Gender Trouble: Gender Construction to Gender Performativity

Boy or girl?

Boy or girl?

In Gender Trouble, Butler raises some crucial questions in relation to Beauvoir’s theory that “one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one”. “How can one become a woman if one wasn’t a woman all along? Is there some human who become its gender at some point in time?…How does one ‘become’ a gender? What is the moment or mechanism of gender construction? And perhaps most pertinently, when does this mechanism arrive on the cultural scene to transform the human subject into a gendered subject?” (p.111)

Butler suggests that gender qualifies bodies as human bodies. For example, infants become humanized when the question, ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ is answered. As a result, those bodily figures that do not fit within the platonic ideals of male and female also fall outside the human, “indeed constitute the domain of the dehumanized and the abject against which the human itself is constituted” (p.111). This would mean those who are intersex or transsexual would somehow be less human, which obviously is not the case but this idea is probably the reason people almost unconsciously view these individuals as different or ‘unnatural’.

Of course, Beauvoir meant merely to suggest that no one is born a gender, gender is acquired. However, Beauvoir was willing to affirm that one is born with a sex and that being sexed and being human are simultaneous. There is no human that is not sexed and so sex qualifies the human as a necessary attribute, a stable factor. This evidences why we as humans recognize and categorize people by sex, as it’s a key attribute to all human beings. Sex is viewed as stable and offers coherence in a world that is incoherent, coherence is what we all desire. And so the links between sex, gender and sexuality are formed because they appear to be coherent. However, for Beauvoir sex does not cause gender and gender cannot be understood to reflect or express sex, “gender is the variable construction of sex, the myriad and open possibilities of cultural meaning occasioned by a sexed body”(p. 112) Butler too thinks that there is not a coherent link between sex, gender and sexuality and through her critiques aims to break these supposed ‘natural’ links.

Inspired by Beauvoir’s claim of “one is not born a woman”, Butler suggests that if gender is not tied to sex then gender is a kind of becoming or activity, a kind of action that can, “potentially proliferate beyond the binary limits imposed by the apparent binary of sex” (p. 112). In other words, gender can move beyond the limitations of the physical features of sex. Monique Wittig further explores and re-presents the idea initially set out by Beauvoir. Instead of distinguishing between sex and gender, Wittig suggests that there is no distinction. She believes that the category of sex is itself a gendered category, “fully politically invested, naturalized but not natural” (p.112), thus backing up Butler’s suggestion further that sex is gender, both of which are constructed but presented and perceived as ‘natural’. Wittig argues that even the naming of the body parts creates a fiction and constructs the features themselves, fragmenting what was really once “whole.” Language, repeated over time, “produces reality-effects that are eventually misperceived as ‘facts” (p. 115).

Overall, Butler by using the theories of Beauvoir and Wittig, that sex and gender are socially and culturally constructed. That sex does not cause gender nor does gender cause sex. Instead gender is a free-floating attribute to a person that can move beyond the supposed limitations of binary sex. I may go as far to say that Butler is trying to show that nothing is ‘natural’, ‘real’ or ‘normal’, everything has been formulated and constructed and repeated over time, which create the illusion and have been misperceived as facts.

Foucault writes, “Nothing in man [sic]-not even his body- is sufficiently stable to serve as a basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men [sic]”

This quote evidences Butler’s notion that sex and gender are not stable or natural as society and culture lead us to assume. Breaking the equation of sex=gender=sexuality, brings to light how fluid sex and gender can be. Just because one appears masculine does not mean they are male. Just because you have a vagina does not mean you should behave femininity. These are just social expectations and norms which have been so far ingrained into our psyche, we see view them as ‘normal’ and ‘innate’.

Butler’s theories as well as the above quote supports the feelings of transgender individuals, who feel a conflict between their physical body and psychological sex/gender. If the human body is not a solid foundation for both self-identification and the way we identify with others, than surely a person’s own concepts of self are more important. This links to the idea of, “I think therefore I am” as well as ‘The Mirror Stage’ both notions I will investigate in more detail later. I would suggest than, if one believes they are feminine and female, in regardless to their physical sex, than one should be perceived and understood as female. For me being female is the way one represents this to the world, which fits with the way they feel inside. This reference used by Butler further enhance and sympathize with her notions that sex, gender and sexuality do not link and that its possible to move beyond the limitations placed on the binary of sex.  Sex and gender are constructed and open to variations culture-to-culture, person-to-person. As gender is constructed, self-concepts, particular behaviours and styles are acquired which she explored through her concept of ‘gender performativity’.

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