Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Exactly how Deviant can Gender Deviance be?

Living and working in New York City since May has made me hyper-aware of my body—more so than anywhere else I have lived. From being packed into a subway car like a sardine every morning to worrying about the “business casual” balance when getting dressed, the boundaries and presentation of my body have played a leading role in my thoughts this summer, to my dismay. For this reason, I greatly enjoyed sitting down with The Judith Butler Reader and reading the first essay, “Variations on Sex and Gender,” in which the centrality of the body to human experience and its role in gender presentation is explored.

“Variations on Sex and Gender” sparked my thinking about a matter I have mulled over several times before, removed from any Butler reading. This matter is my question about gender deviance and if one can ever be truly deviant, as projects of deviance seem to merely borrow from gender norms, but “rearrange” or present them in a seemingly rebellious nature. For example, even androgyny operates relative to gender norms because enacting it entails removing any definitively “male” or “female” markers from one’s gender performance. Thus, although the act of androgyny is deviant in its escape from the gender binary, it still relies on constraining norms to inform its construction.

My questions about exactly how deviant one can be were partially answered by Butler’s discussion of gender as choice on page 26 of the reader. Furthering Beauvoir’s work, Butler explores the vast “social constraints upon gender compliance and deviation…” (27). I am fairly certain Butler confirms my worry that in order to adopt a specific type of body—normative or deviant—you are operating in “a world of already established corporeal styles” and either reformulating or reproducing these predefined “styles” of gender (26). Thus, gender and gender deviance seem to be a choice, but a choice that operates within the boundaries of gender norms. The fluidity of gender one can explore is perhaps deceiving because, as Butler states, it is “a freedom made burdensome through social constraint” (27).

Despite the help from Butler in “Variations on Sex and Gender,” I am still perplexed and inquisitive about forms of gender deviance and exactly how deviant they can be, but consider gender deviance to be a valuable springboard for social progress, regardless of the extent to which it operates in relation to gender norms.


  1. I would say that while the category of “the deviant” is only meaningful in relation to a norm, the specific forms that such deviance takes are not limited to a set of reactionary gestures or performances structured by the norm. If you start working with fragmented genders (something like Riche Richardson’s work on African-American men doing racially inflected drag), the concept of a monolithic norm even begins to lose traction as a useful analytical term. I would also suggest that you might be verging on positing a certain model of political resistance as authentic to the exclusion of others that are somehow not revolutionary enough. What kind of effects (or affects) do you want deviance to produce, and would it even be legible if it were not in some way relatable to popular gender norms? Would it actually be “gender” deviance if it weren’t somehow responding to the sets of performances currently construed as gendered?

    On the issue of androgyny, Sandra Bem has actually done work showing that people who are considered androgynous frequently score high for both stereotypically female-ascribed traits and stereotypically male-ascribed traits (they are not marked by an absence of such traits, but rather the presence of traits that are usually considered mutually exclusive). You can read more about this in article on her faculty page: http://www.psych.cornell.edu/people/Faculty/slb6.html. The work is old, and there is almost certainly more recent research on the topic too.

  2. Alex,

    Thank you for your comment. You bring up a lot of good points–ones that I think appear and reappear when considering the cycle of gender construction and deconstruction. Gender Studies is a subject in academia that often involves reflection upon one’s personal life and when the academic and personal are merged, things tend to become more “heated”. That being said, I want to assure you and any other readers that I did not intend to devalue any form of deviance and certainly do not favor the exclusion of anyone from “valid” participation in gender deviance.

    I look forward to reading Bern’s work. Thank you for the suggestion and your participation!