What if gender wasn’t a predetermined reality, but a fluid construct formed by culture, history, and individual identity? This is a question that drives the work of Judith Butler, a gender theorist and distinguished professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
While acknowledging the biological realities of sex, Butler promotes the concept of gender as performative — something that is enacted and shaped through our actions and interactions. This view, although challenging to traditional perspectives, is instrumental in the discourse on queer, trans, and women’s rights. Butler encourages a shift in societal conversation to include diverse gender identities.
This transformation, she believes, allows us to work toward a society where equality, freedom, and justice are at the forefront, reinforcing the foundations of our democratic society.
JUDITH BUTLER: So there are many different theories of gender, and mine is just one. Sometimes people who really hate gender named me as the one who made this up, but that's actually not true. You know, in my view, everybody has a theory of gender. And what I mean by that is that everybody has certain assumptions going about what gender is or should be.
And at some point in life, we ask ourselves, wow, where that assumption came from. At this point, I'm less concerned about whose theory is right and whose theory is wrong because the assault on gender is also an assault on democracy. We have the power and the freedom to make more livable lives for ourselves, where bodies can be more free to breathe, to move to love without discrimination and without fear of violence.
I am Judith Butler, distinguished professor in the Graduate School at the University of California at Berkeley. I teach literature, philosophy and critical theory, and I'm most well known for my two books on gender, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter from the early 1990s. My work has been translated into more than 27 languages.
I insist that what it is to be a woman or indeed what it is to be a man or any other gender is an open ended question. We have a whole range of differences. Biological in nature, so I don't deny them. But I don't think they determine who we are in some sort of final way. At the heart of these controversies is the distinction between sex and gender.
But what is that distinction? How do we think about it? Sex is generally a category three that is assigned to infants that has importance within medical and legal worlds. Gender is a mix of cultural norms, historical formations, family influence, psychic realities, desires and wishes. And we have a say in that. My early life was affected by the 1960s and the social movements that took shape during that time.
I grew up on the east side of Cleveland, part of a Jewish community, and by the time I was in high school, I was politically active. But I was also taking university courses in philosophy. In my twenties, I came to see that it was not just the Jews who were apprehended and extinguished by the Nazi regime. It was queer people, gay lesbian people.
It was people with disabilities, people with illnesses, Polish workers, communists. And my sense was that one needed to widen the lens and see that many people have been subject to genocidal politics and to understand that there are different forms of oppression. I remain convinced that one does need to know history in order to make sure it does not repeat and that one wants justice, not just for the group to which one belongs, but for any group that suffers in a similar way.
In the seventies and eighties, I was part of a movement of people who were rethinking gender during that time. Queer theory was emerging. It was in a complicated conversation with feminism. Trans issues had not yet surfaced as part of our contemporary reality. So it was a moment in which we asked questions like What is society made of us and what can we make of ourselves?
There were a number of versions of feminism that I tended to oppose. One of them held that, well, women are fundamentally mothers and that maternity is the essence of the feminine. And then a second one thought that feminism was about sexual difference, but the way they defined sexual difference was always presumptively heterosexual. And both of them struck me as as wrong.
I was pretty committed to the idea that people ought not to be discriminated against on the basis of what they do with their body, if that who they love or how they move or how they look. All I was saying is that the sex you're assigned at birth and the gender that you are taught to be should not determine how you live your life.
Sometimes people point to gender trouble as the inception of gender theory, but people were working on gender before me. Gail Rubin and Julia mitchell and some of the Beauvoir herself. Simone de Beauvoir was an existential philosopher and feminist philosopher who wrote the Second Sex in the 1940s. The basic point was that one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one that the body is not a fact.
She opened up the possibility of a difference between the sex here assigned and the sex You become.
Gail Rubin was an anthropologist and remains an anthropologist who wrote an extremely influential article called The Trafficking Women. And what she tried to say was that the family was a structure whose task it was to reproduce gender. And one of the aims it had was to kind of keep heterosexuality looking really normal. And although it was part of feminist anthropology at the time, it allowed us to start thinking about gender as something that could be reproduced, crafted, cultivated, and that there were systems frameworks to which gender belonged.
