One of the most notable studies of gender and philosophy of the 1990s is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) wherein she critiques the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray in order to liberate the gendered subject. In order to understand how gender ideology is what it is today, I shall turn here to all three writers at the epicenter of academic critique of gender in an attempt to review certain historical “givens” of gender that have been constructed throughout the twentieth century.
De Beauvoir argues in The Second Sex (1949) that the feminine gender is Other, and thus women, being defined in terms of their sex, hover under the bodiless, universal construct of the masculine for whom sex as identity is incidental. But what does this positing of “other” really mean for gender and feminist theories today? And what is the nature of alterity as a linguistic nominate and a discursive locus in a world where the division between language and identity is increasingly becoming blurred? As gender theory today would have it, I am whatever I say I am even if what I claim to be has no grounding in material reality.
The problem that immediately comes to mind when confronting late 20th century discourses of alterity is that there is clearly a cultural schizophrenia when dealing with gender in the West. On the one hand, when reading women as “other” the feminine inevitably remains the singular object of a discourse which insists upon a dissolution of its language thus marking its marginalization—that the feminine can somehow be liberated through the destruction of the very language which others itself. And conversely, the discourse of the feminine as other inevitably struggles with language that does not position the feminine as the negative dialectic of the masculine. Indeed, there is a certain investment in maintaining the binary structure masculine/feminine whereby each maintains its “difference” in order to continue tightly-knit links from the masculine to the male body, and the feminine to the female somatic form. Certainly, the discourse of woman as “other” is highly problematic: for how can woman be represented if the language of the masculine (and its traces) must be destroyed in order to faithfully represent her, while the signification of the feminine is based upon gender being two-fold: masculine/feminine. These are some of the problems that western feminist theory has tackled over the past century.
Luce Irigaray in her work entitled This Sex Which is not One (1985) questions the very bases upon which gender is grounded. In this work, she examines the traditional dichotomies of active/passive, penetrator/penetrated, and then masculine/feminine. Irigaray argues that women are the “sex” which is not “one”—that is the sex which is unevocable, unrepresentable—since there is an inherent linguistic opacity in a language which elides the polyvalence of identity thus making the construction of the subject and the Other as integral to the creation of the masculine, excluding the feminine entirely from the process of representation. Thus the female sex for Irigaray constitutes that which is not “one” but multiple: “She herself enters into a ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either. This puts into question all prevailing economies: their calculations are irremediably stymied by woman’s pleasure, as it increases indefinitely from its passage in and through the other” (31). What Irigaray unfolds, unlike Freud’s concept of woman as lack with respect to the phallus and de Beauvoir’s concept of woman as the negative of man, is a system which sets out to deploy the feminine as insufficient—that the economy of signification within the system of representation based on the archetype of Western metaphysics is simply a mirror which necessarily employs phallogocentric language of and for a construction of masculine identity.
According to Butler, Irigaray’s notion of gender is left in a position of linguistic and mimetic aporia while for de Beauvoir the female subject is “always already masculine” (11). Yet, I would argue that both claiming the impossibility of representing woman, as in the case of Irigary, and maintaining that any representation of woman is necessarily the negative of man, as in the case of de Beauvoir, are equally problematic solutions. For de Beauvoir, woman cannot truly be represented since any such interpretation necessarily denies all essence (truth) of the feminine as the body of woman is subject to cultural taboos and readings and for Irigaray any representation of woman is necessarily flawed. Thus, in representing woman, de Beauvoir sees language as simply not enough (language as castrated from signification), where for Irigaray language is defective(scarred by the traces of phallogocentrism).
