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The Concept of Gender Performativity and Its Role

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The Concept of Gender Performativity and Its Role essay

Understanding Gender performativity

In the 1950s, J.L Austin, the British philosopher explored and explained his perspective of ‘performative language’. He is the first person who divided language into two types: constative and performative. (Butler, 2004) John Searle’s theory of ‘speech act’, the phenomenological theory of ‘acts’ and Simone de Beauvoir’s notion on “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (de Beauvoir, 1978) influenced Judith Butler to propose her ‘gender performativity’. In this theory, she argues that gender is not an identity, which means gender is not someone’s personal characteristics and behaviors. Instead it is socially constructed and it is an act that constituted by every expression. Just like speech act is performative, therefore, gender is performative. (Chinn, 1997) Moreover, if gender is an identity, the notion that ‘a single or abiding ground, which is invariably contested by those identity positions or anti-identity positions that it invariably excludes’ needs to be agreed.(Chinn, 1997) ‘Gender Performativity’ can be seen as one of the most important theories in feminism. Firstly, this essay will explain the statement of ‘gender is a form of performativity’ and some key points of understanding this concept using real life and literary example. In order to understand sex, gender and sexuality, the most important implications of this theory will be discussed as well.

In the society, people perform different acts of their genders in order to keep their identities. Since gender is socially constructed, and people are imperceptibly influenced to act their gender identities in the way they understand and believe how their gender identities should be presented. For example, people are told to act like a boy or a girl since they were born. (Chinn, 1997) This act need to be performed repeatedly. So when gender is performative, it produces effects to the public guiding them to consolidate certain impression and performance of each gender identity. If the gender performance isn’t a repetition, the identity of it will change which means it is not stable or coherent. (Butler, 2004)

Therefore a key point of Butler’s concept is that gender is constructed through people’s own repetition of gender performance. It is a ‘stylized repetition of acts’ and imitation. She states that gender is ‘internally discontinuous’ and ‘real only to the extent that it is performed’. (Butler, 2004) In the film ‘Farewell My Concubine’, a film about gender performance and identity. It talks about a male Chinese opera performer falls in love with his lifelong male friend who is also a performer because of his gender identity is trained to be a female in order to act a female role in the opera. He is asked to act and imitate female when he was very young and he performs the female role for all his lifetime. His gender identity is constructed through the performance of imitating the dominant convention of female. So that is why he falls in love with the other performer who acts ‘her’ husband in the opera. (Lau, 1995) Back to the theory Butler argues ‘Gender is an impersonation’ and ‘the act that one does, the act that one performs is, in a sense, an act that’s been going on before one arrived on the scene’ can be understood. (Butler, 2004) However, Butler states the difference between gender performativity and the performance in the drama/theatre because there is clear difference of reality and in the theatre. The reason why the performer in ‘Farewell My Concubine’ cannot distinguish is because opera is his whole life, the performance/training starts as long as he can remember.

Moreover, another central point of Butler’s theory is that gender is either not optional or natural. Butler’s theory was influenced a lot by Foucault’s genealogy, so when she explore her gender question starts from the very beginning of human life. So she claims that people are interpellated into different gender identities when people are born and ‘There is no gender identity behind the expression of gender, the identity is performativity constituted by every expression that said to be its results’ (Chinn, 1997) Using the same example from the film ‘Farewell My Concubine’. The male performer was told and rebuked again and again by his teacher to ‘be a girl and act like a girl’. Since the performer is very little, he soon feels free and natural to believe he should act as a girl. (Lau, 1995) Another example always being use to explain this concept is the saying of ‘It’s a girl/boy.’. This is a compulsion for child to perform that nobody realizes. So the performance signifies and constructed a ‘gendered self’. (Chinn, 1997)

For my understanding, the most important implications of understanding of this theory is that the mainstream comprehension of sexual difference and sexual stereotypes have opportunity to gradually disappear. In patriarchal society, the relation of sex and gender is determined by the sex that male is in the dominant position and female is subordination. (Sultana, 2012) Since every gender is a performativity, there is nothing constant. It is just a process of repeating the performance/imitation and consolidate the gender identity or certain act. There are a lot of cross gender performance or performing as the opposite sex in the mainstream media platforms. So if public have wider vision of the gender difference that is disappearing in more cases, the mechanism and mainstream thoughts created by male may be threatened and facilitated.

In conclusion, Butler’s theory of gender performativity has great contribution to gender theory and cultural studies. Because she crosses the theory of performativity and gender. Even though Butler did not purpose this theory, gender is still performing in different ways. From ancient time to nowadays, what people wear, how people act and the rule are always changing.

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The Concept of Gender Performativity and its Role. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
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