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Brianne JacobsJune 27, 2024
A pedestrian crossing decorated with the pattern of the transgender flag on a street in London April 10, 2024. (OSV News photo/Isabel Infantes, Reuters)  

There is no question that a seismic shift in how we understand gender is underfoot.

Gay and gender-nonconforming people have always existed in different ways across the movements of time and culture. It would be naïve to suggest, however, that the past several decades have not seen massive shifts in how we understand and talk about gender and sexuality. Consider the first exposure you had to what it meant to be gay or to challenge a gender binary as a child. Now consider how our children and grandchildren are learning about these concepts today.

Who’s Afraid of Gender?by Judith Butler

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
320p $30

For my college students here in Massachusetts, the time before gay marriage belongs to ancient history. When I began teaching 12 years ago, no students used they/them pronouns. Now, several students in each of my classes use them every semester. The reality in which young adults are growing up is wildly different from that of their parents and grandparents.

Amid these shifts, the academic field of gender studies is not trying to take anything away from anyone. It only submits that certain characteristics—domination, tenderness, leadership, sensuality, care work, humor, logic, intuition—are not owned or determined by any one gender. We have all only to gain by rejecting the violence that maintains gender categories and by exploring the ways in which we are not determined by such categories.

“Gender” in the field of gender studies is not merely about identity, it is about the social constructs that influence who has power and who does not. It examines gender as one of many axes along which power is organized in society and how the formation of masculinity or femininity creates dynamics that legitimize the harm or empowerment of individuals and groups. The work of Judith Butler in particular, dating to the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990, suggests that a more just, safe and joyous world is one in which we do not violently punish people for not perfectly embodying the ideals of the gender binary. Gender Trouble meant not only to “trouble” the idea of a stable male or female identity but also to trouble the presumptions that used gender to organize power in society.

Now, 35 years later, there has been a proliferation of definitions and descriptions of gender identity, but perhaps more importantly, there has also been a transformation in the gendered organization of power.

In their new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?,Butler contends that the contemporary backlash to “gender” is an attempt to recapture the transforming power structure and return to the (in their view, mythical) days when it was simple to use gender to organize power in the world. Within this attempt to return, the specter of “gender” is invoked as an ideology that will harm the public and often children—though with little evidence of actual harm. However, the pretext of potential harm becomes grounds for real material harms. By suggesting that the mention of “gender” is destructive, leaders are able to destroy anything that challenges their power.

Butler meticulously researches the uses of this kind of “anti-gender” rhetoric and violence by religious, political and social leaders. Looking at the actions of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning parties in Russia, Hungary, Germany, Spain, Italy, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Uganda and the United States, Butler examines legislation worldwide, including trans-exclusive political movements in Great Britain and Europe. Butler points out that it is the people accusing “gender ideologists” who are the ones truly harming children and meddling in public life.

In one chapter, Butler examines the ways the Catholic Church has sought to establish that it is not just the family or the state, but God who is harmed by “gender ideology,” with specific mentions of the rhetoric of Pope Benedict XVI. The reader can sense in this chapter that Butler finds a great deal of irony in the Catholic Church calling gender ideology a harm to children, given the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church over the last two decades.

In this and other examples, Butler outlines a logic in which the specter of “gender” is invoked to point to something the populace needs to be protected from and therefore must be violently extinguished—often at the expense of the idea that the government’s primary duty is to protect basic shared rights. Butler writes that “[t]he authoritarian who commands an electoral majority through stoking fears of cultural ‘invasion’ or ‘terrorism’ can be elected precisely because he stands for brutal power and unyielding nationalism.”

Ultimately, then, Butler’s goal in Who’s Afraid of Gender? is to show that any backlash against the reorganization of how gender signifies power in society aims not just to reinstate a traditional gender binary but to foment an undemocratic, repressive and violent social order.

Do you need to be afraid of Judith Butler? Of gender? Butler would probably say you should be more afraid of an authoritarian.

Butler suggests that simply reading gender theory will not, like an infection, turn you into a trans person or radical feminist. It will mean that you will have to encounter the ideas and refine your criticisms of them against reality, not against the hollow and often incorrect versions propagated in popular discourse. Taking and reading a disputed text or idea for yourself, they argue, is in fact an anti-authoritarian and pro-democratic necessity:

What is dismissed as “academic” procedure is actually required for informed public deliberations in democracies. Informed public debate becomes impossible when some parties refuse to read the material under dispute. Reading is not just a pastime or a luxury, but a precondition of democratic life, one of the practices that keep debate and disagreement grounded, focused, and productive (emphasis mine).

The proof that many people have not read Judith Butler can be found in the many flatly incorrect summaries of her work. These suggest that “performativity” or “social construction” means we can choose whatever we want for our gender because there is nothing substantial there. Butler actually argues that the meaning of our bodies is something we are born into—it precedes and constrains us. It is something like an inheritance; you do not have control over the social signification of your body that is handed to you throughout your life. The idea of what it means to be a good man or woman is prescribed to us by our family, our culture, our nation, our time, our place. This socially held idea informs and mediates how we see and experience ourselves and how we move through the world as a body. We have little access to what our bodies might mean to us before the socially constructed notion of gender.

A counterpoint to Butler might be, for example, the argument that “I have a uterus! You can’t socially construct the fact that I menstruate.” Butler’s point is not that you can socially construct away the fact of your menstruating body. However, the meaning of being “on your period” is highly socially constructed, and the meaning precedes the experience of one’s own biological reality. Most young people I know are devastated to get their period. For them, it means they have entered into something gross: “becoming a woman.” Now, they know, they will be taken less seriously, treated as less athletic, less innocent, less fun. Each time “sitcom Dad” rolls his eyes to say “ignore Mom,” the woman watching is taught that her pain and needs are subject to that same dismissal. People know their emotions will now be attributed to “hysteria.” Their bodies are now both more sexual and more shameful. This is the inheritance. I did not have these words and expertise myself when I was 13, but I knew it all immediately. These norms made sense of me long before I made sense of them.

Butler’s point is that gender norms constrain us. We don’t “perform” gender. Gender itself is performative: It is a power structure that performs itself through us. We are constituted in our inheritances. Like an inheritance, the agency we have is not in what we are given but in what we do with it. We cannot jump into a future that is not shaped by the past; for example, we cannot snap our fingers and simply erase narratives about being “on your period.” But perhaps we can take the fabric of our past, our inherited skeins, and quilt them up in a way that gives the fabric new meaning. We cannot erase the social meaning of menstruation, but maybe we can shift it over time to be less violent.

This is what Butler has been challenging readers to do for decades.

As these large changes in society affect each of us, we will examine our own gendered place in society and how we best love those among us who trouble “gender.” In this endeavor, I suggest: Take up and read the book for yourself. There is nothing to be afraid of.

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