There is a not-so-civil war being played out in our media, across YouTube, and throughout the psyche of the developed world these days, concerning how, exactly, we should think about gender and sex.
I’ve realized, in looking at this debate, that many of the battle lines for it have been drawn before.
In 1990, Judith Butler wrote a groundbreaking book called Gender Trouble. Even if you have not heard of it, I can almost guarantee you’ve been affected by it. The book is a fairly difficult read to someone not versed in gender studies, but the basic gist of a major portion of it is that it is a mistake to think of a gender as something that you are assigned at birth because that is what you always were, and that is what others need to make sure you conform to. Rather, gender is constructed externally, and then offered to you, and it can become something you perform to express yourself and encourage desirable effects. Thus, rather than seeing an obligation to press onto others a certain definition of gender, the focus should be on the fact that gender is performed, like a role or a part one plays — not necessarily a fixed, down-to-the-core True Self. This is not, of course, to say that gender is “fake” any more than language is “fake.” Gender is a real performance that can actually do things in the world you live in.
Certain performances of being a man will have certain effects in our overall society. Other performances of being a woman may have different effects in our society. Performances of being nonbinary may have still different effects. And the performance of being a bold man or shy man, a white-collar woman and a blue-collar woman…these also have very different effects. As you can see, this idea of performance doesn’t just apply to gender as a small, limited category. Judith Butler sees everything you do as a performance. You have to take up roles in order to even begin to express yourself in the world, and when you take up these roles you are performing them.
The main task, then, of gender studies is not to get rid of or “beyond” performance. That would be impossible; we have to perform in order to even be in culture, just like we have to speak (or otherwise communicate) to be heard. The task is to understand performances and seek ways to change ill-fitting, strongly policed, and oppressive ones (once we find, through experience, that they are these things).
And one important task in Bulter’s influential scheme is to see the performance as performance. So if one role does not match your inner desire to express yourself in culture, the implication is, you can look at the roles provided by culture and choose one that does; you are not obligated by some God or something to just fulfill the specific performance.
Then there’s Butler’s (in)famous take on sex and gender. Now, if you didn’t already know this, the typical division here between sex and gender is that “sex” refers to chromosomes/genitalia and “gender” refers to your social identity. Judith Butler’s controversial 1990 argument is that the category of a “sex” is not somehow “beyond” social constructions, but that, logically speaking, this category itself is socially constructed. So even the sex/gender distinction was meaningless; there is no arena of language that was “outside” of a social construction (and, she further stated, the concept of “sex” was used as a way to police people — the way I see popular speakers and YouTubers mix the two up really seems to indicate she wasn’t far off). Long story short, it was all socially constructed, so far as she could see. Thus, forcing genders on people — like telling them to “man up” or “be a lady” — is forcing them into a performance, not necessarily helping them to be who they “truly” are.
It’s hard to overstate how influential this thesis became. One of the major things it did is provide people the ability and the language to embrace identities outside of an enforced set of gender identities that were strictly, and sometimes cruelly, policed by cultures and governments. It gave people the ability to be “queer” — that is, reject the often oppressive definitions of gender that had been pressed on them by powerful external forces, and instead express themselves in spite of the policing of identities. This has often made those in power very angry, but it has also profoundly changed culture and taken the teeth out of some clearly oppressive definitions of who you are supposed to be as a man or a woman. Which is what it was meant to do, as Judith Butler cut her teeth on being an activist (and still is, by the way — one of her major focuses on the moment is constructing ways for liberals to defeat figures like Trump).
Hopefully that makes sense. And if there’s a professional reading this — apologies for breaking this down to something this drastically simple. I’m trying to summarize a lot in a small space.
People seem to have taken the theory of Judith Butler and other theorists and created a LOT of gender identities. No longer was gender necessarily something that you felt necessarily obligated to stay true to, no matter how ill-fitting it felt. It’s a performance you choose according to your social context and your autonomous goals. And for many people this was exciting — it was liberating.
When those looking to enforce gender on people complain of these new gender identities, stating they are absurd, then they are reinforcing the concept that they can’t control these genders — which may convince some of those who choose these “new” gender identities to think that they are embracing a liberating space. In other words, if you reject these gender identities you are likely also, in some ways, legitimating them as a way to escape society’s attempt to police gender (and, by extension, the socially constructed category of sex, too). This is a controversial implication of Judith Butler’s theory, but it seems an implication nonetheless.
However, there was a problem.
