Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

“Variations on Sex and Gender” and Daily Life

You should know that I am a feminist. What does that mean? For one thing, it means that when a friend tells me about a colleague who compares a challenging situation to having “a nagging wife,” and she tells me that her response was that she had neither been nor had a nagging wife and therefore did not follow his metaphor, I feel anger for the situation and pride for my friend. We defend our gender in the face of foolish comments (and oppressive behavior)—but not without wondering, after all this time, why we still have to do so.

I am fortunate that in my daily life I rarely have to show my Feminist badge. I rarely encounter asides, jokes or direct statements belittling women. In fact, I occupy a place where power and privilege are not easily assigned to one sex. The lines of gender are not clearly drawn, gender is not definitive, and in lieu of a binary, I embrace a continuum.

Yet, gender questions pervade daily life, sometimes in silly ways. A few years ago, we brought home a black Lab puppy, Woofie. Named after a babyhood toy of our son’s, the dog had neither a gender-defining name nor any gender-associated colors for her leash or collar. All of this was coincidental rather than intentional; it was only in meeting strangers that I even paid attention to the genderization of our dog. I was amazed how many people asked, when encountering Woofie, “Is it a boy or a girl?” My trick was to reply, “She’s gender ambiguous.” I couldn’t carry my politicizing of Woofie’s body to its fullest, because I did start my statement with “she.” But it was interesting to watch people’s reaction to my refusal to tell them what they thought mattered. Did it matter? Usually, people laughed, seeming to acknowledge that their question had been irrelevant. Whereas Butler’s examination of Beauvoir, Sartre and Descartes’ thinking is focused on sex and gender variations of humans, not dogs, I can nevertheless report that I enjoyed the subversive and liberating feelings from these encounters with canine gender non-conformity.

And, of course, gender comes up in non-silly ways too. I have a human friend who is intersex. Did my friend find, as Butler asserts, that “[i]t is not possible to exist in a socially meaningful sense outside of established gender norms”? (27) After going through the first decades of life conforming to established gender norms, and then deviating from those norms somewhat, this friend learned quite late about having been born intersex. How did this new knowledge impact my friend’s “existing” the body? How did the new information affect my friend’s “living one’s body in the world”? (26)

And how can we navigate some of these more complex issues if people are still making smarmy remarks about women?