Undoing Gender: How Judith Butler Taught Me to Demand the Impossible

by: Mariann Devlin

If I could name the most important living philosopher today, who will go down as one of the most influential thinkers of our era, it’s Judith Butler.

Let me list her qualifications, for those of you who aren’t familiar: gender theorist, queer theorist, literary theorist, ethicist, political philosopher. If there’s any, ahem, sense of justice, Judith Butler will reign supreme. I think she’d take offense to the language of power I just used, but to be chastized by her would be my life’s greatest honor.

If you don’t know Judith Butler, I beg you to run out to your nearest library, pick up Gender Trouble, or anything she’s written for that matter, lock yourself in your bedroom and prepare to be enlightened. It will be an excrutiating process. You might want to buy a dictionary of philosophy, too, since her writing’s kind of obtuse.  But no matter. No pain, no gain.

I do think the only lasting criticism that’s ever been launched at Butler is that she’s hard to read. Accessibility is important, if you want to get your message out. And her message, to me, is one of the most important things to come out of contemporary philosophy. Not only is gender an expected role we play, but because biological sex is most often determined through presuppositions of gender — well, we can trash that too.

Thanks to her groundbreaking work in gender studies, transgendered people aren’t just people who have chosen to live their lives differently than the so-called rest of us. Transgendered and queer-identified people are proof that “the rest of us” is a fiction and that, perhaps the most challenging claim of all, biological sex itself is a social condition.

Think about it. If our initial way of determining someone’s biological sex is through their gender, and someone identifies as genderqueer — then what do we make of the male/female sex binary?

Challenge it we must. Our understanding of what it means to be a biological male or female only works when we think in gender-dualistic terms. Not only did Butler see that, she also challenged feminism for working within the confines of heteronormativity. By even speaking about women as having a particular need or perspective that’s different than men, feminism wasn’t just doing a disservice to those performing outside those binaries; it was also failing in its project to truly liberate people from their conditioned gender status.

Basically, I freakin’ love her.

Now, some have suggested that because Butler wants to avoid gender distinctions altogether, that leaves feminism with no project. That is, if “woman” doesn’t exist, than the oppression of “woman” doesn’t either.

Not so! If anything, it makes feminism even more crucial. Women are oppressed based on categories of gender and sex that don’t exist. Or, they don’t exist until we say they do.

Judith Butler has also embraced almost every important progressive movement in recent memory, including the Occupy movement. Check her out. She’s amazing.

If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.

When Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble, she made an “impossible” demand that we dismantle gender, sexuality, race, and religion as categories that have only served to alienate others from ourselves.

As a feminist, a reader, a progressive, and whatever this thing you call “woman” is, I’ve been changed by her life’s work. Go check her out.

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

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4 responses to “Undoing Gender: How Judith Butler Taught Me to Demand the Impossible

  1. This is a great intro to Butler piece. Summarizing her work ain’t easy – it was the bane of my existence in grad school. I think, also, while her work can be really hard to read, something of a double standard has been applied to it – she’s just playing the same wordy McWordsmith game that so many (male) philosophers played before her. If she had written in more plain language, she would have been accused of being simplistic. Bah!

    • Mason, I was nervous about writing this piece because I wasn’t sure if I write about her in a way that makes sense to people who aren’t familiar with her. o, I’m relieved to hear this. Also, you are absolutely right about the double-standard. I can’t even think of a philosopher, male or female, who could be considered an easy read.

  2. Thanks for this. I’ll be checking out some Judith Butler the next time I get to visit the library. I am confused by the idea of biological sex being a social construct, but just confused enough to be intrigued.

  3. Pingback: 17/01/13: Putting the T in LGBT with @TheJessus – in the sprawl·

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