Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Performance Anxiety

“I’m in gender jail.”

I heard this from a friend of mine recently, as she expressed her anguish and frustration with the competing demands of new parenthood, her marriage, and her professional ambition. I thought about this while reading the first essay in the Butler reader, “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault.” Unpacking Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Butler asserts that gender is inescapable and continuously enacted. There is no such thing as an ungendered existence, or even an ungendered moment of existence.  Butler explodes the idea that sex is biologically located in our bodies and that gender is a series of cultural constructs.  Instead, we embody ourselves in order to navigate and negotiate past and present (and future) cultural norms.

On one hand, our bodies are specific and real “situations,” and they are loaded with historical ideas and expectations (for example, that men’s bodies are perfect vessels for the intellect; women’s bodies are leaking vessels for nurturing). On the other hand, our bodies are the medium for interpreting, creating, and responding to these myriad historical and cultural beliefs and presumptions.  In this way, one “becomes” a woman or a man.  This becoming is an active, purposeful way for us to be in the world, but it is also effortful and unending. Furthermore, this implies a kind of choice and possibility: that we actively choose our gender. Yet this is a false choice and a false set of possibilities: there is no choice outside of the fairly limited social norms for gender roles.

Butler’s compelling (though undeveloped) example demonstrating the rigidity of choices available to us is motherhood. We think of motherhood as biological and instinctual, whether we talk about the “maternal instinct” or the biological “fact” that oxytocin is released by the brain immediately post-partum, causing a mother to bond with her infant. It is too terrifying and destabilizing to think of it otherwise, as a choice that a woman makes to love and nurture her child. The recent fascination and obsession over the trial of Casey Anthony for allegedly murdering her toddler, Caylee, vividly illustrates this terror. The media attention to Casey Anthony is grounded in her gender: she is Medea, the monstrous mother.

When my friend complained to me that she felt like she was in prison, it wasn’t because she had no control over her time, or because she couldn’t easily leave her house, it was because she was tired of mouthing platitudes she didn’t feel. She had just returned to work, and she was elated to have adult conversations and do work she finds fulfilling and meaningful. Yet she couldn’t show her enthusiasm to her family, her friends, her parenting group, or even her co-workers, all of whom wanted her to talk about how difficult it must be for her to leave her child in the care of paid caregivers. But her difficulty was in conforming to a rigid set of gender expectations that left her feeling trapped and inauthentic.

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