Reading Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” in the Age of Ron DeSantis

Reading Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” in the Age of Ron DeSantis

Reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in the Age of Ron DeSantis

More than 30 years after it was published, the seminal queer theory text still has some things to say.

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Spring of 1990 found me not yet 3 years old, but already clear about who I was—in some ways. I refused dresses, wanted my hair cut short, liked to run around with no shirt on, and requested to be called Jason. My parents embraced these choices and, crucially, did not shame me for them. Some 30-plus years later, I am still basically Jason: I get a skin fade every two weeks, I haven’t worn a dress since I was 13, and now that I’ve had top surgery, I take my shirt off every chance I get.

The same spring that I was running around my parents’ backyard in Brooklyn with no shirt on, a 34-year-old philosopher at Johns Hopkins University published a book that would transform the conversation around gender and queerness. That philosopher was Judith Butler, and the book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, sold more than 100,000 copies, was translated into more than a dozen languages, and continues to be taught in college classrooms across the United States. It catapulted Butler to international fame—as The Cut reported in 2016, the scholar’s office at the University of California, Berkeley, was eventually moved to the art history department to escape the crowds—and introduced new ways of thinking about gender, not just to academic discourse but to popular culture.

It would be impossible to do justice in a single paragraph to a 250-plus-page text that is famously dense and complex. One also suspects that Butler, a staunch critic of anti-intellectualism, might object to the very concept of such reductionism. Nonetheless, a layperson’s summation of the book might go something like this: Gender Trouble, whose title is in part a reference to the 1974 John Waters film Female Trouble, attempts to complicate our notions of gender—what it is and where it comes from. Written as an intervention into the heterosexism then dominant in feminist theory, the book begins by questioning the idea that the identity at the core of feminism, “woman,” is a fixed category. Gender, Butler argues, is not some internal truth, some irrefutable fact of our existence, but rather a performance that we produce through “stylized repetition.” In other words, gender is not something that we are, but something that we do. Further, Butler points out that “woman” is a category that has been handed down and defined by the very power structure (patriarchy) that feminism hopes to disrupt—and thus, Butler suggests, a problematic foundation on which to build a movement.

The above may read as a bit humdrum in 2022 (“Gender is a construct? You don’t say!”), but it was anything but uncontroversial in 1990. It helps to set the stage: In 1990, Laverne Cox, Elliot Page, and Caitlyn Jenner were not household names. There was no RuPaul’s Drag Race, and even Boys Don’t Cry, with all its problems, was nearly a decade away from hitting theaters. Matthew Shepard was alive. Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, and George Michael were in the closet. And sodomy was still illegal in parts of the United States, to say nothing of gay marriage or gay adoption.

This is not to say that queer and trans people were not very actively living radical, gender-fucking, status-quo-upheaving lives at the time, as we always have been. In 1990, the ballroom scene was thriving in cities across the United States, lesbians were publishing erotica in the pioneering magazine On Our Backs, and artists like Marlon Riggs and David Wojnarowicz were making work that challenged every heterosexual definition of propriety in existence. But the world—and the discourse—into which Gender Trouble emerged was unquestionably a different one, and the assertion that the very concept of womanhood was up for debate was a bombshell. Gender Trouble was celebrated in some circles, but it also drew sharp critiques from thinkers ranging from the feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum to the libertarian provocateur Camille Paglia. Butler’s work was destabilizing to the feminist movement, some critics argued. How could feminists organize without a shared identity? Others questioned the accessibility of Butler’s prose: “It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas,” Nussbaum wrote in The New Republic in 1999, “because it is difficult to figure out what they are.”

Still, the book’s ideas spread through academic and nonacademic communities alike. By 2007, when Gender Trouble landed in my hands in a classroom at the University of Michigan, its basic tenets, while not without their dissenters, were firmly embedded in feminist and queer politics. They had certainly touched my life: I was 19 years old and identifying as genderqueer, performing with a drag troupe who took as its central challenge—and delight—the inherent flimsiness of gender. Maybe the best illustration of the landscape in the mid-2000s is that I read Gender Trouble the same year I read Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook—a playful, irreverent guide and a defining text in its own right that, in its author’s words, “provides a practical approach to living with or without a gender.”

And yet, even if it didn’t explode my world, Gender Trouble made a mark on me. It encouraged me (and still does) to let go of the obsession, pervasive in my college years, with finding the right words for my internal “truth”—was I genderqueer? Transmasculine? Butch? A dyke? Did I still identify as a woman? Was I a boy? As Butler writes in the preface to the 1999 edition, our culture treats gender as “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” when in fact it is an “expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates.” Maybe it didn’t matter so much whether I could pinpoint the exact language of who I “truly” was; maybe I just had to make decisions about how I wanted to live my life.

