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1-Page Summary of Gender Trouble
Judith Butler (born in 1956) is an American philosopher. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio and came out as a lesbian at age sixteen. After studying philosophy at Bennington College, she went on to earn her PhD from Yale University where she became involved with the gay community and political activism. Since 1993, Butler has been teaching at UC Berkeley where she is now Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory Program Director.
Butler has changed how gender is studied and understood in philosophy, as well as how some groups demand political change. She has published more than a dozen books, including Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which was published in 1990. The book came from her desire to make life better for people and rethink what’s possible.
Gender Trouble is a book that questions the relationship between sex, gender and sexuality. It is considered groundbreaking in feminism, women’s studies and lesbian and gay studies. The author argues for society to rethink the most basic categories of human identity. She achieves this by asking questions about sex, gender and sexuality, which define people’s identities. Her revolutionary ideas regarding gender identity have come to be seen as foundational to queer theory.
Butler begins by questioning some of the central assumptions within feminist Theory. She asserts that there is no such thing as a common identity for women, and that trying to assert one is problematic. Feminist identity politics are not sustainable without an identity for women. If there’s no focal point for the conception of women, then how can we have any foundation?
However, some argue that concrete identities and well-defined conceptual boundaries are not possible. Butler focuses on this topic in her book “Gender Trouble”, where she discusses the construction of feminine identity.
In the first chapter, “The Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire,” Judith Butler discusses the importance of intersectional feminism, but questions how we define women. She believes that this term has been constructed by a phallocentric society and assumes a universality that negates its meaning. Therefore, she proposes a new form of feminism that critiques these notions of identity and gender. This leads her to look at sex and gender as independent concepts from one another. If we assume sex is biological, and gender is culturally constructed, then they are two separate concepts. However, if gender identity is complex in relation to sex (and it most certainly is), then feminists must embrace this complexity instead of moving away from traditional western roles for men and women in society.
Butler discusses the psychoanalytic structuralist account of sexual difference and the construction of sexuality with respect to power in chapter two. She shows how socialist feminism is problematic and Levi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology commits fallacies that lead to a self-defeating formulation of gender. Her critiques of both Freud and Lacan are also exceptionally insightful, such as her argument that in fact, the taboo against homosexuality creates heterosexual dispositions, thereby making the oedipal complex possible.
The third chapter begins with a discussion of Julia Kristeva. Butler believes that Kristeva’s theory is based on the same system she wants to overthrow. She believes that any theory that claims signification is predicated on the denial or repression of a female principle should consider whether femaleness is really external to cultural norms by which it’s repressed. This chapter also includes Butler’s discussion of Foucault publishing Herculine Barbin’s journal, her critique of Monique Wittig and her view that gender identity can be “subverted” through masquerade and drag.