Many transgender and intersex people objected that gender wasn’t as free-flowing, possibly, as Judith Butler originally seemed to suggest. They insisted very loudly that they were not just “switching roles” from a man to a woman, like someone switches coats. No, they WERE men and women, down to their core, and they wanted those identities reinforced and policed so that they would be taken seriously when they chose them. They were not people “beyond” and “defiant” of gender roles — they WERE the gender they identified as, down to their core. No, this isn’t all trans people, but it was more than enough to give Judith Butler pause. Additionally, many intersex people (people with both XX and XY chromosomes, and/or who were born with both genitalia) have also found a strong need to identify with one side or the other of an enforced gender binary. This is why Judith Butler has indicated some revisions of the views she pioneered in the 90s, as when she said last year:
o work on ‘intersex’ have found ‘queer’ to be sometimes less than helpful, so it is important to understand why. If ‘queer’ means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is ‘unfixed’ then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? Or what room is there for people who require a gender designation that is more or less unequivocal in order to function well and to be relieved of certain forms of social ostracism? Many people with intersexed conditions want to be categorized within a binary system and do not want to be romanticized as existing ‘beyond all categories’.The strongest criticism of ‘queer’ lately has come from the trans community. And that takes several forms. I accept these criticisms as necessary, and have found myself revising my views in response to some of what has been said. I also found that those wh
And this is where we’re at now. We have people for who queer identities have been absolutely essential in taking them “beyond” the enforcement of gender by external power. And we also have people who want that enforcement because they want their identity to be recognized and not trivialized, for very important reasons. And the two have been clashing lately. There’s a bit of a civil war here, and the stakes are extremely high, on both sides.
Judith Butler continues:
Of course, there are different debates on this issue in both trans and intersex communities, but the message to the advocates of ‘queer’ seems quite pertinent: some people very much require a clear name and gender, and struggle for recognition on the basis of that clear name and gender. It is a fundamental issue of how to establish and insist upon those forms of address that make life liveable. At issue as well is a question of autonomy, conceptualized not through individualism, but as an emergent social phenomenon: how do I name myself, how can I establish my status within the law or within medical institutions, and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me but who position themselves against my desire to be named and recognized a certain way? This question makes sense to me, which is why it is really important for us to rethink questions of autonomy and embodiment within a social field saturated with power.
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this is. Judith Butler, arguably the most influential gender theorist of the last fifty years, is saying that we need to rethink the concept of being queer, of being defiant of established genders like “man” and “woman,” in light of people who do, in fact, need these genders to be firmly established.
Judith Butler’s solution here is not an “individualism” — she would think the idea incoherent, like saying you can’t talk without talking. In Butler’s scheme, even individuality would be a socially constructed performance — you have to “fulfill” the socially constructed role of being individualistic to even be an individual. In addition, the concept of individuality itself is problematic.
Rather, it focuses on being autonomous. “Autonomous” here is best defined the following way:
A person is autonomous when his or her behavior is experienced as willingly enacted and when he or she fully endorses the actions in which he or she is engaged and/or the values expressed by them. People are therefore most autonomous when they act in accord with their authentic interests or integrated values and desires.
So it doesn’t mean you’re alone and separated from culture — far from it. It means that you willingly choose the way you want to present yourself to the world. It’s experiential — an answer to the question of what identity you want to fulfill that, in many ways, has to be lived and can often change. And the frequently strong desire of trans and intersex people to preserve a strongly protected established identity is an ingredient in their often experiential journey.
So. You have people who have found — either through extreme gender dysphoria with both the male and female genders, or out of a more strongly pronounced desire to embrace themselves with less “gender policing” from culture — that the gender binary doesn’t work, and actively strive to deconstruct it because it holds back their “autonomy.” And then you have people who — either through identifying as cis, as an intersex man or woman, or as trans (again, not all, but many) — want the gender binary to be strongly policed and firmly intact, because that preserves THEIR autonomy.
What to do?
Right now, it appears, we’re going through a civil war, and some of it may be necessary. And I think the solution is mostly going to be something that will emerge as we listen to each other (ESPECIALLY to the most sidelined identities — cis people, we aren’t an oppressed minority). But best as I can see — and this is more of a projection than a prescription — the most optimal outcome would be for us to have both very firmly established gender identities AND nonbinary queer identities, all of which are not policed or enforced by external forces but by our autonomous desires and the genuine respect we have for each other’s autonomy as we work together in this political landscape we call society. And maybe getting there would require frequent rebellion against the policing of gender that may come from many angles in society and cripple the embodiment (or “realization”) of our autonomous desires.
Thanks for reading.