Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity

A Review/Commentary of

GenderTrouble: Feminism and

The Subversion of Identity,

By Judith Butler

Gender, Homosexuality and Ethics

Feb. 9/00

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:

Routledge, 1990.

Judith Butler exhibits the new wave of Anglo-American academic feminism, a feminism that goes beyond the delusional categories of male and female, and wishes to confuse or “trouble” these categories all together. As well, Butler “helped to create the discipline of queer theory.”[1] Butler’s “feminism” refuses the category of woman itself, exclaiming that it too participates in the hegemonic normative heterosexual matrix of identity, a binary system that enforces a “comedic” gender structure. Thus, she is quite applicable to all areas of gender theory, especially gay issues and goals, which wish to destabalize the notions of gender for socio-political gains. In Butler’s own questioning style she states in the Preface:

I asked, what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? What restriction is here at work? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire? What happens to the subject and the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces and reifies these ostensible categories of ontology (italics mine)?[2]

Butler’s concern is epistemological and hermeneutical, even though she does not use the term hermeneutics as such. Butler is concerned with the interpretive power of heterosexual discourse in language and gender conception. Thus, her inquiry questioning the binary conceptions of gender is primarily hermeneutical, if we take hermeneutical to mean a worldview process of interpreting reality.

Butler starts her examination of the gender and feminism with reference to a universalizing notion of the feminist subject of woman (Chapter 1: Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire). Butler references to the limits of a universal woman subject, stating, “Indeed, the fragmentation within feminism and the paradoxical opposition to feminism from ‘women’ whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary limits of identity politics.”[3] The preoccupation with a universalizing feminist subject has led to “multiple refusals to accept the category.”[4] If feminism cannot a assert a universal subject, which Butler later maintains as falling into the heterosexual and patriarchal discourse of language, how is feminism to assert any socio-political influence? Butler would not doubt answer, as she does by the end of the book, that feminism should be reconstituted into a forward-looking, troubling of gender/sex identities. Butler seems to assert (and I say seems because Butler is rarely specific in her articulations) that the whole notion of a feminine subject falls into a compulsive heterosexual reproductive framework, one that assumes the categories of heterosexual identity, without “troubling” these pseudo-ontological binary distinctions.[5]

While the concepts of gender, sex, female/male and woman/man, have undoubtedly led to some forms of oppression and subjection, one must question Butler’s analysis of “metaphysical substance.”[6] Butler’s deconstruction of sex, involves a critique of giving ontological significance to certain areas of the body-namely the penis, vagina, and breasts. According to Butler, the ontological significance of these organs has been created precisely because of the heterosexual reproductive matrix. Gender and sex have thus been divided along these precise lines of male/penis and female/vagina.[7] There seems to be a vast array of empirical evidence that would dispute the insignificance of both the vagina and penis. First, nature shows a general sexual significance to males and females in all mammalian creatures. Sex differentiation is a fact. Some people do have penises and some do have vaginas. It seems vastly counter-sensory to suggest that these organs are insignificant. There significance is brought to light, in the fact that they (and the reproductive tissues that accompany them) are the only physical differences between the sexes.

Second, Butler seems to suggest that the heterosexual identity has enforced an eroticizing of these physical attributes over others, thus enforcing heterosexual relations.[8] However, the human physical orgasm only happens through the stimulation of the sexual areas, exceptions being the few women who seem to reach orgasm through nipple stimulation alone. However, for the rest of us, the only recourse to the physical and mental state of orgasm is through contact with these organs.