Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

We’ve come a long way … still so far to go

When you live in a house with two teenagers, it’s easy to believe that identity is performative. You don’t have to read Foucault to know that a brow piercing is some kind of inscription of the soul on the body. Over the last few years, I have seen a “fluidity of identities” in my household that bears out Butler’s idea about the importance of resignification and recontextualization (112). In this case, the contexts (adolescence, high school, dating) are some of the most brutal known to humankind; the norms, the most punishing. Still, somehow my children are emerging with what seems like a self-composed identity, or at least self-informed, and many of their peers seem to be similarly fortunate.

And yet, I know I cannot compare adolescence, as painful as it is, with living one’s life in the margins of gender and sexuality. I know that Butler’s call, in the Preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble, for “the extension of. . . legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible” (101) is still an urgent plea in 2011. We still have to imagine what the world would have to be like to make life possible for sexual and gender minorities (98). I think we are creating this new world little by little, with the increases in states recognizing and legalizing gay marriage, with talk shows featuring transgender people and discussions—and with women’s colleges, Bryn Mawr included, examining possibilities for inclusivity across the gender spectrum.

I have had the privilege of inheriting Butler’s theories; they inform my work and my worldview. And I must remember that, if we are making progress in “increasing the possibilities for a livable life” (103) for those outside a gender binary, it took Butler’s assertion that “genders can be neither true nor false” (111) and her debunking of any “true or abiding masculinity or femininity” (115) in Gender Trouble to bring us to this point. Her statements in Chapter 3 are powerful: by the end of the chapter, I emerged even more convinced of the hegemony of heterosexuality and the oppression of “masculinist domination” (115). Still, I felt the absence, alluded to in her Preface, of other factors. How do race and (non-Western) culture complicate her theories? And how do we address the complex intersections of identity?

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