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What all these theories ultimately hook into as part of their radical discourse of gender signification is the physical element of the female body—that which again falls into the Cartesian trap as being controvertibly opposed to the male body and derivatively equated with the feminine. Butler argues for an elucidation of the space between the mind/body construct and states: “This association of the body with the female works along the magical relations of reciprocity whereby the female sex becomes restricted to its body, and the male body, fully disavowed, becomes, paradoxically, the incorporeal instrument of an ostensibly radical freedom” (11-12). Demonstrating the problematic explicit within the Western philosophical tradition which associates masculinity with the mind and femininity with the body, Butler examines how these systems are simply reproduced throughout feminist discourse of the twentieth century. She concludes that feminist theory attempts a revolutionary liberation of the feminine through fantasy in which the mind “flees the body” (12) while confirming that the structures which name the masculine signifying economy as totalizing fall short of viewing other constructs which have nothing to do with a universalizing disembodied masculine marginalizing the corporeal feminine (in questions such as race, class, and heterosexism). Butler’s work seemingly throws a wrench into feminist theory while bringing to the fore necessary dimensions of identity that feminist theory has, by and large, elided for most of the twentieth century. Or has her theory dismantled feminism any more than she ignores the material reality in which feminist theory is necessarily grounded? It’s not like Marx ever wrote, “Workers of the World, identify as wealthy!”
Butler’s Gender Trouble situates the dilemma of gender not as a paradigm in which the masculine dominates the feminine, as within the “master/slave” tradition, but instead locates the discursive construction of gender as burdened by the effort to separate and make “intelligible” the relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality. For Butler, the body is the canvas which, correlative to its sex, is saturated, marked, and encoded with fixed cultural, epistemic and linguistic markings of gender and sexuality. In many respects Butler’s view of gender does not differ so much from many feminists, if you remove the fact that the body is the basis upon which cultural marking of gender are overlaid. Where the body is both the space of performance and the site of subversion and redemption of gender, sex and sexuality for Butler. Yet, for many feminists, the female body is the site of oppression upon which notions of gender are negatively imposed. Reciprocally, for Butler it might follow that the performance of gender and sexuality would necessarily subvert the discursive markings of the body, invoking a restructuring of the relationship between the somatic and the performative. Still, this is not possible according to Butler’s reading since she views the body as both the site of designating and subverting identity. In short, for gender identitarians: change the body and you change the gendered reality of the subject. For feminists, the reality of the body being immutable—despite the artifice of makeup, coiffure, and aesthetic procedures—means that gender is forever determined by social narratives constructed around sex and not the other way around.
The somatic is the mirror of language for Butler—it either confirms that which we already knew and named, or it completely opposes it, toppling the linguistic structures of knowledge. And this is the point of incision in which the lack of language that de Beauvoir evidences and the flaw of language that Irigaray discusses emerge in Butler. She does not entirely resolve the problem of representation as effective, as seamless, and instead of positing the language of representation as being flawed or as lacking, Butler invokes the body as the “signifying lack.” In her critique of Foucault’s notion of power, she translates the “interior psychic space” (the soul) as that which “contests and displaces the inner/outer distinction,” the performative encoding the body. Butler’s vision of gender is fundamentally dystopic and based upon a counter-revolutionary view of history: that the problem is not how women and men are treated within the landscape of the social, but it is the individual body which is the problem, and hence the solution.
Enter transgender ideology stage left. And more bizarrely, along with this school of theory, enter stage right a boatload of leftists who in any other paradigm would be patently against any ideology which dismisses material reality in favor of individual imaginaries and self-fashioned desires of identity.
Now I must, for lack of space, simplify a bit here. But to sum up the radical feminist position on gender, their claim is that patriarchy is the structure which oppresses female bodies irrespective of how these female bodies identity. Butler’s theory claims that the individual can simply identify out of sex through gender. But this becomes muddled in the new millennium since gender and sex are largely conflated by followers of Butler’s work. And this is not coincidental. More on that later.
Discussing drag performance, Butler initially grounds her theory of gender as that which “imitates” when there is an “incongruity” between the somatic and the performative—that is when gender and the body are, under conventional standards, antagonistic. So what, exactly, does the body imitate and what is the identity created? For if, as Butler asserts, identity must be comprised as “social temporality” and if gender is truly “internally discontinuous”, then the body becomes a manufactured identity for which there is no “real” and, conversely, where there is no “play”:
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. If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial. If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality (141).
The problem with Butler’s assertion here is that one cannot simply wipe away “preexisting identity” as if there were never a referent to some “true” or historically configured gender that is anchored to a sexed body. For if this were the case, then there would be no possibility of gender subversion, no space of play. In attempting to bring forth a discourse of subversion, Butler stumbles between her allegiance to “true” and “abiding” genders while claiming, simultaneously, that there is no fixed identity while buttressing, all the while, the very binary she attempts to dismantle by claiming these as reclaimed identities which are re-naturalised by the subject. Moreover, Butler fails to return to the body as the fabric of subjectivity and relies so heavily on the performative of gender and sexuality that the body seems to be incidental on the stage of gender performativity.
