Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Rachel Maddow and Judith Butler’s Critique of “the Shiny New Gay Citizen”

Earlier this month, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow expressed skepticism regarding the value of the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the institution of marriage.  “I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships,” she explains. “And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture.”

Many gay rights activists were shocked by this critique of the legalization of gay marriage.  The liberal political agenda seems to have normalized the “correctness” of the assimilation of gays and lesbians into the institutions of marriage and the military.  There has been little discussion of what is lost in this assimilation, or rather, what is gained by hegemonic systems of power.  In the legalization of gay marriage and the repeal of DADT, equality for sexual minorities is gained, but this is an equality defined within the terms of a system that is informed by patriarchal heteronormativity.  Is that really equality?  Maddow’s skepticism of state-recognized gay marriage is rooted in an appreciation for the alternative cultures that arise as a natural resistance to discrimination.  On a similar note, in “Competing Universalities,” Butler asks the lesbian and gay rights movement to consider the idea that striving to gain access to and assimilate with historically oppressive institutions undermines the “claim to be working in the direction of substantive social justice” (273).

Instead of striving to gain equality within an inherently unequal dominant order, Butler calls on the lesbian and gay rights movement to “refuse its terms, to let the term itself wither, to starve it of its strength” (274).  While I agree with Butler’s (and Maddow’s) reasoning about the value in rejecting the hegemonic system of order and creating alternative orders of sexual legitimacy, there is a social cost to doing this.  Refusing the terms of state institutions has consequences; perhaps the strongest being financial–a reflection of the interconnected nature of capitalism and the control of sexuality.  Much of the reason that the lesbian and gay rights movement has fought for inclusion in the institutions of marriage and the military is related to economic benefits.  Thus, in making assertions of the danger of the assimilation that Butler and Maddow speak of, I think it is also vital to consider the lived realities, namely economic strife, behind the desire for assimilation.  While reading “Competing Universalities” I was struck with the tension between theory and reality that is often present in academia and something that I often grapple with as a gender studies student and feminist activist.

Something I look forward to asking Judith Butler about during her upcoming lectureship at Bryn Mawr is how she negotiates this aforementioned tension.  She participates in grassroots activism—most recently, Occupy Wall Street—yet also engages in deeply theoretical considerations of social conditions.  Perhaps her upcoming lectures, specifically her second one, entitled “Bodies in Alliance & the Politics of the Street” will provide me some answers, as I noticed that she drew from her “bodies in alliance” rhetoric while participating in the politics of the street at Occupy Wall Street.

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