Gender Trouble: Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix

Sex=Gender=Sexuality=Normal. WRONG! For Butler, it’s not normal, its the ‘Heterosexual Matrix’!

To illustrate the artificial, conventional, and historical nature of gender construction, Butler attempts to critique the assumptions of normative heterosexuality: those punitive social, legal rules that force us to conform to hegemonic, heterosexual standards for identity. Butler offers a selective reading of structuralism, psychoanalytic and feminist accounts of the incest taboo as the mechanism that tries to enforce discrete and internally coherent gender identities within a heterosexual frame.

Butler begins by taking up another commonplace within feminist theory, the patriarchy, a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Butler notes that feminists have frequently made alternatives to the supposed pre-patriarchal state of culture. They use this as a model upon which to base a new, non-oppressive society. If patriarchy is shown to have a beginning, it can hence be subject to an end. As a result, accounts of the original transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo have proven particularly useful to feminists.

The first notion Butler examines is Claude Levi Strauss’s anthropological structuralism, the contention that there is a universal structure of regulating exchange that characterizes all systems of kinship. According to ‘The Elementary Structures of Kinship” the object of exchange is women, which consolidate and differentiate kinship relations and are given as gifts from one patrilineal clan to another through marriage. The bride, the gift functions as a relational term between groups of men and “reflects masculine identity through being the site of its absence. Clan members, invariably male, invoke the prerogative of identity through marriage, a repeated act of symbolic differentiation.” (p.39) Women also secure the reproduction of the name.

In other words, this exchange of women distinguishes and binds the various clans to a common but differentiated patrilineal identity.  Exchanging women and consequently exogamy, the custom of marrying outside a community, clan, or tribe is not simply about the gifts being exchanged. This custom of the reciprocal exchanging of women has a great social value for the men and ties them together. The relationships formed between patrilineal clans are based on homo social desire, a repressed sexuality, which is expressed through the heterosexual exchange and distribution of women. The incest taboo generates an exogamic heterosexuality and necessitates a kinship structure governed by the exchange of women. Kinships forbid endogamy, the custom of marrying only within the limits of a local community, clan, or tribe, which is repressed. Incest, for Levi-Strauss is a “pervasive cultural fantasy” and the presence of the taboo generates such desires. Incest is seen as wrong and is prohibited, punishable and so people marry into other clans.

Butler next investigates ideas set out by Jacque Lacan and Joan Rivere to demonstrate further her suggestion of there being a heterosexual matrix.  For Lacan “being” the phallus and “having” a phallus denote divergent sexual positions or non-positions within language. “To ‘be’ the Phallus is to be the ‘signifier’ of the desire of the other and to appear as this signifier.” (p.44) In other words, to be the object, the other of a heterosexualized masculine desire you also have to represent and reflect that desire.

For a woman to “be” the Phallus means then to reflect the power of the Phallus, to signify the power, to “embody” the Phallus, to supply the site in which the Phallus will penetrate and to validate the Phallus by being it’s Other. Put simply, for Lacan, females hold the power, as it is through their lack of a Phallus that the male who “has” the Phallus requires the Other the female, to confirm, validate and signify the male’s masculinity and Phallus. It is females who validate and confirm a male’s masculinity. And so this signification can only be achieved through heterosexual desire, which signifies both sexes.

Butler next considers Joan Riveres’ concepts. In Reverie’s ‘Womanliness as a masquerade’ (1929) she examines an area of sexual development in which the femininity of certain women can be found to be a mask that is used to hide rivalry with and hatred of men.

“In daily life types of men and women are constantly met with who, while mainly heterosexual in their development, plainly display strong features of the other sex” (35).

Rivere begins with what it is to display certain characteristics and how it is those plain characteristics are understood to express or reflect sexual orientation. This perception or observation assumes a correlation between characteristics, orientations and desires as well as a unity through the act of perception itself. People innately link people’s public characteristics and gestures to their gender and therefore their sexuality. To challenge such ‘norms’ individuals may act more feminine or masculine as a form of subverting these ‘norms’ and perceptions people instantly create when looking at the visual aesthetics of a person: clothing, gestures, voice and so on.

Rivere suggests that people may express more overtly gender stereotypes, behaviors and appearances, which typically align to their biological sex category as a mask. By complying and expressing publicly gender stereotypes, this could mask sexuality as well internal gender feelings. By following the ‘norms’ such individuals are able to subvert them. Rivere cites Ferenczi in order to establish an analogy with her own account:

“Ferenczi pointed out…that homosexual men exaggerate their heterosexuality as a ‘defense’ against their homosexuality. I shall attempt to show that women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men” (p.35).

