First published by Headlong (2016)
In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler identifies an unsettling problem at the heart of the idea of feminism. Feminism, she argues, imagines the idea of ‘women’ as a common identity that all women share and that unites them all. But where does our idea of what ‘women’ are come from?
Is there some essential common feature that defines all women, that exists independently from the idea of women as related to men? Or are women solely linked and defined by the common experience of being suppressed by men?
If the latter is true, then the very idea of ‘women’ is a concept that has been defined by men and is part of hierarchal system that supports the suppression of women. Consequently, feminists can be thought of as actually undermining their own desire for gender equality by identifying strongly with some essential idea of ‘women’. Feminism reproduces and reinforces traditional ideas of gender as divided into opposites of male and female, re-affirming patriarchal and heterosexual notions of gender.
According to Butler, it is society’s desire to split gender into two distinct hetero-normative categories of male and female that is problematic. Sex can be argued to be biologically determined. Most people are born with bodies that are anatomically male or female. Our sexual relations are thought in hetero-normative societies to be defined by the anatomy of our bodies. Men are attracted to women and vice versa.
Homosexuality challenges this conventional hetero-normative alignment of sexuality with anatomical sex, disproving the idea that our anatomical sex of our bodies determines our sexualities. Male bodies can be attracted to other male bodies. Female bodies can be attracted to female bodies. Some bodies are attracted to many different types of bodies.
Butler argues that gender, in terms of gender identity and gendered behaviour, is not innate. We are not born thinking of ourselves as male or female. Gender is not linked to our anatomical sex. Just because you possess a female body, it does not necessary follow that you identify with or display a female gender. Male bodies can express female gender and female bodies can express male gender.
Gender is something we learn to perform. As Simone de Beauvoir states: ‘One is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one’. Our parents, our teachers, media, indeed everything around us encourages us to perform the gender that is indicated by the shape of our bodies. In conventional society, little girls wear pink princess dresses and play with dolls. Little boys wear trousers, get dirty and play with train sets and guns. Boys who are argumentative are taught that this is strong behaviour. Girls who are argumentative are taught that this is difficult behaviour. Young women read magazines full of make up tips and the latest fashions. Young men read magazines full of expensive cars and semi-naked girls. We are taught to perform our genders.
When our anatomical sex, our sexualities and the gender that we perform align, society finds us more acceptable. Our gender is intelligible. Society is comfortable with heterosexual CIS gendered people as their gender identity repeats and reinforces traditional gender relations. People whose gender identity does not neatly align are not intelligible. Traditional hetero-normative society thinks of their gender as disordered in some way. It finds them troubling. Butler argues, however, that these queer identities are politically powerful and should be celebrated as they disrupt our ideas of gender and ultimately challenge the traditional structures of society.
Drag is a queer identity that productively disrupts traditional concepts of gender. Drag plays on a dissonance between three different layers of gender: the anatomical gender of the performer; the performer’s gender identity; and the gender being performed. On one level, a drag queen is a masculine body performing a female gender. On another level, there is a degree to which a drag queen’s performance of female gender is a always a masculine performance of female. We are aware that the performance is a male impersonating a female gender, but within this impersonation there is a sense in which an essential female gender identity is revealed. The performer says my body is masculine but my essence is female. Drag de-naturalises our assumptions about gender and allows us to see it differently.
Like drag queens and drag kings, our gender identity is multi-layered. I might have female body and perform a female gender but within that express an essentially male gender identity. Ultimately, however, Butler asks us to try to see even further, beyond the binary definitions of male and female. She asks us to re-imagine gender as something that cannot contained within these two traditional opposites of male and female, even in multi-faceted way. Gender is something that is more fluid, more undefined and ultimately more individual.
This article was originally published by Headlong (2016).