The recent years have seen the advent of many crusaders of sexuality and gender related issues, with many scholars basing most of their work on feminism. This is because of the modern realization that the roles that each and everyone plays in the society that we live have been ‘constructed’ through our interaction with others and society at large. 21st century scholars realize that the world is moving away from the traditional norms, and is moving towards a more inclusive setting where everyone realizes the roles played by the next individual.
This paper seeks to explore the works of Judith Butler, a famous scholar in this issue and emphasizes as to what the author implies by the issue of social construct and performativity of both gender and sex. This is because the author has spent considerable time and effort in trying to unravel the trouble of gender, which has been constructed in a more social way in the traditional societies (Butler, 1992).
Her works have been lauded in different forums, as having contributed massively to the understanding of sexuality in gender especially in modern society where we have people with different sexual orientations. Her works are particularly important in addressing the issue of queers, transsexuals, homo and heterosexuals in the society.
Born in 1956, Judith Butler is an American philosopher with significant contribution to the fields of queer theory, ethics and political philosophy. She obtained her PHD from the university of Yale in 1984, on a dissertation titled ‘Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France.’ She has continued to write extensively, especially in the fields of feminist philosophy. She has also had several teaching appointments. Today, Butler is regarded as one of the most influential voices in contemporary political theory as well as the most influential feminist theorists (Salih, 2006); the year 2012 saw her awarded of the for her contribution to the field of political theory and moral philosophy as well as gender studies.
Butler has written extensively on the issues of gender and sexuality, and her works are famously known and quoted significantly in this field. Some of her major works include, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex in 1993; Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex, in 1997, and the Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity of 1999. In all these works, she has had an in depth discussion on the issues surrounding gender and sexuality, content that is extremely relevant to the modern society.
Butler, in her works holds the theory that gender and sex are as a result of social construction of the society that we live in. In her work, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (1988)’, the central concept of the theory is the fact that the issue of gender is not naturally occurring but is socially constructed through the repetitive performance of gender. In the words of Butler, gender is ‘a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief” (Gender Trouble, 125). This therefore means that according to her, gender is only real only to the extent that it is performed
Quoting the words from her work, ‘bodies that matter’, Butler asserts that, ‘if gender is constructed, it is not necessarily constructed by an ‘I’ or a ‘we’ who stands before that construction in any spatial or temporal sense of ‘before.’ Indeed, it is unclear that there can be an ‘I’ or a “we” who had not been submitted, subjected to gender, where gendering is, among other things, the differentiating relations by which speaking subjects come into being . . . the ‘I’ neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within the matrix of gender relations themselves” (Bodies that Matter, 123).
Butler is of the opinion that gender performability ‘‘is a stylized repetition of actions and as well as imitations of the dominant conventions of gender’’ (Butler, 1999). Accordingly, gender is a form of impersonation of the real person since it’s assigned by the social construction of the particular individual’s behavior.
Her work has also created a lot of interest in her assertion that biological sex is also a social construction. In this view, butler believes that according to the social construction of gender and sexuality, the natural sexuality is effectively replaced by the social construction. She further explains that the fact that gender consists of a social meaning, then it effectively replaces the social meaning of sex. Sex therefore is relinquished on the course of the assumption of gender to replace sex. Butler writes, “I think for a woman to identify as a woman is a culturally enforced effect. I don’t think that it’s a given that on the basis of a given anatomy, an identification will follow. I think that ‘coherent identification’ has to be cultivated, policed, and enforced; and that the violation of that has to be punished, usually through shame” (Butler, 1999).
Sarah Salih (2006) in her work, ‘On Judith Butler and Performativity’ notes that butler has collapsed the distinction between sex and gender distinction in order to bring the notion that gender is always preceded by sex and that in essence, there is no sex that is not always, already gender. According to Butler (Salih, 2006), all bodies are gendered from the beginning of their social existence (as there cannot be existence that is not social) that means that there is no body that would exist in its cultural inscription. This therefore points to the fact that gender is not something that is but rather something that does. It’s an act, or even a sequence of acts, doing rather than being. In the first chapter of the book, gender trouble, butler elaborates the idea that gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated actions; therefore, it’s not wrong to insist that gender is a set of repetitive actions that are realized by putting the human being in the social context (Salih, 2006).
Revisiting the work, the gender trouble, we note Butler’s efforts to present the notion of gender as a performance. Judith asserts that the mirth that someone is born with certain genitals forms a certain gender identity, say a man, and has sexual desires to the opposite sex, the woman. According to her, this perception assumes that there is congruence between the sexes, gender identity and the object that is sexual desire (Butler, 1992). Butler wonders that if this is natural, is it really stable and consistent? This, among others are the questions that lead Butler to further explore the issue of sexuality and gender, and leads her to make profound discoveries that bring a whole different approach to this subject.
Butler believes that this is a fantasy which disguises itself as natural law in the development of the human race, while it’s in fact a regulatory ideal that forces gender identity upon its subjects.
In her work the, the issue of the natural gender acceptance stems from the natural beliefs that the natural physical formation of the individual should dictate the sexuality of the same, and therefore differs with these assertions.
Butler believes that even when gender is acknowledged by sociology, feminism or even psychoanalysis, as a product of social construction, it should be perceived as a manifestation of a core identity and a true form of sexuality of the self.
