Transcript for Reshaping Gender? - Judith Butler

Jim Fleming: So what is gender anyhow? How is it different from biological sex or sexuality? Philosopher Judith Butler took a rigorous look at gender in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. Steve Paulson sat down with her to ask, with transsexual and gender queer people more visible than ever, what can we say about the state of gender in North America?


Judith Butler: In doing gender, in acting in certain ways and speaking in certain ways, we bring about certain ideas of what gender should be and we even embody them in the way that we act and speak and interact with other people. So to that extent gender is brought into being.


Steve Paulson: Is that to say that we're always to some degree playing out certain gender roles?


Butler: Well, I don't know. You can call them gender roles, but I think it's maybe more profound than that because infants come into the world without obvious gender. They have to be named. They have to be given a sex assignment. I think sex assignment is part of what we might call a gender practice. It's one thing to decide what sex a person is on the basis of anatomy or biology, chromosomes, or hormones, and it's another thing to have certain ideas about gender immediately come into play when we name an infant as a boy or a girl. And it's all those social expectations and norms that come into the assignment that we call gender, but I think as well in recent years the transgender and the transsexual community in particular have really called into question whether people have to live with the sex assignment they were given before they had any will and before they had any way to reflect upon themselves or reflect upon what feels right or what kind of categories they need in order to live well in this world.


Paulson: You know, it strikes me that so much has changed in our culture since you first published your landmark book, Gender Trouble. I mean, that came out in 1990 and there have been huge cultural and social changes regarding LGBT rights and freedoms about the acceptance of people who don't fall into sort of clearly defined gender roles. Are we living in a very different culture now than when you first wrote that book?


Butler: Well, it depends on who the "we" might be, but certainly in certain parts of the world there have been enormous changing, and you're very right to say that. When I was writing Gender Trouble within the context of the feminist and gay lesbian movement in the United States in the late 80s, I had one set of concerns. I thought feminism tended to presume that women were heterosexual or that women were defined in some kind of distinction from men and I thought that there wasn't sufficient attention being given to other kinds of identities or ways of living that didn't really conform very well to existing gender categories, and I sought to destabilize those gender categories. But in the years after the publication of Gender Trouble I think many things did change. Certainly there was a major strengthening of gay lesbian human rights. There was also a real important social and political focus on bisexuality, on transgender, on butch and femme identities and communities.


Paulson: I'm curious, when did this whole subject of gender identity and definition become important to you personally?


Butler: Well, I think that's a funny question. I like that question a lot. I think it's fair to say for me there was never a time that I felt at home in the gender that I was given, but unlike many of my trans friends I didn't imagine that I could become at home in any gender category.


Paulson: So not even when you were three years old, for instance?


Butler: No, I don't think so. At least as far as my memory goes, I just don't ever remember being at ease with gender. I think my trans friends have felt that they were simply in the wrong gender or someone made the wrong gender assignment. They believe and I think they do experience being at home in a chosen gender, but I never made that second choice. But, no, I don't think I've ever been at home in any gender.


Paulson: What does that mean for you, never to have been at home in any gender?


Butler: It just means that there's a way in which I cannot claim it for myself. I cannot say: this is what I am and this is what I'm pleased to be. But, you know, there's a real difference of opinion here and it's not really opinion. It's really a difference of experience I think. Some people really feel like they don't want to have to be one gender or the other. They find their freedom or their desire or their sense of wellbeing outside of those categories. And yet others want to say: no, let's work with these categories, or I like these categories, or I want to be the other one. And then there are others who say: look, let's struggle with these categories. Let's make woman mean something that I can feel okay about, or let's make man something that I can live with. And they're doing important historical and political work in undergoing that struggle.


Paulson: So why do you think we've had this revolution? I mean, I would describe it as this revolution in the way some people are much more open about talking about gender roles and more accepting of all these sort of different definitions. Why now?


