March 17th, 2006

Gender Performativity

The recent posting Femininity in males makes me think of Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity.

Judith Butler is a gender theorist that argued that gender is socially constructed. That gender isn't some biologically, transcendentally immutable characteristic of our identity ordained by god and society, but behaviors that we learn, that we perform.

This is not to say that they are chosen. The agency in gender performativity is limited. We were wired this way, and while we may be able to alter this wiring, the main electrician is society. Consequently the gender performances we put on, the behaviors we do our both a choice and something that we have to do.

Gender is a doing not a being. It is a performance we put on for ourselves and society. Gender is the collections of messages we send to people that tell them all the things that society deems important such as our power, class, our sexual availability and interest, our personal space etc. And it is by these things that society acknowledges our existence and it is by society's acknowledgment that we define ourselves. Note that if you do not define yourself as a she or a he you become an it.

Yet as product of this society we are raised, trained and regulated to believe that gender is who we are and by doing so gender becomes a part of us. The performance becomes a defining characteristic of our nature. Note that sexual identity is simply another aspect of this, the idea of defining ourselves by who we fuck is a rather queer (no pun intended) idea to anyone that lived 200 years, when before that time having sex with someone defined something you did as opposed to defining who you are.

But of course no one is able to perfectly perform the two gender identities that society circumscribes for us. Everyone in one way or another violates those roles, deviating from the performance that society choreographs from us. Because people are complex, each person responds to their environment and the social pressures and expectations in their own way and this gives rise to gender variance.

In other words this gives rise to other scripts, gender performances that society neither acknowledges nor can permit to exist. For society's gender play is defined by the idea that there are no other performances then the ones that society puts on. Thus, the existence of alternative plays would by definition compromise society’s gender performance; in short we are a threat. That is why they hate gay people, Trans people etc, that is why they try silence and kill us. It is because we are no longer following society's script, and instead our inventing one of our own in a way that society can not ignore. Which is to say we do it, loudly proclaim it and have no problem with it.

That is why I don't fight for any specific minority gender identity be it gay rights (and yes in this sense gay is a gendered identity), Trans rights etc. Instead I fight for the space for gender rights as such, that everyone should be permitted the space to perform however they like, that no one be threatened with death, injury or social stigma. (It’s not like I am being idealistic or anything).