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Discussion of Whether Butler's Idea of Gender Performativity is Anti-essentialist

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Judith Butler, born in 1956, she is a prominent American philosopher and figure in third wave feminism. Butlers work on Gender is an exploration of how gender is formed or exists. Is gender a preexisting entity we have a natural instinctual understanding of from birth? Is it performative, derived from the repetition of ‘acts’? A Simulacra, not born from the biological differences of male and female. This seems to point towards the conclusion that gender is not something one is, it is something one does, an act, or more precisely, a sequence of acts, a verb rather than a noun, a “doing” rather than a “being”.

 To determine whether Judith Butler’s idea of gender performativity is considered anti-essentialist one must understand what essentialism is in Gender. Gender Essentialism is the theory that a person’s ‘essence’ is not created or influenced by external circumstances of culture and social background, rather a pre-existing awareness as a result of biological or neurological differences between males and females, thus stating the idea that gender is internally fixed. Anti-essentialism examines an alternative to the origins of gender. Within their article ‘Gender and Society’ West and Zimmerman claim that gender is not something we are but something we ‘do’. Butler expresses that our society has restrictive ‘norms’ concerning gender identity, which intern leaves people who don’t conform into becoming ostracised from society and its need to categorize. Everything in our society it built around this boy girl binary that resides in this biological essentialist perspective “…Women and Men possess distinct chromosomal and hormonal variations that impact on their specific social roles- the ‘essence’ of masculinity and femininity”. To be fixed within the category of ‘girl provides little to no room for someone who does not associate themselves exclusively to fit within this prohibitory group “a not girly-girl is called a tomboy teaches us how restricted girl can be as a category of emergent personhood”. Butler reaffirms thats to assume someone’s gender by their biological traits is inaccurate and unethical. 

Phenomenologie is shown to be one of Butler’s primary influences; the Oxford English dictionary defines phenomenology as “A method or procedure, originally developed by German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), which involves the setting aside of presumptions about a phenomenon as an empirical object and about the mental acts concerned with experiencing it in order to achieve an intuition of its pure essence…” (Oxford English Dictionary) Butler explores the theory of phenomenology, in particular, what it is to experience gender. To aid her argument Butler analises the work of Luce Irigaray and how she perceives Simone de Beauvoir’s view of ‘one’ and ‘other’ de Beauvoir suggested that there is a choice that women must make ,as women is not something you are it is something you become.she says you can choose between the body and freedom “For both Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Body in its Sexual Being,’ in The Phenomenology of Perception, the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities”. Butler addresses at length the idea of Cartesian dualism. This argues that there is an inherent split between the material mind and the material body this belief tends to dispute that there is a sense of identity/self that is present or pre existing in the mind that is separate from the material bodily experience. This idea resonates in the nature versus nurture or culture versus nature debate. Why is it that toddlers and young children that are too young to be cognizant of any gender performance seem to fall into our predetermined categories girl and boy? Butler explains this with “My suggestion is that the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised and consolidated through time. From a feminist point of view, one might try to reconceive the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined or foreclosed structure, essence or fact, whether natural, cultural, or linguistic”. Butler is stating that gender is performative through the continuous reduplicating of acts and not a determined state we are assigned at birth. Yet when revising on whether an individual’s gender could be influenced by external factors Butler suggests “…Gender is culturally formed but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom.” 

Acts of gender are performative acts. Without these acts, gender wouldn’t exist at all. Because gender is not ‘a fact’, according to Butler, the acts that we do, create the idea of gender. The notion that gender is ‘created’ proposes Butler’s performativity theory to be anti-essentialist. Notion that Gender is not only socially constructed/established, it’s also performed (and thus fluid/ever changing/always already an imitation). Butler argues that the acts of performing gender is what ultimately creates our gender. “As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act’ broadly constructed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority….I am suggesting that this self is not only irreversibly ‘outside’ constituted in social discourse, but that the ascription of interiority is itself a publicly regulated and sanctioned form of essence fabrication. Genders then can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent.” You could consider gender to be a simulacrum , an image without an original, not created by an existing essence by formed from this performative concept. Considering gender essentialism Butler holds the opinion that it limmates a persons’ expression of their identity. Being aware of performativity however will not solely ignite change to our gender oppressive culture, Butler asks for“…a politics of performance gender acts, one which both describes existing gender identities and offers a prescriptive view about the kind of gender reality there ought to be. The redescription needs to expose the reifications that tacitly serve as substantial gender cores or identities, and to elucidate both the act, and the strategy of disavowal which at once constitute and conceal gender as we live it”. Where, then, does that leave the possibility to criticise gender norms? How can we create a performative that is critical of gender norms? These are questions that are prominent within Butlers work and presents itself often within Gender Trouble (1990). “Gender is an impersonation . . . becoming gendered involves impersonating an idea that nobody actually inhabits”.   

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Discussion Of Whether Butler’s Idea Of Gender Performativity Is Anti-essentialist. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from
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