Butler: Well, I think that we have to be really careful about this because there are places in this country where it's not okay to be a lesbian mother or it's not okay to be a trans kid walking down the street. We know this. We know this from the violent crimes that are committed against trans youth and from all kinds of documentation we have about discrimination in child custody law. It's not a utopian moment. There are some great strides and then there are other places where I think there's a rather intense reaction that we need to be really thoughtful about.


Paulson: It seems to me that, at least in some parts of Western culture, are kind of at an unusual and even historic point where it's really possible to question the gender binary. And I guess I wonder what it would mean to move into a world without gender norms. What would that look like?


Butler: Well, it doesn't mean there are no gender norms if there are more than two genders. [Anfausto Sterling], the feminist historian of science, proposed five different ways of thinking about gender but it doesn't mean that there are no norms if there are more than two genders. It just may be that norms function differently. If there are more than two genders or if there are more ways of understanding gender than as simply men and women, are we then post-gender? No. We're not post-gender. If we decided we were post-gender on that basis we would be saying that the only genders that exist are men and women and that if we go beyond them we're post-gender. So, no. No. It's got to be the case that there can be other ways of living and doing gender that aren't quite adequately handled by those two categories. It doesn't mean we're beyond gender itself, it means gender itself has changed. It means that gender itself has to be conceptualized differently.

I was in a hotel room in London just last month where a guy who came to check my minibar, he opened the door and he said, "Good afternoon, sir, madam, sir, madam, sir, madam, sir, madam," and it went on. I must tell you, it went on. I mean, I felt bad for him. He was obviously suffering and I should've just relieved his anxiety and given him one of those names. He had no idea at all but it went on, "Sir, madam, sir, madam," and it was a terrible tick and it was infinite. It was never ever going to stop, and I did something that I felt a little bad about later, interestingly enough. I said kindly--I tried to say it kindly--I said, "Do you think it's necessary to determine my gender in order to check the minibar?" And he was like, "No, no of course not, sir, madam, sir, madam," and then of course he was trying to be polite and he went back to the "sir, madam," and he couldn't stop and I felt terrible about it.

And oddly enough, I don't know what was happening that week, but the next morning I was in the hotel pool women's locker room changing and I had just put my clothes back on and a young woman came in and she said, "Oh, I'm confused. I think we're in the wrong place here." I said, "No, I'm sure you're in the right place." She said, "Do the blokes get dressed with the girls? I don't really know," and I said, "No," and then I saw she had great anxiety. So at this time I'm feeling guilty about the other time, I said, "No, I'm not a bloke," I said. But, you know, was I expressing something true about myself? Not really. I was just taking her out of her misery and then of course she wanted to apologize to me which is much worse, right? Because I don't need anybody's apology. It's not an insult to call me a bloke, right? And I just realized there was no getting out of these conversations. They were terrible in a way but also kind of hilarious.


Paulson: You've also written about the anxiety that we all to some degree about gender. A straight man might wonder, "Am I man enough?" or a lesbian might ask herself, "Am I fulfilling my role properly?" I guess I'm wondering where that anxiety comes from. Is that just socially constructed? I mean, these are the messages that we get or is there anything innate about that?


Butler: Well, I do think when certain gender norms become too rigid or too exacting that no one can really live up to them and they can produce a sense of anxiety or failure. On the other hand, when gender norms become more relaxed it seems to me that there's a chance that people could live a little bit more freely. Of course, some people think without fixed gender norms they're going to have a lot of anxiety because they're not going to know how to act at all and they want their gender norms in order to actually live more freely. So, you know, you have to realize that there's no one way of looking at it.


Paulson: This has been fascinating. Thank you so much.


Butler: It's my pleasure.


Fleming: Judith Butler is professor of rhetoric, comparative literature, and critical theory at UC Berkeley. She's also a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School. You can hear Steve's extended conversation with her on our website, I'm Jim Fleming. It's To The Best of our Knowledge from Wisconsin public radio and PRI, Public Radio International.

Comments for this interview

Father Boyle (Jim, 12/03/2013 - 3:11pm)

Father Boyle & Pope Francis two good examples of the Jesuit's order. I believe it would be good to make being a Jesuit a requirement to being Pope.