The phenomenon under notice here is that homosexual men may not look or express themselves differently then heterosexual men, instead they will appear the same. “This lack of an overt differentiating style or appearance may be diagnosed as a symptomatic “defense” only because the gay man in question does not conform to the idea the homosexual that the analyst has drawn and sustained from cultural stereotypes” (p.51). The supposed “exaggeration” in the homosexual man, in Lacanian terms, could be him publically expressing those masculine attributes in order to own and have the Phallus. The “mask” of the woman who desires to be masculine could be interpreted as an effort to renounce the “having” of a Phallus

Overall, Rivere argues that femininity is taken on by a woman who “wishes for masculinity” but fears for the retributive consequences of taking on the public appearance of masculinity. Meanwhile the homosexual male takes on masculinity in an attempt to hide from himself an ostensible femininity. (p.51). This links to ideas of how females are expected to be feminine and males masculine whilst both sharing heterosexual desire. Rivere suggests that by playing up to such ‘norms’ certain stereotypical behaviors and gestures could be used as a form of trickery or “mask” to subvert conforms. This is helpful to Butler’s theories. People expect and assume that the gender and appearance public bodies portray to the world are naturally and express the individuals sexuality. Due to biological tendencies and cultural ‘norms’ this is all understood within a heterosexual frame where women will be feminine and attracted toward men and vice versa, but obviously not all can be revealed upon appearance alone.  Males who appear masculine and strong may in fact be very feminine and heterosexual. By not conforming to homosexual stereotypes, the gay man is challenging what it really means to be masculine.

Butler next considers the concepts of Freud. Sigmund Freud attempted to maintain the position that both constitutional or biological factors and experiential or cultural factors interact vigorously to produce both ‘normal’ and ‘neurotic’ behaviour. Butler revises Freud’s psychoanalytic explanation of mourning and melancholia, which loss prompts the ego to incorporate attributes of the lost loved ones, in which, in other words, cathexis becomes identification. Both Riviere and Freud center their texts on the Oedipal story.

The Oedipus complex according to the psychoanalytic theory of Freud, are feelings or desires originating when a child, especially a son, unconsciously seeks sexual fulfillment with the parent of the opposite sex. The theory derives from the Sophocles’ tragic drama “Oedipus Rex” where the central character kills his father and marries the mother. Freud believed that children are filled with dark impulses, which are erotic in intent including simple activities such as breast-feeding and thumb sucking to Freud were seen as having a markedly sexual character.

In the Oedipus complex a boy around the age of three to five years old becomes fixated on his mother and desires to possess her exclusively. The child then competes with the father for maternal attention and in doing so views the father as an obstacle between its desire and it being fulfilled. The child then desires to remove the father in order for them to be with the mother exclusively. However, this desire is never fulfilled. The child’s experiences of an erotic attachment to one parent and hostility toward the other parent form an ensuing triangular tension.

Butler uses Freudian concepts to suggest that “gender identification is a kind of melancholia in which the sex of the prohibited object is internalized as a prohibition” (p.63) and therefore that same-sexed gender identification (e.g., the identification of the boy with the masculine gender) depends on an unresolved homosexual cathexis, a desire for the father, not the mother in the Oedipal myth. For Butler, “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities” (p.70) and for heterosexuality to remain stable, it demands the notion of homosexuality, which remains prohibited but necessarily within the bounds of culture.

The notion of the ‘heterosexual matrix’ presented by Butler suggests that there is a supposed and assumed contingency on a person’s sex, gender and sexuality which all function and are expressed within a compulsory heterosexual framework. This ‘norm’ has been naturalized so far that people no longer recognize or question it. Biological arguments, which rely heavily on human development and human reproduction also evidence how males and females are expected and supposedly innately desire the opposite sex and only function sufficiently within pair bonds. Feminine females and masculine males will share a mutual appeal for one another to ensure the human species continues. However, the existence of homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender and intersex present evidence that not all behaviors and desires are the result of these simple, biological tendencies.

Butler explains the notion of heterosexual matrix in her own words: “There’s a very specific notion of gender involved in compulsory heterosexuality: a certain view of gender coherence whereby what a person feels, how a person acts, and how a person expresses herself sexually is the articulation and consummation of a gender. It’s a particular causality and identity that gets established as gender coherence, which is linked to compulsory heterosexuality. It’s not any gender, or all gender, it’s that specific kind of coherent gender.”

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