Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Final Report Installment 1 - Judith Butler, Gender Theorist

Judith Butler is an American philosopher who studies gender norms. Her studies have been influential in political philosophy and the feminist debate, among other topics. She questions the origin of gender and sex as well as the effects society has on these matters. Her most popular book, “Gender Trouble,” addresses these questions in detail, and provides new insights into what it means to be male and female. Judith Butler has some interesting theories on gender, and many of these theories are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society.
Butler was born in 1956, and spent her adolescent years in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was a dentist and mother’s family owned movie theaters. She developed an interest in philosophy at a young age. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she claimed that she either wanted to be a philosopher or a clown. She started school at Bennington College, but transferred to Yale for their philosophy program. Being gay herself, she was interested in the study of gender. Her original aim was to uncategorized herself in the eyes of society, and fight for the rights of marginalized groups.
Much of Butler’s work focuses on the question of whether or not gender behaviors are natural or learned. Are humans born with an idea of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman? Butler doesn’t think so. How much of what we perceive as feminine and masculine has to do society? Butler would say that it all has to do with the social constructs surrounding gender. Gender, according to Butler, is only real to the extent that it is performed. Her famous performative theory of gender attempts to connect identity, gender, and the social constructs of sex. It has nothing to do with anatomy and everything to do with society. It is not a fixed attribute, but rather something that is learned throughout our lifetimes. In Gender Troubles, Butler quotes Frederick Nietzsche, saying “the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed,” meaning identity lies in our actions. It helps prove her theory that identity is not pre-determined, and is rather always evolving and developing. In her book Bodies that Matter, she writes, “…if gender is constructed, it is not necessarily constructed by an “I” or a “we” who stands before that construction in a 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 matric of gender relations themselves.”

We live in a society that continuously reinforces a binary view of gender. You are either male or female. If you are boy, you like the color blue, cars, super heroes, sports, etc. If you are girl, you like the color pink, dolls, dance, hair, etc. Girls wear dresses, boys don’t. Guys wear suits and ties, girls don’t. You get the point. Everything we are exposed to, from the youngest age, has strengthened the fine lines separating males and females. Butler dates this idea back to pre-patriarchal times. Somewhere in history, a definition of gender was created and never questioned. Unfortunately, this idea of gender is exclusive to (what we have defined as) heterosexuals, and neglects to recognize those who do not identify as strictly male or female. Gender, according to Butler, should be seen as fluid and changeable depending on the context and situation. In her eyes, we have created a culture that praises men and women who match up with societal definitions of gender, and shames those who do not. Men who possess feminine qualities are seen as weak and unmanly. Women who possess more masculine qualities are seen as tom-boyish and unwomanly. The words to describe those who do not match up with common standards (gay, queer, butch, dyke, fag, etc.) have negative connotations, and reinforce the idea that any person who strays from the norm is inherently bad and un-normal.
Butler doesn’t stop at the theory that gender is a social construct, she also claims that biological sex is a social construct, and it is subsumed by gender. We give meaning to biological sex. Without the man-made ideas that surround gender, sex is merely an anatomical difference. Women identify as women and men identify as men because it is culturally enforced and expected, not because there truly are huge inherently different qualities between the two. Butler theorizes that the differences we see in men and women are direct results of the ideas we have enforced, and not biological sex. Butler writes, “If gender consists of the social meanings that sex assumes, then sex does not accrue social meanings as additive properties, but rather is replaced by the social meanings it takes on; sex is relinquished in the course of that assumption, and gender emerges, not as a term in a continued relationship of opposition to sex, but as the term which absorbs and displaces ‘sex.’”
Surprisingly, Butler argues against the mainstream idea of feminism. Feminism, in her opinion, leaves little room for interpretation of what it means to be a woman. In other words, mainstream feminism only makes room for the societal vision of women. By being an exclusively female category, it legitimizes the discrepancies between men and women (even though it’s aim is to convince others that women can do anything men can do). In Butler’s words, “the spectators of discontinuity and incoherence, themselves thinkable only in relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, are constantly prohibited and produced by the very laws that seek to establish causal or or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the ‘expression’ or ‘effort’ of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice” (Gender Troubles). It undermines its own mission.

In my lifetime, I have seen a growing acceptance of the LGBT community, as well as a general awareness of those who do not match up with the social gender norms. There are many people in today’s society that seem to agree with a lot of what Butler proposed. Take Jaden Smith, for example. He was recently a model for a Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign, sporting a fringed top and black skirt. He also wore a dress when he took Amandla Stenberg to prom. He seems to ignore all gender norms and dress and act as he feels. Caitlyn Jenner is another obvious example of someone who does not see gender is boxes. Although, one might argue that she does relate gender to biological sex, seeing as she is transgender. As a whole, today’s society (the youth especially) is very accepting of gender fluidity. In 2015, Facebook got rid of its two gender preset options, and now allows users to enter their own terms. Target has made certain sections of their store gender neutral so as to remain inclusive and abolish the idea of gender-specific toys, household items, etc. You see countless adds showcasing gay couples now from stores like Target, Gap, and J.C. Penny (to name a few). It seems as though much of Butler’s beliefs are being practiced today (or are at least beginning to be practiced). I’m not sure that humans will ever be able to step completely away from the social constructs surrounding gender, but I do think that we are on a positive path of acceptance and knowledge.
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  1. "As a whole, today’s society (the youth especially) is very accepting of gender fluidity" - indeed, and it's important to remember how very recently that was not the case. Social progress seems slow to come, until it does, and then it can happen like lightning. The recent election notwithstanding, I have to agree that we're on a path to more universal acceptance. The haters are going to run out of a place to stand eventually, don't doubt it.

  2. It is also interesting to note that if you go back in time, there is plenty of evidence of gender lines being blurred as well. There is a famous picture of president Theodore Roosevelt dressed in girls clothes. And many times children played with the same gender neutral toys. It wasn't until the invention of the TV that gender marketing, and targeted advertising aimed to separate the genders even more. Having toys, clothes, brands, etc. gender specific brings in more profit as a whole.