of yourself as a "fully identified woman," no "less of a woman or any more of a man."

I like very much your closing suggestion that we "unite under the fact that none of us are really stable in the world or know 100% what we are doing… just doing our best with what we have; we pick our roles and we play them."

Sometimes, of course, we are also assigned roles, and we play them...

as you were discussing last month.