Earlier this fall, I returned to Gender Trouble for the first time in 15 years. Reading it in 2022 is an uncanny experience. If Gender Trouble was in the water in 2007, it’s in the air we breathe now. It’s not just that some of the book’s arguments seem so self-evident that it’s hard to believe they were ever controversial. It’s that they’ve been put into practice everywhere, from the language we use to the gender-troubling lives so many of us are living (which, notably, counters the charge by Butler’s critics that the work is too abstract to be politically useful).

I am thinking in particular of the book’s argument that gender is a performance, something that, in Butler’s words (and to give a taste of the scholar’s prose), “must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” This concept has become ubiquitous in our culture: RuPaul reminds us that “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”; Jonathan Van Ness tells Out that “somedays I feel like a boy and somedays I feel like a girl”; and pop psychology articles illuminating gender performance for the average reader abound. We have largely internalized—setting aside the homophobic and transphobic right wing for just a moment—the idea that gender is something manufactured; that it is a culturally specific performance that is not set in stone.

I am reminded of the famous “cerulean” scene in The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep, playing the terrifying fashion magazine boss Miranda Priestly, dresses down the nerdy Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) for thinking that the fashion world has no influence on her. “You think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry,” Miranda says to the reddening intern, referring to her lumpy blue sweater, later identified as a descendant of Oscar de la Renta’s iconic “cerulean” collection. “In fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

In some ways, Gender Trouble is cerulean: If you’ve ever encountered the idea that gender is a performance, you have, like Andy and her blue sweater, been touched by Gender Trouble. (I should note that Butler has taken pains to emphasize that the ideas in the book were not just hypothetical thought bubbles conjured in a vacuum; rather, they were in part a reflection of the communities that Butler belonged to in the years leading up to the publication of the book. It stands to reason, then, that this particular cerulean does not belong solely to Butler, but also to the communities who were already transforming our notions of gender in the 1980s.)

And yet: While some of Gender Trouble’s ideas have clearly entered the mainstream, rereading the book in 2022 offers the odd sensation that others have made it only halfway through the door.

Gender as performance is perhaps the most famous concept associated with Butler. But the other half of Butler’s argument in Gender Trouble is that the performance produces its subject and not the other way around. “Gender,” Butler writes, “ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time.” Put more simply: “The various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.”

As a college student, I found this part of Butler’s argument liberating, but it’s a hard sell in 2022. Queer communities have integrated the idea that gender is a construct and the binary is a myth. We reject the claim that “man” and “woman” can be strictly defined (if at all), and we have adjusted our language: Gender is assigned at birth; instead of a binary, it’s a spectrum; some of us are gender-fluid. But we also live in a cultural moment that places great emphasis on the idea of the “true self”—some sacred, immutable essence within each of us. This emphasis is not unique to queerness, but it may have a particular hold on us.

It’s worth considering where this idea may have come from. In 1990, when Gender Trouble was published, the concept of “normalcy” was largely closed off to queer people: Our sex was illegal, our identities were shameful, and our very humanity was up for debate. With no hope of becoming just like everyone else, we had to—and had room to—imagine other possibilities. But in the early ’90s, during Gender Trouble’s first few years on the shelf, this began to shift. Bill Clinton met publicly with gay advocates and eventually delivered them the chance to serve in the military—if they hid their identities—with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. And the hard battles fought by radical queer organizers—many of them AIDS activists—in the 1980s and early ’90s were beginning to bear fruit in the form of increased visibility. The door to normalcy, in other words, began to crack open, and some LGBTQ folks were eager to shove a foot into it—by claiming that we are, just like everyone else, “born this way.” As the historian Hugh Ryan remarked to me recently, “Of course we say we were born that way. That’s what we’re told our whole lives—you’re born a boy or a girl. It’s straight culture!”

Today, the concept of an innate truth buried deep inside each and every one of us is more woven into queer culture than ever. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” celebrates this notion, and the discourse around coming out—for both queer and trans folks—also frequently reflects it. “My brain is much more female than it is male,” Caitlyn Jenner told Diane Sawyer when she came out as trans in 2015. “It’s hard for people to understand that, but that’s what my soul is.”

This notion of a gendered soul, which we then externalize through performance, seems potentially at odds with Gender Trouble, which describes gender as a product of performance rather than its root. So—what do we do with this apparent dissonance between a defining queer text and the queer world, influenced in part by that text, we find ourselves living in today? Does Gender Trouble leave space for the conversations around identity that we are having in its wake?

