Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” (1990) – One of the things that has bemused me in the last decade or so is how concepts, tropes, and names that were distinctly “grad school” things have slipped the bonds and become something that the sort of people who never took a GRE — and not for the many good reasons not to, usually — have started bandying about. “Critical race theory,” “American exceptionalism,” “ethnostate,” etc. And to look at their work, you wouldn’t figure that Judith Butler would necessarily become this big cultural figure, either, literally a demon figure as far as many chuds are concerned.
There’s a lot of cliches about theory, and most of them have some basis in fact. The unreadability thing is often overstated, but the prose is usually ungraceful and in the case of some theorists, like Homi Bhabha, quite incomprehensible. You wouldn’t read “Gender Trouble” for the prose. Abstract, referring to other writers and their generally abstract concepts, feints towards a more thoroughgoing radicalism and theoretical bet-hedging weaved together, like a new boxer juking around the ring. The funny thing is, Butler can make themselves quite clear when they want to- you can see it in interviews and the like. Well, it was the late eighties/early nineties, high theory era. We all come from decades, like the man says.
Really, it was people taking up Butler’s work — and, predominantly, the first third or so of it, when they state their main case and before they do their exegeses on other theorists — who have made it, and them, something like household concepts/names. Gender as performance, gender as divorced from biological sex, gender as constitutive of our ideas of biological sense (to my mind, more provocatively overstated than what I know of the case would support, but that’s theorists for you). It took people — a lot of them quite divorced from the circumstances of holders of named chairs at Berkeley — applying these ideas to their lives and those around them to make them relevant. There were trans and non-binary people well before Butler put pen to paper, as they’d surely acknowledge. But Butler put a lot of the pieces of a theory of gender performance — the dreaded “gender theory” of chud nightmares — together in a usable package.
Butler also did something important, that might not be obvious, but I’ve been reading stuff from the late eighties/early nineties a lot lately, and it stood out to me. Butler explicitly linked their theorization to a feminist project. Now, it seems obvious, and we have a word for feminists who refuse the idea that gender does not straightforwardly map on to biological sex: TERFs, and they are increasingly aligned with the far right against anything resembling any meaningful feminism. But I don’t think it was necessarily the obvious angle then, and the outraged cries of TERFdom, that destabilizing their precious essentialist concepts of womanhood constitute a betrayal of their concept of where history was going, shows this. It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of concepts, in the hands of a contemporary of Butler’s — a Camille Paglia type, say — delinked from feminism, either explicitly — no transcendent feminist subject, no political movement — or with an insouciant end of history shrug. Among other things, Paglia was generally a more lively prose stylist than Butler. You can see her selling it, maybe.
It sounds silly, and it probably is. I don’t think a non- or anti-feminist critique of gender essentialism would get that far. One thing we’ve seen is that opposition to rethinking gender roles, and the concept of permanent gender roles, is one of those things that unites the contemporary right, something that really drives them crazy, and I don’t think any theorist was, or is, going to change that. And like I said, the thinking we’re seeing now, especially it’s spread beyond academia, has a lot more to do with everyday people looking to, and adapting, these concepts to explain their concepts than with any one theorist. But it was probably a good thing — a better thing than the book as a whole, probably, which isn’t especially new news (can’t ding it for that- it’s thirty-two years old, now) or compellingly written (can ding for that, imo) — that Butler situated this as they did, for all it riled up the easily riled down the line. ***’