Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Caught in the Act: The (Im)possibilities of Gender

In “Variations on Sex and Gender,” Judith Butler argues that gender is a fiction, albeit a compelling fiction “disguised . . . as natural truth”(37). Butler debunks the myth of gender by explaining how it has sustained and continues to sustain itself as a convincing cultural organizer. “Human existence is always a gendered existence” (27) – one cannot exist without having a gender category imposed on one’s self by others, who are informed by their cultural moment and context. If this imposition doesn’t begin in utero – what pregnant mother isn’t repeatedly asked, “Do you know the sex yet?” – it definitely begins at birth, when parents are told, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”

These seemingly only available options for what a child “is” at birth are considered to be of the utmost importance: “we assume that . . . [anatomical] traits will in some sense determine th[e] child’s social destiny, and that destiny . . . is structured by a gender system” (31). Thus, there is a never a time when we’re not gendered – traits that a structuring system has chosen to be the most salient (i. e. anatomical parts) become seemingly and inevitably tied to an inescapable gendered future. Indeed, gender becomes a “destiny,” determined by both the body and by those who witness and categorize that body.

But these impositions at birth do not create gender in that moment. Rather, “gender is . . . an origination activity incessantly taking place” (26). Gender is never “fixed in form” (26) and thus not a “fixed” essence – rather, gender is defined not as something that constitutes our being but rather as something that our actions constitute across time. That gender is “incessantly taking place” points to an “incessant” un-fixedness of gender: if gender is always happening, then it cannot be considered constant.

This notion of gender not being constant and thus potentially being in flux brings up a number of questions for me about gender’s generative (in)capabilities. Does gender’s constant motion allow for space, expansion within gender categories (even if still restricted by these very categories)? Or is the “incessant” motion an illusion and actually motionless, merely repetition of the same acts that constitute gender without expanding available norms? If there is space for “man” and “woman” to be constituted by more acts, is this capacity undermined by the fact that there will always be a limit (i. e. the very demarcation of “man” and “woman”)? Are we constantly negotiating these limits? Does negotiation end, or does there come a point when new limits and categories need to be conceptualized?

Butler understands the body that enacts gender as situated in culture and history, but this situated-ness might not necessarily foreclose possibilities for expansion. Butler writes, “The body . . . interpret[s] anew a historical set of interpretations . . . [and] becomes a peculiar nexus of culture and choice . . . ‘existing’ one’s body becomes a personal way of taking up and reinterpreting received gender norms” (28-9). While “choice” is always informed by culture and history, that there is room for individuals to “tak[e] up and reinterpret received gender norms” suggests a possibility for expansion within already designated categories of gender. The “re” in “reinterpretation” creates space for new interpretations, and thus newly defined acts that constitute gender.

Looking at different aspects of history reveal that this has indeed been the case for centuries. Those performative acts that constitute a “woman” in 2011 are not the acts that would have constituted a recognizable or socially sanctioned “woman” in others times and places. While a small example, clothing is one way gender is enacted. Katharine Hepburn ’28 was an outlandish woman in her time for wearing trousers (FYI, a Jeopardy! clue from earlier this week informed me that they were tailored by Brooks Brothers). Nowadays, if a Mawrtyr wears a dress to class, she is remarkably distinct from her sweatpants-clad classmates. While still restricted by the category itself, the boundaries and contours of “woman” and “man” are not necessarily as fixed as they may seem in a given time and place. While how much these boundaries change (and how much they can change) are still questions, the gradual reinterpretation of gender norms across time has allowed for a continually shifting repertoire of acts that constitute “man” and “woman.”

While it may be the case, then, that “to choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that reproduces and organizes them anew” (26), how “anew” it can be organized within a cultural system is questionable since the ultimate aim of gender is “to renew a cultural history in one’s own corporeal terms” (26). If one can only “renew” gender within the system that has both endowed one with gender norms and dehumanizes those who don’t act in accordance to those norms, “organizing [norms] anew” may be more likely to reproduce those norms rather than reinterpret those norms. As long as those norms are there and constantly “renewed” across time (thus making anything besides the norm unavailable), then possibility for ways of acting beyond those norms are limited.

