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Essay by
Sally Young.

Judith Butler

Essay by Sally Young for the level one elective COMM1510, 1998.

Is Judith Butler's approach to gender politics an improvement on previous forms of feminism?

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, published in 1990, called for a new way of looking at sex and gender. As opposed to the fixed masculine/feminine gender binary, Butler argued that gender should be seen as fluid, variable; the way we behave at different times and in different situations rather than who we are. Butler suggested that by 'deconstructing' the way we think about gender we might move towards a new equality where people are not restricted by masculine or feminine gender roles. Like feminists before her, Butler is concerned with reaching greater equality between men and women, but her emphasis is different, as are her proposed means of action. Many of Butler's arguments and ideas are interesting and compelling but she also has critics who see several limitations with her work.

Butler begins by looking at the problems of defining 'woman'. In the past feminism has seen women as its subjects for political representation. Butler, however, argues that we cannot see women as a unified homogenous group since every woman is a unique individual. Women are not a united group since there are a great many divisive differences between them, for example those of class, race and ethnicity. This is a valid point to make as it would seem unlikely that a poverty-stricken factory worker woman from the Third World would feel she had much in common with a wealthy business woman from New York. She would be more likely to feel empathy with a man in a similar position than with a supposed 'sisterhood' of women around the world. Indeed, feminists before Butler have had problems in defining 'woman'. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, asks at the beginning of her book, The Second Sex, "What is a woman?" (Beauvoir, 1949, p. 13) She finds the old explanation of 'woman is a womb' unsatisfactory but sees that throughout history woman has been seen as 'the Other' of man:

"Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him."
(Beauvoir, 1949, p.16)

Butler argues that women should not be identified in terms of their sex. If, for instance, we see women as those who are capable of giving birth, this immediately excludes a large number of women who are unable or unwilling to procreate from this category:

"There are female infants and children who cannot be impregnated, there are are older women who cannot be impregnated.... What the question does is try to make the problematic of reproduction central to the sexing of the body. But I am not sure that is, or ought to be, what is absolutely salient or primary in the sexing of the body."
(Butler, quoted in Osborne & Segal, 1994)

Butler claims, therefore, that since women are so diverse we can no longer define them as a unified group:

"The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms."
(Butler, 1990, p.1)

Consequently, there is a need for a new way of looking at gender:

"The consequence of such sharp disagreements about the meaning of gender.... establishes the need for a radical re-thinking of the categories of identity within the context of relations of radical gender asymmetry."
(Butler, 1990, p.11)

The effect of categorising all women into a unified group separate from men has actually been detrimental to feminist calls for equality, Butler claims. If men and women are seen as fundamentally different and separate then true equality is impossible. In this way Butler is taking a different stance to other feminists who emphasise the differences between the sexes. For example, Anne Phillips, a liberal feminist, stresses in her book, Democracy and Difference, that the needs of women are very different from those of men and without recognising this fact and acting on it, true equality and democracy can never be reached. Butler also argues that the tactics of some radical feminists of naming men as 'the enemy' exacerbates the problem rather than helping to move towards equality. Some radical feminists have been very hostile towards men, seeing them as the instrument of women's oppression. Andrea Dworkin, for example, wrote that all men were violent:

"Men love death.... Men especially love murder. In art they celebrate it, and in life they commit it."
(quoted in Bristow, p.150)

Similarly, a study by Diana E.H. Russell into the relationship between pornography and rape concluded that "most men have at least some predisposition to rape women" (Bristow, 1997, p.156). Butler, in contrast, argues that such attitudes are self-defeating because they widen the gulf between men and women even further:

"The effort to identify the enemy as singular in form is a reverse-discourse that uncritically mimics the strategy of the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms."
(Butler, 1990, p.13)

Following on from the idea that all women cannot be grouped together, Butler attacks the idea that feminism should try to achieve its aims by behaving like a political movement or party. One of the conditions of a political party is that it must appear to be united and have common ideals and aims. But, if there is no single woman, there can be no single feminism:

