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Butler, J (1988).

Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay


in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, no.
pp. 519-531

Judith Butler is a specialist in the field of Gender theory and her expertise is evident
in her essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in
Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. The main premise of her essay is the
proposition that gender should be considered a social construct and thus subject to
change. She defines a distinction between sex and gender: gender is something that
you can adopt and is not necessarily informed by your biological sex. My particular
focus of this analysis will be on Butlers belief that gender can be adopted through a
repetition of performative acts. Specifically, I want to explore the possibility how
through this, Butler does not actually deconstruct gender as a concept but rather
reaffirms it and in doing so, inadvertently contributes to gender stereotyping.

Butler has published many influential articles in post-structuralist and gender


theory. She received her PhD in philosophy from Yale University and wrote this essay
during her time as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at George Washington. In
1998 she was appointed the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative
Literature at the University of California, Berkley. Therefore, we can read the essay
with the knowledge that Butlers argument can be trusted through intellectual
reliability. In this essay, Butler heavily draws upon the work of theorists, Simone de
Beauvoir in The Second Sex and Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of
Perception. Butler tethers her argument to Simones opinion that one is not born,
but, rather, becomes a woman (519) and Pontys claim that the body is an
historical idea rather than a natural species (520). These two theories form an
essential grounding for Butlers view of performative genders and because both are
experts in the field of discipline, Butlers essay receives added credibility.

Building on Ponty and Beauvoirs ideas, we arrive at Butlers concept of gender as an


identity constructed through performative acts. She states that gender is instituted
through the stylization of the body and must be under-stood at the mundane way in
which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the
illusion of an abiding gendered self (519). I find this argument particularly
interesting: the idea that through performance anyone can become a different gender
simply through using the body and adopting gestures. If a man adopts and repeats a
stereotypically female act e.g. putting on make-up does this mean he has become a
woman? It is certainly a radical statement by Butler because through this, gender
becomes a performance of identity.

Many gender theorists including Butler seek to deconstruct the concept of gender.
Indeed in a different essay, Butler wrote that the variable construction of identity
(is)a political goal (Lucy Nichols essay), seeking to break up the concept of gender
as one defined identity. This is where I find potential flaws. By Butler affirming that
one can adopt the opposite gender through the repetition of stereotypical acts, she is
confirming the concept of gender as two binaries: male and female. Furthermore,
Butler speaks of these actions needing to constitute the illusion of an abiding
gendered self (pg. 519); the acts need to be a visual representation of a gender.
Through this exploitation of stylized gendered acts, is Butler unintentionally
contributing to gender stereotyping?

Despite this possible line of thought, Butler does assert in her essay that gender is in
no way a stable identity (pg. 519) which certainly leans towards the concept of
deconstruction. It comes down to Butlers belief that sex and gender cannot be seen
as synonymous; Butler clearly defines, Sex as a biological facticity and gender as the
cultural interpretation of signification of that facticity (522). Butler is encouraging
us to see that biological sex should not dictate gender but I cant help but wonder if
our society is ready for such forward thinking? It is slightly remarkable that Butler
wrote this essay in 1988 and in this respect was effectively decades ahead of radical
gender thinking. Since the essay was published, societys concepts of gender have
certainly shifted with increased popularity and support of the LGBTQ community
and the inclusion of transgender characters on popular television programmes, but
there is still a long way to go. Despite the forward thinking of our generation, old
fashioned attitudes still permeate. This can most evidently be seen in todays politics
with our current Prime Minister who has a history of voting in a homophobic
direction (Lucas Grindley) and Donald Trump who has firmly stated that he is
against gay marriage and supports a bill which would provide homophobes with
special legal protection (Matt Baume). It seems frightening that whilst a gender
theorist was proposing radical gender concepts over twenty years ago, today we have
political leaders who espouse homophobic attitudes; is society regressing?
Furthermore, can the adoption of stylized acts that Butler speaks of, only be done in
a theatrical context? Butler states that The acts by which gender is constituted bear
similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts (521). Butler may be
using the theater in a more metaphorical sense but it is an interesting comparison
which resembles theorist, Laurence Senelicks views. He writes about Queer theatre
as having evolved to have a great personal investment on the part of the dramatist,
the play as a confessional or self-revelation. Using the frame of a performance
provides safety and more easily allows the transgression of social boundaries.
Perhaps theatre can be used as a starting point for upturning societys expectations
of gender identity. Indeed Butler goes on to confirm that gender is a performance
(522). Given human beings social nature, most actions will be witnessed then
internalized and reproduced thus taking on a performative quality.

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