Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

The Danger in Category Messaging

Just yesterday, I was discussing the value and danger in identity categories in one of the Bryn Mawr courses being offered in connection with Judith Butler’s Flexner Lectureship, “Queens, Nuns, and Other Deviants in the Early Modern Iberian World.”  Some students felt very strongly about the necessity of gender identity categories for the purpose of social movement organization and coherence, but the divisive potential of these categories is quite strong.  Because one can never be sure of how a category may come to be stigmatized or politicized in the future, Butler considers their merit as “sites of necessary trouble” in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.”

Butler reminds us that categories are often born out of fear of “erasure,” but the desire to counter the threat of erasure should be examined for its potential to “reinstall another [violence of erasure] in its place” (125).  Although Butler is mainly considering the implications of the identification of the “I,” I found this essay helpful in better understanding a period of the pro-choice movement’s identity politics.

In 1986, during the Supreme Court case Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Roe v. Wade came within a single vote of being overturned.  From a fear of the “erasure” of the pro-choice movement’s strength and policies, pro-choice advocates redefined their categorization to include a conservative message strategy, with the hope of broadening pro-choice support.  With the hope of appealing to conservatives wary of big government and fond of privacy rights, the pro-choice movement adopted the slogan, “Who Decides—You or Them?”  This “reframing” of the pro-choice identity to include hints of conservative rhetoric was successful in protecting pro-choice legislature from “erasure,” but ultimately weakened the pro-choice movement by giving credence to arguments that would be used against it.  The conservative message strategy strengthened the legislative possibility for parental consent laws and the reduction of public funding for abortions.  As Butler states, “there is no way to predict or control the political uses to which that sign [identity], will be put in the future” (126).

The homosexual identities that Butler writes about expose the panicked desire to counter the myth of an “original” and “correct” heterosexuality and she suggests that homosexual identities may merely reinscribe their status as an imperfect “copy” of heterosexuality.  In other words, the danger in identity categories is their potential to fall into the service of what they intend to counter or delineate from, which was seen in the case of the pro-choice movement adjusting their identity.

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