So is there a way to expand beyond those norms? Butler warns us that “transcendence of sex altogether” (32) is not the route to smashing the gender binary. Getting “beyond” (32) gender is problematic because its very “beyondness” would be both defined by and still in relation to those structures that gender would supposedly transcend. Butler posits that another way to achieve the “dissolution of binary restrictions [is] through the proliferation of genders” (32). Energies must be directed toward “cultural innovation rather than myths of transcendence” (32).

But what kind of “cultural innovation” could lead to the “proliferation of genders?” If culture can define the norm, does innovation mean allowing for gendered acts that are deviations from the norm to become visible and thus possible to be re-enacted by individuals? Can these alternative gendered acts ever become mainstream, or must they (or will they) always be characterized by their divergence from the norm?

The possibility of expanding categories, as I began to mull above, seems a way to create space within given categories, but when might acts actually begin to break the bounds of one category and become one of these newly proliferated genders?

While gender is defined by acts, gender is still labeled, and it’s the naming of the gender that helps organize its constitutive acts. Is there a way to transcend category? Is that even the point? If gender is the acts that constitute it, then it already exists beyond the categories. Are the acts and the categorization of these acts inextricably linked? Does “cultural innovation” necessitate categories?

Butler suggests that we may come to a time when “individual women do not recognize themselves in the theories that explain their unsurpassable essences to them” (37) – but if gender is constantly informed by its cultural context which is informed by history, then is it ever actually possible for individuals to get to a place where they wouldn’t “recognize [herself] in the theories” that tell them who they are (or who they should be)? Gender never stops – that it is “incessant” means that changes and expansion can happen gradually, making this place of non-recognition seem to be an impossibility. As gender happens, norms shift and are continually transmitted, making one seemingly always capable of recognizing themselves (or who they are told they should become) in culturally prescribed norms. But if the acts that constitute the norm can proliferate, then perhaps that is how gender as an act (even if not as a category) can proliferate.


  1. I think Butler is being really polite in that last paragraph, which is basically about how second-wave feminism alienated a lot of women of older and younger generations, of different races and classes. She’s just making a practical argument about the strategic value of shifting away from an essentialist model of gender. It is somewhat ironic that Butler’s own account of gender (if not of “women” or “femininity”) is written in such opaque and potentially alienating language.

    Also, re: “If gender is the acts that constitute it, then it already exists beyond the categories,” I would say that a constellation of performances is ontologically different from a category. One of the crucial points of Butler’s work seems to me to be driving a wedge into that difference, pointing out that what exists beyond the categories is not in fact “gender” but something else, a kind of inchoate citational soup which is only (sometimes) experienced as gender because of the cultural frameworks through which it is interpreted.

    Several people here seem to be searching for a way to extrapolate a tactical resistance to gender norms from Butler’s work. I’m not sure that’s the most useful way to be reading her. The question is not how to break gender. In a sense, Butler’s innovation has been to show us that it’s already broken and we just pretend that it’s not because for most people this is easy enough. It might be more useful to think about how to shift the terms of ethical and political structures in order to make life livable for those who perform gender in such a way that they reveal that it has always been broken, multiple, fragmented, intersectional, and so on. We’re all already living these “proliferated genders” that you’re searching for, but some of us are at risk because of the ways in which specific performances threaten to denaturalize systems of privilege.


  2. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. In regard to the difference between gender as a performance and gender as a category, while I agree that they’re fundamentally distinct, I think that it’s useful to examine their relation. Performances of gender are categorized, and this binary categorization masks the fact that, as you astutely point out, “we’re already living these ‘proliferated genders.'” If gender is constituted by acts and is always happening, then (the odds are that) no combination of acts at any moment can be the same. So in that sense, there already is and always will be a multiplicity of genders, even if we’re structured to view gendered performances as falling into one of two categories.

    You’re right — as you say at the end (and as Butler also points out) specific proliferations that don’t fall into these illusory categories experience systematic exclusion and can have their “very existence [called] into question” (27). I agree that the question isn’t how to break gender, but since gender is categorized and since these categorizations perpetuate systematic exclusion, discrimination, and violence (among other things), then questioning how to break our categorizations of gender is useful. I think examining how to break the bounds of the binary categorization system is one way to, as you suggest, “shift the terms of ethical and political structures” that police performance, enable categories, and don’t make life viable for those whose gender is outside of sanctioned categories.