"By conforming to a requirement of representational politics that feminism articulate a stable subject, feminism thus opens itself to charges of gross misrepresentation."
(Butler, 1990, p.5)

Butler argues that without the compulsory expectation for unity, individuals or small groups might be able to make progress and achieve things on a smaller scale. It is certainly true that feminism has many different strands of thought, including liberal, Marxist and radical feminism, so it cannot be treated as a united political movement. However, lack of unity can also halt progress as happened after British women gained the vote on equal terms with men in 1928. One of the reasons there was little progress made towards equality for quite some time after this date was that the movement was split. Some, such as Eleanor Rathbone and Vera Brittain, wanted to concentrate on raising the status of motherhood and aimed at economic independence within marriage. This group was usually referred to as welfare feminists. Liberal feminists, however, wanted to secure equal rights for women in the world of work, rather than the family. The divisions meant the movement lost credibility and little progress was made in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Next Butler tackles the problems she sees with the sex-gender-desire link. Conventional theory states that our sex (male/female) produces our gender (masculine/feminine) which causes our desire towards the opposite sex. According to Freud, certain identifications are primary in forming a gendered self and others are secondary. For example, relations with the mother are primary and those with other people such as siblings are secondary. The primary identifications happen first and the secondary identifications follow on from them. Thus, the Freudian explanation for how we gain our gender identities is linear; all influences happen in a set order. As a result of this only two relations are possible: you identify with one sex and you desire the other. Freud explains homosexual attraction by claiming that when, for instance, a woman desires another woman, deep down she really identifies with men and this is the reason she desires a woman. Butler, however, rejects this uncompromising explanation because it does not leave any room for variation, for alternative influences on different people in different situations. Butler concludes that our gender is not a core aspect of our identity but rather a performance, how we behave at different times. Our gender (masculinity and femininity) is an achievement rather than a biological factor. To illustrate this point Butler refers to the Aretha Franklin song, You make me feel like a natural woman. In this song, Franklin can sing, "You make me feel like a woman" without this being presumed necessarily obvious. In other words, a woman does not necessarily feel feminine all the time, any more than a man feels masculine. Butler suggests that we should think of gender as free-floating and fluid rather than fixed:

"When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one."
(Butler, 1990, p.6)

Butler advocates 'gender trouble' as a way of challenging traditional notions of gender identities. Butler's main metaphor for this is drag. By dressing up as a member of the opposite sex, drag artists are subverting ideas of gender norms, challenging the "constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity" (Butler, 1990, p.148). Although Butler does not offer any other concrete examples of how people might go about subverting gender roles, Madonna is often used as an illustration of someone who does not keep to traditional gender roles. In the video of her song, Justify My Love, for example, there are several characters who are dressed and behave in ways which make their sex and gender indeterminable. During her Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna openly defied traditional feminine roles by performing in a sexually dominant and confident way:

"She is not so constrained by the gender boundaries that control most of her audience... She is able to use her power as a star to articulate the sexualities and fantasies that other women would be condemned for."
(Skeggs, 1993, p.67)