Indeed, leftists know that there is a huge difference between the reality of racism and the fictional constructions of racism. One need look no further than to see how one leftist publication after another scoffed at the notion of Rachel Dolezal’s to being an African American woman. When the left wishes to understand that race is not technology implanted at the end of tanning cream or sun booths, they are perfectly adept to shoot down such mythical conceptions of race. Yet, when it comes to any man claiming a “female essence”, these very same publications lose all sense of historical materialist analysis and, like the far right, gender becomes a feeling and science is bigoted. It is also no coincidence that neither of these and other publications actually read the memo out of the White House which asserted to establish a legal definition of sex not gender. We are currently amidst an era akin to the time preceding the Scopes Monkey Trial where there is a will by the religious left to deny science, even fudging on existing science and statistics in order to create a narrative where individual feeling trumps material reality.
So earlier this week, Judith Butler descended from her throne to pen “The Backlash Against Gender Ideology Must Stop.” Arguing that gender theory is “neither destructive nor indoctrinating: it simply seeks a form of political freedom,” Butler set out to resuscitate her gender theory while failing miserably. And many of us who have been following Butler’s work over the years—to include teaching her work— had a giggle upon reading this piece. Where Judith Butler’s work was lauded as revolutionary in reaction to a backlash against feminism in the 1980s and early 1990s, her work sought to shore up the new monolithic fiction: that gender is biological and that sex is a construct. And her recent article perfectly demonstrates that Butler is out of touch with how her theories have not only clashed with feminist and Marxist ideals of social equality, but how she fails to see women as human in their own right. She spends much of her article creating a straw man from the feminist critiques of her work pretending that these critiques emanate from the religious right. This is a complete falsehood. She continues her essay to claim that the Pope is the real problem attempting to bring those who are gay and those who are transgender into affiliation with this one “common enemy” which is nothing other than another rhetorical side show of her essay.
And then Butler writes this demonstrating that she has not read or perhaps not understood the criticism made of her work: “Gender equality is taken as a “diabolical ideology” by these critics precisely because they see gender diversity as a historically contingent “social construction” that is imposed on the divinely mandated natural distinction between the sexes.” This false claim relies upon the falsehood that people who critique gender ideology and the technology associated with this ideology believe in a “natural order” or gender. To be clear, most every man and woman on the planet does not abide by gender. This is a myth that the cultural elites like Butler crafted when also shaping out departments which falsely flipped the material reality of social struggle—to include feminism—by positing the new victim for the 21st century as a person in search of the gendered self. She writes that gender theory “seeks a form of political freedom to live in a more equitable and livable world,” while not acknowledging that gender theory proposes to challenge nothing of the social and political constraints leveled at females who have for centuries been struggling to create a more equitable world. Butler’s solution would have us all technologically alter the body and medicate ourselves until death (amen).
She references Simone de Beauvoir’s infamous “One is not born a woman but becomes one” quotation and from this asserts that de Beauvoir “created space for the idea that sex is not the same as gender” stating, “One may be born as female in the biological sense, but then one has to navigate a series of social norms and figure out how to live as a woman – or another gender – in one’s cultural situation.” How uncanny that Butler can “do” feminist theory until she is forced to involve actual women within the structural paradigm of power.
While it is far easier for Butler to create a straw man out of women who have critiqued her work scratching it all up to their being followers of the Pope or God, Butler ends up naturalizing gender anew in arguing that the movement of gender ideology is to render “natural” that which the individual eschews. Quite paradoxically St. Judy has created a cult of genderists who refuse to see the earth as round or the sun at the centre of our universe and instead names the “natural” as both that which religion portends and that which her theory espouses to render anew. And it is this movement which Butler’s theories in large part gave birth to, which today seeks to medicalize and render technological the somatic form, now children as young as 8 in the U.S. with formal Endocrine Societyrecommending that hormone suppression in gender dysphoric children begin “after girls and boys first exhibit physical changes of puberty” which means Tanner Stage 2 (8 for girls and 9 or 10 for boys). It is phenomenally easy for Butler to fashion gender as a the new natural and the new nature while eliding the very real repercussions that her theoretical musings have had in real life.
