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Web event #1 : A rebellion from the chains of society

nia.pike's picture

"Put on a dress!"

"Don't sit like that, be more ladylike!"

"Look more ladylike."

"A woman must look nice to attract a man to look after her."

"All those gays are going to Hell!" 

"Find yourself a nice man."

"Be more normal!"


These are all phrases which have been said to me. Their judgments and criticisms have shaped who I am. But not in the best way.

I grew up in a conservative, close-minded environment, surrounded by precedents. I became the victim of these societal expectations. Judith Butler, in her paper entitled "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion" addresses these expectations, which she calls reprimands. " [T]he reprimand . . . forms a crucial part of the . . . social formation of the subject. The call is formative, if not performative, precisely, because it initiates the individual into the subjected status."(Butler, 381) The suspect is any individual who does not conform to society's rules for expression, thus must be reprimanded until they conform. I am a subject for society. I am pressured into performing for society.


What is performance? How one performs for society is different for each individual; therefore, I can only speak for myself. Performance changes who I am on the outside to satisfy the desires of others. My mother desires a perfect child who is "normal" however she chooses to define that term in the moment. My church desires a contributing member of the congregation who follows man's biased interpretation of God's word. My upper-class white neighborhood desires a young woman, more mature and responsible than age and experience permits. Yet as these reprimands continued, and I could never satisfy them, they began to change me. My faked external actions to satisfy the desires of others became my internal self. And who I really was disappeared.


How did I satisfy everyone else's desires? But sacrificing my own. I performed for everyone else. Despite being an individual, society has stripped away my self-identity from the outside in. With each judgment and expectation, who I am fell away leaving only a husk of an individual ready to be morphed into whatever desire society had for me next.


But why did I satisfy society? Butler uses a metaphor of police action to express the exploitive nature of societal expectations. The suspect fears punishment from society, and a result of this pressure there exists a "a compliance and obedience to the law" (Butler, 381). Fear is a complex emotion whose origins can be as complex as its expression. For the most part the origin of fear is unknown, but the effects can be horrendous. To be afraid of how society will "punish" you is not only a mental hurdle, but it can also be physical when the abusive reprimand from society to not only verbal. I am still afraid to be who I really am because society and its desires for me are so deeply engrained in my mind. In certain circumstances and environments, even away from the glaring eyes of the conservative South where I grew up, I still second guess myself, my thoughts, and my actions. I may have left the judgment behind when I came up North for college, but the words used against me still haunt my everyday motions.


What are the effects of performing for society? My lack of self identity. When I obey society I am nothing, but a pawn in a larger chess match to be manipulated for someone else's victory. Butler addresses the act of performing, "the performative, the call by the law that seeks to produce a lawful subject" (Butler, 382) does in many cases produce minions, who comprise of much of the influential wing of society. However, there are consequences "that exceed and confound what appears to be the discipline intention motivating the law" (Butler, 382). These counter-intuitive consequences result in rebellion from the constraints. And this rebellion begins my current self-exploration.


The repetitive desire for society to strip me of myself identity has begun my subversion. With every law, there is resentment. I resent society's judgments on me and desires for me. And their commands have begun to have the opposite effect. "Where the uniformity of the subject is expected, where the behavioral conformity of the subject is commanded, there might be produced the refusal of the law in the form of the parodic inhabiting of conformity that subtly calls into question the legitimacy of the command" (Butler, 382). My self-identity was nonexistent when I listened to and obeyed society's expectations, when I conformed to being who others wanted me to be. Now I refuse. Their laws have been undermined.


Ironically identity is a performance. So how can one achieve subversion if the rebellion is a continuing performance. Rebellion must be a mockery. Butler states that rebellion must be a disloyal repetition of the command (Butler, 384). As an example she utilizes the representations of drag in the movie Paris is Burning, in that drag is a subversion to the heteronormative standard of society. Butler argues that drag is mocking heteronormatity by performing as men and women, which is what society expects, but with a mocking twist. "This logic of repudiation installs heterosexual love as the origin and truth of drag and lesbianism, and it interprets both practices as symptoms of thwarted love" (Butler, 386).  Perhaps this interpretation is how I view my rebellion. My rebellion of the standards of heterosexual love, which encompassed my life before I took control of who I am, and reclaimed my self-identity from the claws of society.


