It’s always nice when feminist theory gets more play in the media, and Mike Rugnetta of Idea Channel is the latest to play along, with “How Do We and The Sims Perform Gender?” The comments are predictably awful (this is YouTube, after all), but it was an excuse for me to weigh in on Judith Butler’s idea of gender as performance; I used to be a fan, but nowadays I view the idea as incomplete. I’ve copy-pasted my comment from there over here, with only one spelling mistake corrected. I might add citations later, but no promises.
Anyway, I have two nits to pick over Butler’s views, one of which is minor: what about trans* people? If gender is a performance, how can someone have an intrinsic desire to be a specific gender? For most people, this is pretty easily explained: doc said I was male, momma said I was male, other people said I was male, so I’ve internalized that and now have a drive to be male.
But a trans* woman hears a steady chorus of “you’re male” and thinks “no, I’m not.” This drive can be strong enough to demand body modification, so to suggest it’s something done instead of something you are would seem to deny the existence of trans* people. Butler took enough flack for this that she wrote a sequel of sorts to Gender Trouble called “Undoing Gender,” part of which covered this very question.
I don’t think it’s a major objection, though. Body dysmorphic disorder is where a person’s view of their body does not align with their actual body shape, and it takes little imagination to suggest this could happen over genitalia. Our primary gender signifiers like dresses and wigs can remain firmly performative, leaving the theory pretty much intact. The only real challenge would be if cultural signifiers were somehow shown to have a basis in biology, and Butler herself concedes that trans* people seeking surgery are forced to perform in certain ways in order to get it. If you’d like more info on this, I’d recommend another YouTuber:
A greater problem is that it doesn’t accurately capture the situation. Where’s the script for this performance, and who wrote it? Butler’s very strongly in the “sex is a social construct” camp, but we can think of performance in terms of biological drive as well. We perform all sorts of strange courtship rituals, which vary greatly across all cultures, but sexual attraction is strongly influenced by biology. While the performance can express itself in many ways, it still has strong roots in biology.
I prefer an epistemological approach. Every moment of our lives is spent building models of the world around us which attempt to describe how they work. Gender is no different: people with one type of genitalia seem to prefer dresses, people with another type seem like power tools, so we’ll use those behaviors as a stand-in for biology. Like all knowledge it forms a description of the external world, one that we keep around based on how accurate it is. If a description is shown to be in error, like the luminiferous ether, we merely discard it and look for a better one.
Sometimes, though, so much evidence for a description accumulates that we start treating it like a prescription. If we were to learn some neutrinos appeared to be moving faster than light, for instance, we wouldn’t toss out General Relativity; we’d instead comb over the experiment looking for anomalies, and even if none were found we’d continue to endorse GR until multiple independent studies had verified the results. We would attempt to change reality to suit the theory. This isn’t truly prescriptive, as it’s still theoretically possible to falsify GR, but the sheer weight of existing evidence makes falsification so unlikely as to be safely ignored.
So if we think people consistently behave in certain ways based on their sex, our description of sex known as “gender” will become prescriptive. When we later find people who don’t fit into our gender model, we will argue they must change instead of us. This is contaminated in most of us by our instinct to procreate, so we tend to over-weight the evidence based on WOW ATTRACTIVE or EWW NO.
Gender, in short, is an example of a premature jump across the is/ought gap. Calling it a “performance” doesn’t convey that very well.