In this lesson, we will discuss the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by American gender theorist Judith Butler. This influential work focuses on issues in gender identity and feminism.

What is Gender?

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘gender’? Most likely, you think of the distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female.’ You might conjure images of blue vs. pink, toy trucks vs. dolls, and anatomical differences. The term is actually quite a bit more complex than most people think. In order to understand this complexity, we must first look at the difference between sex and gender.

Sex refers to the biological male, female, or intersex (a combination of both) category defined by our internal and external reproductive organs and chromosomes. Gender refers to socially created roles, feelings, and behaviors deemed appropriate for men and women by society. Behaviors that are consistent with society’s expectations are considered gender-normative, whereas behaviors that are viewed as incompatible are referred to as gender non-conformity. Gender identity is a person’s own sense and definition of their gender.

Judith Butler, a renowned gender theorist and professor, wrote a highly influential book titled Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity in 1990. This work has helped to challenge and alter our ideas about gender identity and feminism, a movement that focuses on social, economic, and political equality for women. Let’s discuss the ideas presented in this book and the impacts they have had.

Gender Trouble

Butler has written several articles and books, but Gender Trouble is by far her most well-known work. It has been translated into several languages and is discussed and debated around the world. In this book, she wrote that the existing feminist movement was limited in how it defined gender. She expressed that this definition was outdated and still reflected the world’s treatment of gender as a set of binary categories. This means that when we’re born, we’re typically placed into one of two distinct categories: male or female.

Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble
Judith Butler

These categories often define how we behave. For example, imagine a newborn baby girl in the hospital, swaddled in her pink blanket. As a toddler, she is taught that she should love the color pink and play with dolls. She should grow up to be gentle, emotionally expressive, and nurturing. On the other hand, imagine a baby boy coming home in his blue blanket to a sports-themed nursery. He is taught to hide his emotions and to be a problem-solver.

Butler argues against this system of categorizing people, stating that gender should be seen as a fluid human trait that can shift and change in a given context rather than one that remains fixed. Further, she contends that women have been grouped together based on shared characteristics and interests, which can limit their ability to choose their own identities. Butler also challenged the prevailing attitude that sex causes gender, which then defines sexuality and desire. She argued that these factors should be independent of one another rather than inextricably connected.

Butler views gender as what we ‘do’ rather than ‘who we are’ as people. She compares gender to putting on a performance in a play, stating that our behaviors are not simply an expression of an innate gender, but that the performance itself creates gender. She uses the term performativity to describe this phenomenon, and states that there should be more choice and variability in how a person presents their self.

Impacts of Butler’s Work

Gender Trouble has been extremely powerful in challenging our notions of gender identity. The ideas presented in this book have mobilized political activism around the world and are often used in debates about LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and teaching gender roles to children. It has its fair share of critics, as well. In fact, it has been so widely debated that even Pope Benedict XVI has given speeches in which he referred to her ideas as a threat to Catholic values.

Lesson Summary

Gender, sex, and gender identity are hot topics today, with much debate about how they should define us as human beings. Judith Butler’s influential book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity focuses on issues in gender identity and feminism. It emphasizes the importance of fluidity in a person’s gender and uses the term performativity to describe gender as a performance.