Rebellion is a big word, with many implications depending upon the route taken. So, what format is my rebellion going to take? I do not think, even I can answer that question. Butler uses the phrase "resignification" (Butler, 393) to express this rebellion. How am I going to resignify myself? My personal tale of the stripping of my identity by society began with judgments on how I outwardly portrayed myself. Thus, my journey to resignifying myself has begun with changing how I outwardly portray myself. In the methodology of psychology if one can recreate their outside appearance, then this portrayal will influence their inner self. It is under this philosophy that I continue on this journey of resignifying my self-identity.  


I've spent so much of my life being told who I should be and how I should act and who I cannot be and how I cannot act, that I struggle to break free of these chains out of engrained habit. Even when faced with making my own decisions, I still have these nagging voices in the back of my head telling me what decision I should make. As I have begun to realize who I am, I am learning how to silence these voices, but they are still there.  The following anonymous quote is advice to myself for the future " You are born and then you die, but in between you can do anything you want. It's society that creates rules for us, but you can break out of that!" (For the Love of Quotes). And that is my future, to break out of the chains society has imposed upon me to resignify myself!


Works Cited


Butler, Judith. "Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion." Edited McClintock, Anne, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Print.


For the Love of Quotes. "You Are Born and Then You Die." Tumblr. Jan. 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

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samuel.terry's picture


I suppose the most obvious intersection between our papers is the use of Butler's theories to try and understand our own subjective experience. How are we consituted? how do we find agency? how can we/do we trangress? is that transgression subverting norms or afirming them through a continuation of othering? And, as Anne points out, Butler does not assume that escape from the discursive system is possible. So where and how does one access rebellion? I can't help but think of a a prominent feminists critique of Butler, Martha Nussbaum writes:

"Butler suggests to her readers that this sly send-up of the status quo is the only script for resistance that life offers [...] Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn't it exciting and sexy?"

Food for thought.

Anne Dalke's picture

You can break out!

it’s exciting for me to see you working so hard to make sense of Judy Butler’s notoriously difficult (also interesting/provocative/important!) work, and even more exciting to see that she is helping to explain your life, the trajectory of the construction of yourself, to yourself.
What’s also interesting to me is the way in which, in your reading of Butler/of yourself, this becomes a process of “rebellion from the chains of society.” I’d say that Butler argues for a form of agency that involves less freedom from those chains than you imagine. She starts, as you know, with Althusser, who—when he traces the “formation” of subjects--acknowledges the possibility of MISrecognition between the law and the subject it compels (we can HAIL you to a certain performance, but you can not RESPOND as we expect/hope). Althusser, Butler says, really doesn’t consider the RANGE OF DISOBEDIENCE that such a law might produce: the law can produce a set of consequences that exceed or confound its “disciplining intentions”: it creates more than it meant to, an excess of its intent. And it is this slippage which interests Butler, this ambivalence of being socially constituted: what happens if you enter social life on terms that both enable AND violate you? How can you occupy the interpellation in order to resignify it?

That is the theoretical framework she uses to examine Paris Is Burning, to ask how the kinship structures of the houses open possibilities for resignifying, for reworking “queer” from abjection to politicalized affiliation. She is working w/ a very complex understanding of how we get formed as subjects: drawing on Althusser, she describes the self as a crossroads, a nexus of forces, which construct but don’t determine it.

Her argument is that, on the one hand, the drag balls in Paris is Burning defy the norms of a homophobic culture, by parodying them:  the drag balls show is that all gender is drag, a process of imitation; they show us that heterosexuality is not natural, but a constant performance, meant to perpetuate an ideal. In doing that, drag is subversive, destabilizing, insurrective, because it disputes the naturalness of heterosexuality.

BUT this insurrection is also a defeat: if black faggots talk back to the culture that feminizes them, by out-woman-ing women, performing womanhood so well that they compel belief as real, they are also reinscribing the hegemonic form: reconsolidating the binary of hyperbolic heterosexuality. When Venus describes her desire to be "a whole woman, w/ a man," & a house in the ‘burbs w/ washing machine, the dominant norms are not displaced, but painfully reiterated. Hegemony is still operating. In Butler’s analysis, Paris Is Burning demonstrates an unstable co-existence of insurrection/resubordination, w/ queer black men engaging in reverse-occupations of the norms, but the norms still wielding power.

