Gender Trouble: Subjects of Sex, Gender and Desire

Lady Gaga becomes her male alter-ego  Jo Calderone.

Lady Gaga becomes her male alter-ego Jo Calderone.

Key Idea: Gender and sex are social and cultural constructs (Butler)

Butler begins by attacking some of the central assumptions within feminist theory: the supposition that there exists an identity that requires representation in politics and language. Butler argues that feminism has made an error by trying to assert that “women” share a common identity. (p.3) The terms “women” and “woman” become troublesome categories, which are complicated by the many facets of identity and cannot be a fixed attribute to all females.

If one “is” a woman that is surely not all one is. For Butler the term “women” fails to be thorough because, “gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities”. (p.3) As a result, it’s impossible to separate out “gender” from these political and cultural intersections” in which gender is maintained and produced. In other words, the term “women” cannot be a fixed attribute cross-culturally and females vary due to other modes of identity such as ethnicity. All these things must be considered as this is what influences and maintains a person’s gender. And so there cannot be a shared identity or universal term such as “women”, which can fairly represent every female.

Butler begins her critique of gender by challenging the assumption about the sex/gender distinction: sex is biological and gender culturally constructed. Butler notes that feminists originally intended to dispute the idea that biology is destiny, but then developed an account of patriarchal culture, which made similar and restrictive links between sex and gender. This culture assumed that a masculine gender would inevitably be built by culture upon a ‘male’ body and a feminine gender upon a ‘female’ body, making the same destiny just as inescapable. For Butler this assumption suggests that “gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it” (p.6), which shouldn’t be the case.

Instead, gender should be seen as a fluid variable, which changes over time, through cultures and is not contingent on sex. Gender should not be restricted or limited to certain bodies or sexes. When gender is understood as independent of sex, “gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one” (p.6) This would mean that gender is neither the result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex, gender can be free floating. After all why should a masculine identity only be possible and expressed on a male body? And so sex and gender become distinct from one another whereby gender can go in any which direction. So Butler agrees that gender is culturally constructed as the sex/gender distinction assumes, but what about sex.

If sex and gender are separate one must establish how sex and gender are given. What is sex? Is it natural, chromosomal or hormonal? How is gender determined? Butler suggests that perhaps this construct of “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender. That sex itself is a gendered category and so there is no distinction between sex and gender at all, “…gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive’, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts.” (p.7) In other words, sexed bodies cannot signify without gender and the apparent existence of sex prior to cultural imposition is merely an effect of the functioning gender. As a result, for Butler both sex and gender are constructed.

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