There was one other dimension of Rubin's work, which was interestingly, psychoanalysis. She basically said, Well, maybe there's a whole lot of repression going into becoming a man and a whole lot of repression going into becoming a woman. And that one of the things we have to do is to conform with existing gender norms, just to rule out all those possibly ideas of being, feeling, doing, loving that don't line up with the gender norms that are governing our lives.
So cancer pathology, psychoanalysis. They all had their their place in that moment way before gender trouble emerged on the scene. I think at the time that I wrote Gender Trouble, people treated gender as if it was a natural fact or a sociological reality. But they didn't treat it as something that you could make and remake. Performance is important to the extent that we do enact who we are, and anybody in performance studies actually knows that their performances that we do in our lives that are not mere performance, they're not fake.
When Performative was first coined as a word, the philosopher J.L. Austin was trying to understand legal utterances. So when a judge says, I declare you man and wife, you become man and wife, once that declaration has happened, that that's how fake that happened. Now, what if we were to say that in enacting our lives as a particular gender, we are actually realizing that gender?
No. We are making something real happen. When gay and lesbian people started coming out or when trans people started living openly. Something changed in the world by appearing speaking, acting in certain ways, reality changed and it has changed. We are seeing that the changing of terms. We no longer speak about family, woman, man, desire sex in the same way.
Even the Cambridge Dictionary acknowledges that something has changed. Okay, so when we talk about performative, we're talking about an act that makes something come into being or an act that has real consequences. We're talking about the changing reality. Even among progressive and liberal people. I know there can sometimes be a real resistance to thinking about trans rights or lesbian and gay rights, or even women's rights.
They sometimes say that these are secondary issues or it simply makes them uncomfortable. Why should I have to refer to someone as she or a she or a they? And yet, at least in the U.S., we learned how to talk about black people differently. Or we talk about women differently. And sure, it was probably hard to learn how to use new language.
Maybe we had to adjust our habits. But stumbling is part of learning, and making an error is part of learning, especially when we're learning something new. Sometimes we can all be vitriolic, racist. Certain statements will set me off and I will scream. But I if I only were to do that, then I would never be having a conversation with anyone.
I think we all want to be the moral center of our universe. Like, that's right. That's wrong. You're canceled. You're not. You're with me or against me. But we have to allow ourselves to be challenged and accept the invitation to revise our ways of thinking. Because that's the only way of being open to people who are trying to make their claims sometimes for the very first time to be heard, to be known, to be acknowledged.
Now, I'm less interested in defending a theory of gender. I'm much more concerned with finding creative and effective ways of countering the attack on gender. One problem is that many people who refuse to allow trans people to define themselves is that they feel that their own self-definition is destabilized. The idea that we can change reality, transform reality to be more open, inclusive, just less violent.
There's an instability in that that's very frightening to people who want to understand their gender, says Fix. But is anybody's gender necessary and universal? Or is it a complicated emergence that happens with each of us? Our deepest sense of self is also formed in time, and we can't always know in advance what that will be.
Freedom is a struggle because there's so much in our world that's telling us not to be free with our bodies. And if we are seeking to love and a free way to live and move in a free way, we actually have to struggle to claim that freedom. When we live in a democracy, we assume that we're living according to certain principles equality, freedom, justice.
And yet we're constantly learning what freedom is and what equality is and what justice can be. And those challenges, right, the anti-slavery movement, the suffrage movement, the movement for LGBTQ, A-plus rights, I mean, each of those struggles involve challenging people's existing ideas of who's equal, who has the right to be free, and how do we define justice. We are all the time struggling to achieve that goal.
We need to re-occupy these notions and show that concerns with racial justice and gender equality and gender freedom are an integral part of any democratic struggle, especially if we want to rethink who the people are and what it means for them to live in freedom without fear. Let's just wrap up the gender stuff. Unless you want to take a break from gender, we can go back to that.
Do you want to get let me give you the prompt. For the last year, my whole life, I've wanted to take a break from gender. I can never take a break from gender.
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