Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Reflections on my “Insubordinate” Youth

I am thinking about becoming a princess. It’s going to be harder than you might think. Raised Pennsylvania Dutch and Lutheran in the shadow of the women’s movement, I have always been self-reliant above all else. Since childhood, I scoffed at gender roles, willfully subverting them: I reached for the check when it came; I took out the trash; and I installed the new downspout. No man, not even the husband I love and with whom I have shared nearly 30 years of life, was going to get in the way. Of my taking out the trash. (Hmmmm?)

Reading Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” I realized I had a little reflecting to do. Had I, like Butler’s “‘providing”” butch on page 131, become “caught in a logic of inversion whereby that ‘providingness’ turns to a self-sacrifice”—implicating me in “the most ancient trap of feminine self-abnegation”? Hmmmm. . . .

On the topic of self-abnegation, there’s the song “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” (133). As a teenager, listening to Carole King’s rendition on a hand-me-down record, I was struck by its urgency and sexuality. Just to hear a woman singing—claiming—the word “wuh-mahn” was a powerful experience. As a likely straight, gender-conforming adolescent female, I did not think much about what a “natural woman” was, or how it was problematic (133).

As powerful as I found the song to be, what perturbed me was the “You make me feel” part. Even King and co-writer Gerry Goffin must have felt a little shaky about it—why else put that part in parentheses in the title? Why, whether in 1967 when Aretha Franklin first recorded it, or in 1977 when I was listening to the song, were we relying on, celebrating, that someone else made us feel anything, let alone a certain kind of woman?

Then it got even worse: “And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more.” What kind of self-abnegation is that—commonplace, or so-pathetic-that-self-will-need-a-spatula-to-pick-itself-up-from-the-floor?

As for certain aspects of “natural” woman, in the early sixties King herself was performing the ideal heterosexual woman (with idealized non-ethnic hair). By the early seventies, King and others flaunted their naturally moppy hair. A frequent remark I heard at that time was that one couldn’t even tell men from women, their appearances were so similar. I used to think this should bug me—the people saying it seemed so confused and powerless—but it never did. I exulted in this confusion. Was I just a crazy kid—or were the early seeds of gender insubordination taking root in me?

While we are revisiting my youth, why not have a look at the Love Is. . . cartoons? These nude little people had no visible sexual features, except that the “woman” had long hair and nipples, and the “man” had short hair and no nipples (??). They gamboled from frame to frame, seemingly undaunted by their unarticulated genitalia. Nature or nurture? If I was bound to challenge gender norms, was it because of some innate quality, or because I saw the Love Is. . . cartoons in the daily paper?

Recently, in reflecting back on those cartoons, I found this. It’s part of an ad campaign through the Advertising Media Program of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). And I felt hope—that we are claiming certain archetypes and reimagining them to reveal our selves, and our hopes for ourselves.

This summer, my husband and I were walking on the High Line in Manhattan, when we saw this sign. Yes! we cheered. We have the abundant privilege of heterosexual marriage, and yet we remain perplexed by other heterosexuals who feel, as Butler puts it, “perpetually at risk” (129). How uplifting to see on a billboard that we should just GET OVER IT.

My lens is a heterosexual, gender-conforming one. I know that I have enormous privilege. Yet I take away some empowering thoughts from “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” And lately I’ve been feeling a little tired. Maybe it’s not too late to try out the princess identity. I think I’d like to feel the “incontrovertible power” of “orchestrat[ing]” a certain dependency (131).

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