Most bizarrely in her piece is Butler’s insistence that the only people critiquing gender ideology are right-wing religious zealots, missing entirely the vast body of criticism from feminists and other leftists alike which take her to task eliding the question of social and class struggle as a possible remedy to discriminatory practices. I mean, as Butler would have us believe, the logical conclusion to deal with a world that is racist is to mirror Dolezal’s actions—fix the individual, not society. Right? And hence we return to “Workers of the World, identify as wealthy!”
Then in a very sloppy nod to Foucault’s work on Herculine Barbin, an intersex individual who lived in the 19th century in France, Butler falsely equates intersex with transgender individuals. Still, the comparison falls even further afield since the point of feminism is that people should not live out realities based on their genitalia, but instead should be free to live out their lives despite their sex. It is not that feminists are attempting to naturalize gender in critiquing an ideology which is fundamentally regressive and prescriptive in nature whereby certain actions must match a specific body, it is that feminists are speaking back to a troubling theory that would have us all checking in to our local gender clinics for examination.
The political freedom to live as one’s true self, in short, should not come at the end of a prescription pad or a series of technological effects to mimic the opposite sex. The true revolution of any culture or individual comes by speaking in clear and loud tones to the oppressive forces that shape the structures which in turn inform vast swathes of society how to treat males differently from females. A truly liberated society would not argue that a boy or a man who wishes to wear a dress become medicalized for life, nor would such a society deem these males women. Such a society would fight for the rights of these boys and men to wear dresses. A truly free society would not make the argument that one mustembrace a “given” or “chosen” gender, for such a society would understand that gender is nonsense and that nobody possesses a gender.
What Butler misses in the many critiques of her work is what riddles her misunderstanding of feminism. It’s not that anyone can “become” a woman—for that is not what de Beauvoir wrote—it is that females are scripted into certain political and social modalities and are forced into the readymade landscape of woman with varying degrees of social or political recourse to subvert or push back against this pigeonholing. And sadly, Butler misses the forest for the trees, it would appear, in being unable to understand that her entire gender ideology hinges upon stereotype and nothing more. After all, what is gender if not stereotype?
It seems to me that today these social elites who are at the core of gender ideology lean too heavily upon the pretense of technological “change” and all the possibilities it superficially offers. The problem that they cannot fathom is that the real is a crucial component of human experience. And reality does matter when we look at some hard facts such as: male high school track athletes outperforming female Olympians or that males statistically rape and sexually assault women at far higher rates than the inverse. Reality of the body matters very much to females and the only reason why many view gender theory as destructive—not diabolical—is because it operates on the basis that gender is the new natural where women ought to cave in to this new wave of sex stereotypes. The only ones naturalizing gender are those who, along with Butler, would see fit that everyone is put into a reconfigured natural order while safeguarding the very social structures and norms that are the incubators of sex-based inequalities and gender stereotypes.
So when St. Judy tells us that the “backlash” (criticism of her theory) “must stop,” she is uniquely positioning herself as the Pope of a cult which not only functions through the make-believe dismantling of natural social hierarchies, but which in fact reinforces social and political nature through the constant conflation of gender with sex, the opaque language of identitarianism, and the use of medical and political proxies which assist in carving out the subject’s gender-entrenched selfhood. The result? A 21st century gendered subject who replicates the very same gendered constructs clearly evident in Butterfield 8.
Quite remarkably, Butler has pulled off this catechism for many years without much pushback from her contemporaries. Yet, even more remarkably is that as a female scholar Butler shows an astonishing incomprehension for the lived reality of women and girls around the planet. While academic elitism has served Butler’s theory well, its resonance in the real world is clearly falling flat as more and more people are understanding that gender is not something anyone possesses and is certainly not a tool that address sex-based oppression. If anything, the scales are falling off people’s eyes because we are seeing evidenced quite clearly that all gender amounts to is coiffure, vestiture, and a well-worn narrative of oppression based on lack of access to [insert an item stereotypically linked to the opposite sex]. And that ain’t oppression—these are the self-perpetuating tones of gender as social construction just like the feminists have been claiming for decades.