Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Permeating Boundaries of Gender in Feminism

As we move through life, we are forced to identify ourselves by our gender on various administrative forms, applications, etc.  For some, this task entails a simple check mark placed in a box without a second thought and for some a painful reminder of our “otherness.”  With this check mark comes an affiliation with one side of a binary that for some feels like throwing a loaded die—no matter how many times you roll, you keep landing on the same number and, inevitably, you lose.

Butler’s exploration of the absence of a natural gender and its relationship to how we either fit or don’t fit into society led me to think of my own relationship to feminism.  I grew up steeped in the feminist tradition: my mother refused to allow me to play with Barbies because, for her, they perpetuated an unrealistic and oppressive vision of femininity and were not anatomically correct.  During adolescence, I continued to explore my own idea of feminism and became involved in the riot grrrl movement of the 90s.  However, these manifestations of feminism that I grew up with rely on the assumption of a gender binary, which fueled the movement at it’s inception.  Butler notes, “categories of true sex, discrete gender, and specific sexuality have constituted the stable point of reference for a great deal of feminist theory and politics” (103).  She, then, points to the locus of this discourse as the female body, onto which meaning is ascribed signifying gender, sex, identity, power, and politics.

If the body acts as a signifier for gender, in what ways does a fight for a gender’s rights presume and collude with the existing hegemony of natural gender?  Should the fight, as Butler argues, include all margins that threaten to contain the “inner” from the “outer”, and work instead to expose the fallacy of gender as it has been understood?  For Butler, natural gender exists due to, “…the construction of the gendered body through a series of exclusions and denials, signifying absences” (110).  It is interesting to consider how social movements fight to declare their identity, to give voice to their otherness, and in doing so comply with the principals of “inner” and “outer” that have been socio-culturally constructed.

This topic has been addressed in academic and social forums that look to expand notions of gender and belonging.  In challenging forms of oppression, it is valuable to look at the categories to which one assigns value and with which one identifies and to recognize who is being excluded or eliminated and what violence to others is being perpetuated.  My mind readily goes to the word inclusion when considering the implications of Butler’s work for social movements such as feminism; however, that would be a misstep.  Rather, it is more valuable to seek permeation of presupposed boundaries in order to address the falsity of the construct of gender.

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