Another person in the public eye who subverts traditional gender roles is Eddie Izzard, who alternates between wearing conventional 'male' clothes and dresses and make-up. Boy George, too, was known for his bright clothes and make-up in the 1980s. Such antics may seem radical and unrealistic to the average person, but there are signs that attitudes towards gender may be changing. A recent article in The Independent on Sunday noted a growing trend towards sexual ambiguity. Some people, particularly in the younger generation, are refusing to be labelled as straight, gay or bisexual but "are aware of the fact that sexuality is not set in stone" (David Northmore, quoted in The Independent on Sunday). The article points to the CKOne and CKBe advertisements which used androgynous models as another sign that this may be the era of so-called 'flexi-sex' "where boundaries are blurring and labels are losing their meaning and power" (The Independent on Sunday). Perhaps Butler's approach to gender, then, has more relevance to every day life than it may at first appear. Perhaps it is time for a new way of tackling feminist issues. Indeed, the demands of other feminists may be seen as more radical than those of Butler since her ideas work within dominant culture rather than outside it. Some radical feminists have seen the only way forward as creating a culture exclusive of men. Sexual relationships, too, should only be entered into with other women, as summed up by the slogan attributed to to Grace Anderson: "Feminism is the theory: lesbianism is the practice" (quoted in Charvet, 1982, p.129). Ideas such as these may well seem unrealistic to many women. Similarly, Shulamith Firestone wrote in her book, The Dialectic of Sex, that the only way women would ever be free would be if the means of reproduction were taken away from the woman's body and replaced by artificial means. By taking such an uncompromising position, radical feminists expressing ideas like these may well isolate themselves from the majority of women. If we want to change the way society operates, change needs to be made from within that culture, not outside it:

"Of what use is such a notion for negotiating the contemporary struggles of sexuality within the terms of its construction."
(Butler, 1990, p.30)

Butler argues that the way we perceive gender roles lies at the very root of inequality of the sexes. Her argument is that if we deconstruct the way society views gender roles, this might lead to changes in political culture and so improve the lot of women. In other words, if there were no longer conventional roles for either gender, it would not be unusual for a woman to be in a position of power at work or for a man to stay at home and look after children. Gradually, the patriarchal society which exists would change to become a truly equal one:

"If identities were no longer fixed as the premises of a political syllogism, and politics no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old."
(Butler, 1990, p.149)

Butler's way of looking at gender identity is in many ways liberating and positive. However, there are also many points which can be raised to show the limitations of her ideas. Whilst Butler suggests that gender should be viewed as free-floating, the fact remains that most men develop predominantly masculine characteristics and most women develop feminine characteristics. Homosexual people remain in the minority. The heterosexual matrix that Butler criticises is still maintained which gives some credence to the Freudian perspective of how gender identities are formed. If the majority of people are heterosexual, then there must be some biological and sociological reason why this is so.

Many feminists would argue that by viewing men and women as individuals, rather than groups, as Butler does, denies the common subordination and disadvantaged position of women around the world. The problem certainly varies in severity from country to country. Whilst no one would claim that the position of women in Afghanistan, where the Taliban refuse to let women teach in schools and women are beaten for being 'inappropriately' dressed, is comparable to the situation in most Western countries, female subordination is still apparent world-wide. In Britain, for example, political life is male-dominated. Despite the increase in female MPs following the last general election, the vast majority of MPs are men. Female MPs face blatant sexist scrutiny from the press. The phrase 'Blair's Babes' attributed to the newly elected female Labour MPs, for example, can only be seen as belittling and disrespectful. Similarly, few women succeed in reaching the higher echelons of the career ladder. 1995 employment figures, for example, showed that only 33% of all administrative and managerial positions were held be women compared to the high 75% of all clerical jobs which were carried out by women. To illustrate the worldwide subordinate position of women, a 1980 United Nations report stated that:

"Women constitute half the world's population, perform nearly two thirds of its work hours, receive one tenth of the world's income and own less than one hundredth of the world's property."

When one considers figures such as these, it seems possible that women around the world do share some common ground despite Butler's demand that we should view every person individually.

This point leads on to conflicting opinions about how the position of women should be improved. Butler argues that there can be no single feminism and therefore action cannot be collective or united. However, representative democracy works on the premise that the larger the mass of opinion, the more influence that group will have. This is the reason for the formation of political parties and pressure groups. Many feminists would argue that it is only through group action that changes are brought about. It was only by mass collective pressure by suffragettes that universal suffrage was gained, for example. Butler's ideas about individuals using performative acts to change the way people think about gender are seen by many as unrealistic because few people subvert conventional notions of gender identity on a regular basis. 'Gender trouble' works on too small a scale to have a noticeable impact.