In thinking through this tension, it helps to go back, once again, to the world that Gender Trouble was born into. The language of the book, with its rejection of gender as a fixed category, maps easily onto conversations about trans identity, and we might very reasonably argue that it helped lay the groundwork for trans people like me to come out some 20 years after its publication. At the same time, the words “transgender” and “cisgender” appear nowhere in the original edition of Gender Trouble. The word “transsexual” appears twice. As Butler (who now identifies as nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns) acknowledged in the preface to the 1999 edition, the years since the book’s publication brought “evidence of a kind of gender trouble that the text itself did not anticipate.”

One kind of gender trouble that the text could not have anticipated was, alongside three decades of some of the most significant progress in LGBTQ rights in US history and an explosion in visibility for trans and gender-nonconforming people, a vicious backlash—including, crucially, a targeted assault on our very right to exist. The phrase “gender-affirming care” had not yet entered our lexicon in 1990, but as I write this, more than a dozen states in the US have banned or are actively considering bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth. Some states have even considered extending restrictions to adults. This is to say nothing of the child-abuse cases brought against parents who have supported their trans children, the trans adults who have been fired for coming out, the conversion therapy that has been forced on trans teenagers, and the near-constant violence visited upon our community, so severe that we mark it every November with the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

These attacks, from the legislative to the interpersonal, have called upon trans people to prove our identities. Even mainstream news outlets regularly question our legitimacy: In October 2022, The New York Times ran a piece noting, and at times tut-tutting, an increase in top surgery among young people, even as it admitted in a brief aside that cosmetic breast surgery was more common than top surgery among adolescents. (According to the article, some “3,200 girls age 18 to 19 received cosmetic breast implants in 2020.” Breast implants, of course, are just as “irreversible” as top surgery but are far more prevalent—and are performed without the expectation that the patient prove, through therapists’ letters and diagnoses, an unassailable link between the physical change and the inner self.)

It’s no surprise, in other words, that as a community we’ve developed a public relations strategy that relies heavily on a hard-wired, essential self—if not assigned at birth, then at least dating back to it. How else to respond to the belief—which, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center poll this year, is held by a majority of Republicans—that we are “trying to indoctrinate children” into our “lifestyle”? If the current flavor of transphobia is a fear of trans identity “spreading,” the safest defense is that we are born this way, and thus our identities are not contagious.

Of course, it would be a grave mistake to attribute our self-conception to defensive posturing—or to assume that all of us think of our identities in the same way. But it’s worth remembering that the stakes for claiming a gender are astronomically high in 2022. Thus a complex, intra-community conversation about our identities—a conversation that should unfold in a free, empowered, and fundamentally curious space—becomes a hinge on which our very rights depend.

Butler, for their part—who, despite criticisms of an ivory-tower remove, has been frequently and readily accessible to interviewers over the years—has made their views on this subject abundantly clear. “Some people believe that I see gender as a ‘choice,’” Butler told The TransAdvocate in 2014. “My view is actually not that…. Whether one wants to be free to live out a ‘hard-wired’ sense of sex or a more fluid sense of gender is less important than the right to be free to live it out without discrimination, harassment, injury, pathologization or criminalization—and with full institutional and community support. That is most important in my view.”

I thought often, while rereading Gender Trouble, of myself at 2½ years old. Though I have not always—or even often—had language for who I am, my sense of myself as something other than the gender I was assigned at birth is the oldest feeling I have. It predates even my relationship with language; my certainty in this part of myself is, in a way, how I know what certainty feels like. This presents a difficult question for me logically: I do not believe that I was born preferring pants, or liking the color blue or short hair—all of these things are culturally specific, learned signifiers of masculinity. There are no action figures in the womb. What part of me leaned instinctively toward those things, then, before I even had a full command of language?

I think these questions, rather than contradict Gender Trouble, follow from its ethos. Like Butler’s book, they “trouble” in the truest sense of the word: They stir up and make cloudy what seems at first glance to be clear. Which is part of the fun, as surprising as it might be to find the word “fun” associated with a heady queer theory text whose sources include Foucault and Lacan. As Butler told Artforum in 1992, in a comment about sexuality that I’d argue easily extends to gender, “I’m not sure that anybody knows how to account for their sexual practices, and if they were able to account for their sexual practices, they probably wouldn’t be interested in them anymore.”

If Gender Trouble leaves us with a task for 2023, it’s to remain interested—but also, importantly, to decouple that interest from our basic right to exist.

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