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.