Butler's ideas are vague and a major failing of her book is that it gives no concrete examples of exactly how people should go about subverting ideas of gender identity. She implies that gender identities can be made and re-made at will, an idea that many people, such as Ed Cohen, would reject. Again, this is an unrealistic proposal for the majority of people to carry out. Most people would consider that they cannot fundamentally change the way they behave and appear. In this case, Butler's performative acts would seem contrived and false.

Another criticism levelled at Butler is that her work reduces feminism to a debate over gender representation; a type of "semiotic guerrilla warfare" (Modelski, quoted in Segal, 1997) rather than concentrating on issues which really concern women. Liberal feminists, for example, would argue that what really needs to be done is to push for legislation which would make it easier for women to work and enter politics. Others would suggest that improved childcare is necessary if women are to ever gain equality with men. Previous forms of feminism have usually had a concrete aim behind their rhetoric, which have in the past resulted in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 or the availability of the contraceptive pill on the NHS. Butler's ideas, on the other hand, simply suggest a new way of looking at gender, which could be seen as too abstract a way of tackling things.

Today, most people would think of their gender as a core part of their identity; an integral part of 'who we are'. Previous forms of feminism have concentrated on the differences and inequalities between men and women. Through political action and pressure, they have brought attention to these inequalities and influenced legislation and attitudes. It is due to the dedication of previous feminists that women in the western world today have the right to vote, the opportunity to have a career and to own property in their own right. Butler, however, has a different approach to and explanation for the inequalities between the sexes. She suggests that the way we view sex and gender is fundamental to the conventional roles attached to gender. There is sense behind her argument that until sex differences are disregarded and people cease to be classed into either male or female, true equality is impossible. Her ideas about the way gender identities are formed is also plausible since it explains the variations and differences between individuals. If, as Butler suggests, the sex-gender-desire link could be broken, everyone would become individual human beings rather than men and women. This is a liberating, if idealistic idea. If the findings about sexual ambiguity in The Independent on Sunday are to be considered a mainstream, rather than cult, phenomenon, perhaps her ideas are already being put into practice.

However, the weakness of Butler's Gender Trouble is in its vagueness, both in written style and content. Butler fails to illustrate how subversive, 'performative' acts might play an integral part in the lives on anyone outside a minority of drag artists and extrovert performers, used to shock tactics and making a statement.

Butler's ideas seem particularly unhelpful when considering the problems which women face outside the developed West. Trying to challenge the sex-gender-desire link is unlikely to rank very highly in the priorities of the repressed woman of Afghanistan, for example, or the destitute woman with ten children in Peru. There is still much work to be done by political pressure and action aiming for legislation to help women in such areas. In developed countries, such as Britain, however, perhaps Butler's ideas do have a part to play. After all, in Britain today, most of the legislative obstacles to female participation in public life have been removed, yet inequalities still persist. Perhaps it is time for a new approach to change people's attitudes towards gender, to challenge the status quo, to tackle 'hearts and minds' rather than laws. Perhaps then the "new configuration of politics" which Butler envisages might indeed "emerge from the ruins of the old" (Butler, 1990, p.149).



Beauvoir, Simone de (1949), The Second Sex, Pan Books, London [1988].

Bristow, Joseph (1997), Sexuality, Routledge, London.

Butler, Judith (1990), Gender Trouble: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London.

Charvet, John (1982), Feminism, J.M. Dent & Sons, London.

Leach, Robert (1991), British Political Ideologies, Philip Allan, London.

Segal, Lynne (1997), 'Sexualities', in Woodward, Kathryn, ed., Identity and Difference, Sage, London.

Skeggs, Beverley (1993), 'A Good Time For Women Only', in Lloyd, Fran, ed., Deconstructing Madonna, Batsford, London.


'Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler' (1994); interview by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, in Radical Philosophy 67 (summer 1994).

The Independent on Sunday, Real Life, 5 April 1998, p.1.

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