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Sunday, 22 May 2011

Judith Butler's 'Performative Gender'

Image - Angela (Head) by Catherine Opie, 1992

There is a spectre haunting Cambridge - the spectre of Butlerian performativity. What this statement lacks in fluidity it makes up for in verity, as the bacterial spread of this particular theory continues to gain momentum (here I am thinking of good bacteria, like Yakult). Over the last few weeks, I've heard of more and more people trying to get to grips with Judy B in order to apply her to their various disciplines - History of Art, English Literature, Drama, Sociology, Politics, Queer Theory and Anthropology. I'm no expert on theory but I'm eager to fan the flames of this subversive zeitgeist, by introducing the idea of performative gender and its cultural inscription through what Butler calls the heterosexual matrix.

You have two options here, you can continue to read my wanky but well-intentioned blogpost or you can follow this handy link to one of Butler's particularly insightful journal articles on JSTOR Performative Acts and Gender Construction: An Essay in Phenemonology and Feminist Theory (1988). If you're filthy keen, do both.

Butler challenges the notion of identity as a static category into which an individual places his or her self, or as a category imposed onto individuals. Life experiences, and the different identifications one will hold through their life, cannot be captured by the boundaries of 'identity'. The notion of subjectivity that Butler develops draws upon semiotics and sees gender as a floating signifier - a construct into which different meanings can be injected - because there is no 'essence' of gender within individuals, nor is gender something towards which one works. For Butler, 'gender' is a performative accomplishment brought about through the 'stylized repetition of acts'. So, gender, as an illusion, is created by the performance of certain acts which are deemed to be gendered.

This can be made more easy to understand by running with Butler's performative metaphor (one which is often invoked in sociology, known as 'the dramaturgical analogy'). The actor David Tennant received great praise for his performance as Hamlet on stage and screen - his was an accomplished performance, one which was validated by many of the critics and one in which he was able to capture something of the character of Hamlet. But Tennant does not have an 'Inner Hamlet' that he was expressing; the coherence of his Hamlet derives from the skill and craft of his performance. Tennant, after all, made a very strong Dr Who - his solid performance as Hamlet did not inhibit him in this. As an actor, he was able to perform numerous dramatic characters with his competence - he may have even 'brought his characters to life', but as vivid as indecisive Hamlet is, and as passionate his Dr Who, the happenings at Elsinore and the travels of the Tardis are fiction. Likewise with gender. For Butler, our 'gender identities' are characters that are made to seem real through the skill and frequency of our performances. To give the example of masculinities, certain of the dramatis personae are the main characters on the stage of gender - the macho, the heroic, the muscular, the leader, the powerful - whereas certain other characters are marginal - the passive, the sensitive, the thoughtful, the slender, the effeminate.

A strong performance of gender is able to convince the 'audience' that the 'character' being enacted is real - that it is not a performance but a reality. It is an illusory fiction, and at the intersection of gender performance and gender/power relations, certain characters become more desirable to enact. It takes artistic ability to be a strong Laertes, but when the audience looks through the programme, they want to know who is playing Hamlet.

Next up is the notion of the 'heterosexual matrix' through which one's subject position is rendered coherent if it consists of "a stable sex expressed through a stable gender... that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality‟ (Butler, 1990: 206). This is the idea of normative or compulsory heterosexuality, derived from Adrienne Rich. Deviations from heternormativity, which encompasses not only heterosexuality but normative gender performances and a normative sex, cause consternation, discipline and Othering. To be recognised as a normative individual requires a strict dichotomisation between male and female (when the distinction is not so clear cut for those who are intersex), it requires that the gender performed matches the sexed body (so a biological male acts masculine, a biological female acts feminine). Finally, the individual needs to desire the opposite sex. The straight bloke and the straight lass.

The 'policing of the matrix' can be found in how the three matrices (sex, gender, sexuality) are made to interact. I can give the example of pink socks as an example, referring here not to the sexual accident but the actual literal socks which are pink. In our society, pink is made to express femininity (female gender). You see this clearly enough in card shops and clothes shops (especially for children). What then of the boy who wears pink socks. What possible impact could come about from it? Having enjoyed doing this little experiment myself once before, I can report that I have worn pink socks one day with the kids in one of the schools I have worked in, and their reaction was far greater than if I had just made another fashion blunder. 'Are you gay?' was one of the first things asked. The subversive gender performance (wearing the colours of the 'other side') implies subversive sexuality. Now, I might be a bad example here, but a straight is just as able to wear pink socks without it nudging them into homosexuality. Gender performances are seen to express sexualities - in some of my own research, it was explained to me by 10 and 11 year old boys that 'wearing skinny jeans makes you feel kinda gay' and that if you zip up your jacket to the top, 'it means you like the bum'. It's a strange logic, but one that functions by its disguise within the model of the heterosexual matrix.

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