In her view, gender identity does not always express the inner truth but is the stylish repetition of actions meaning that gender is in fact a performance of these actions. On gender performability, Butler argues that sexual identity is a display of performance that we constantly act out and includes a wide range of behaviors from how we talk, walk, or even perform certain rituals (Butler, 1992). In fact, these are the acts that we all keep on performing throughout our lives and this performance is what is constituted in the meanings that we attach to feminity and masculinity.
In her idea of perfomative gender identity, she places her notion of forced heterosexuality.
She argues that the seemingly natural division of a man and a woman is founded on a cultural meta taboo regarding the issue of homosexuality and the perception of forced regulation of sexual contact of the person within the boundaries of heterosexuality. Accordingly, performative masculinity and feminity are defined through the issue of heterosexual sexuality and this serves to ratify the issue of naturalness of this normative sexuality while avoiding and by extension marginalizing many other forms of sexuality, desires, emotions as well as behaviors that are deemed to be outside the boundaries of normative behavior and concepts.
For Butler, performative masculinity and femininity are defined through heterosexual sexuality, and they serve to ratify the allegedly "naturalness" of this normative sexuality while marginalizing other options of sexuality, desire, identities and behaviors which are casted outside the boundaries of normality.
In her criticism of gender identity, butler undermines the distinction between gender and sex and draws attention to that fact that this distinction suggests that the given natural sexual body can put on hold different genders as a result of social construction.
In her views, butler notes that it’s a regular assumption that the sexed body must generate a certain gender identity, in essence, this means that the performance of the gender is assigned to reflect the biological sex and is restricted by it.
She argues that gender is a discursive mechanism which produces sex as a natural essence which precedes any discourse. Therefore in regarding gender in the terms performance of performability, Judith butler does not accept any notion of a category that precedes social discourse. Gender is always performed and this performance of gender is in its entirety a social matter with identity manifested in the performability.
Judith questions the belief that we hold of the natural behaviors certain gendered, with an illustration of the different ways in which one’s performance of the said gendered behavior, which is what is commonly known as masculinity and feminity is an act, or rather performance and which is mostly imposed on the humanity by what Butler calls normative heterosexuality (Butler, 1992). Butler thus offers what she herself calls "a more radical use of the doctrine of constitution that takes the social agent as an object rather than the subject of constitutive acts" (Butler, 1992).
She questions our level of the assumptions that usually govern the individual which is what constitutes the self. She is concerned at what extend our actions are usually determined for us, instead of being decided by our place within language and convention (Butler, 1992).
Identity itself, according to butler is an imagination of our retroactive creation due to our actions. In her book, the trouble with gender, she writes "In opposition to theatrical or phenomenological models which take the gendered self to be prior to its acts, I will understand constituting acts not only as constituting the identity of the actor, but as constituting that identity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief"(Butler, 1990) The belief that we hold of the similarities as well as differences in gender is not by choice, but is generally forced to us through the existence of taboos in our norms of the society, so much so that what we believe to be natural behavior is simply as a result of subtle coercions (Butler, 1990).
Butler further argues that gender as an object in nature has no existence. She writes ‘‘Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed" (Butler, 1990). In her argument, gender cannot be tied to the material body but rather on social construction, this means that it’s actually open to change and contestation (Butler, 1990).
In her work, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, she writes that "Because there is neither an 'essence' that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis" (Butler, 1988). This genesis is however not real but perfomative in that this body only becomes its gender after a series of actions which are repeated and even brought together over time (Butler 1988). Her illustration of artificial conventional as well as the history of the construction of gender, she critiques the many assumptions that are made by normative sexuality, these are the rules which coerce us to be in conformity to the conventional measures of identity (Butler, 1990)
Butler, in her works also goes on to question the differences that abide between sex and gender with emphasis on the issues presented buy feminists. Body Feminists often defined gender and sex and made a distinction as the fact that sex is the physical. These feminists accept the reality that certain differences may exist in the anatomy of both sexes and also agree that conventionally, the determination of men and women is a social and gender construction that may have little to do with ones sexuality.
Traditional feminists believe that sex is a biological category of being while gender is a cultural and historical category. Butler vehemently differs with this assertion and postulates that the action of our assigned genders affects us so materially that our perceptions of sexual differences are in effect affected by social norms and conventions. Therefore, sex is not a bodily or physical thing, but rather a cultural norm which defines it
The works of this famous philosopher has made profound impact on the human understanding of gender, in a way that would be unimaginable. Through her various works, Butler has managed to bring the many aspects of gender and sexuality as a social construction as opposed to the physical aspect of the same.
Butler informs us that what we call masculinity or feminity is in fact not as a result of the physical form of our biological context, but rather a result of coercion by the norms of the society that lock out any other forms of sexuality, let alone the common male and female social constructs.
Her work is particularly relevant on the modern day sexuality where the world is seeing an increased cases of other sexual orientations all o which are crying for recognition as normal forms of sexuality. There has been increased debate as to whether these forms of sexuality should be recognized by the law, and it’s evident that her work has been frequently referred by the present political class as is the case with the wide recognition and acceptance of these other forms of sexuality such as gayism and lesbianism, queer and transsexuals.
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