So: is that enough for you? I think not; I think you are looking for something freer of the chains…?

nia.pike's picture

Reply to Anne

Anne, the question you posed about entering "social life on terms that both enable AND violate" one strikes a chord in me. I used the phrase rebellion in my web event because I view my life right now as a rebellion. I thought a lot about my web event after writting it because the process of writting it brought up so many more questions about me than I ever imagined it would. I believe the ability to question oneself is a positive aspect. And I thank you for leading me towards Butler. In my musings over my web event, a few thoughts struck me. One of these you touched upon, perhaps its true that I have swung too far to the oppositte court in rebellion of how I was forced to grow up because I feel it violated who I am. I use the word violated because the action was forceful and against my will. I grew up in such an isolated environment that I was not exposed to other ways of thinking, other than the one that was forced upon me. Yet it was this environment, the society I was (and still am to some extent) surrounded by which pushed me so far against who I am that I cracked. Without their pressures forcing me to conform, I may not have cracked and allowed myself to breathe. Now, due to this realization, I've begun to consider where societially I fall. But, of course, there are aspects of the conservative, traditional lifestyle which are in opposition to who I am, and vice versa. So who I am? The simple answer to this question is that I am me, I am unique. But this answer does not really answer anything. I still don't have an answer, and I think that's ok. I don't have to have everything in my life figured out. I'll figure it out as I go.

The word performance has come up a lot in class discussions, here on Serendip, and in feminism theory. As I try to rebel from performing for a specific niche of society, I find myself performing for another. You are right, I do want to be free of the chains, but is performance an optional chain or an obligation? Do we all perform for something? Could it be possible to never perform?

Anne Dalke's picture

performing the rural life

I'd like to hear more of your idea that it may be possible "to never perform"...what might that look/feel/be like?

I'll be curious, too, to hear your responses to Eli Clare's Exile and Pride, which is an account of leaving a rural life for an urban one, yet feeling that an important/inextricable dimension of the self is rural (and not understood in the city, which is the location where his strongest sense of self emerged and was supported).

nia.pike's picture

Exile and Pride

I have begun to read Exile and Pride, I just finished part 1 and am throughly enjoying it. There are some parts in particular that make me think, as a good piece of literature should.

One of these is the block quote from the "Note about gender" at the begining of the novel. In this paragraph, Eli Clare, describes a world free of the gender bianary, by imagining a multi-gendered world. Would more genders mean more progression? I wonder if progress would be more genders or a lack of labeled genders. Labels are not necessary, they only place people in societally created boxes. But what about self-described labels, would those be ok, or should all labels be eliminated?

I realte a lot to Exile and Pride, as Southern-born, brought up by conservative Brits, currently residing at an all-women's college, discovering the liberation of openly being queer. These are all parts of me that contribute to my identity, my body as home, as Eli Clare refers to it. Like Clare, I cannot seperate these parts of me. All of these parts make up who I am. I would not be who I am without my Southern roots, my traditional and conservative upbringing, my queerness, Bryn Mawr. Without admiting the struggles of the identities that comprise of my body as home, my body would not be home.

I am excited to discuss this novel in class on Tuesday!

P.S. I am still pondering the possibility of never performing, I will relay my ideas on that topic soon.

Cat's picture


I think it’s really interesting to see how both of us are thinking about our identities, and “resignifying” them at Bryn Mawr. I know I’m exploring my identity and performing it in different ways at home than at Bryn Mawr, and it seems like you’re doing that, too (especially in the context of the explanations we both gave when we decided to change our usernames before putting our essays up on Serendip).

I’m also really interested in how you describe the intersection of rebellion, performance, and identity. If rebellion is a continuing performance, are you performing a certain identity or performing it in a certain way to rebel? How much of your rebellion is because of identity, and how much of your identity is a rebellion? Does this rebellion against society mandate the performance of only one segment of your identity? And, I think that whether we’re always performing identity and whether it changes and how in different areas is really interesting, too!