See notes and quotations. See also the lecture on Simone De Beauvoir

Judith Butler

Her ideas on the relationship between the human body and society, particularly in relation to traditional assumptions about gender

Lecture notes by Andrew Roberts

The ethical context

The moral of this story, as stated by Judith Butler in 1999, is this:

"What continues to concern me most is the following kinds of questions: what will and will not constitute an intelligible life, and how do presumptions about normative gender and sexuality determine in advance what will qualify as the "human" and the "livable"? In other words, how do normative gender presumptions work to delimit the very field of description that we have for the human? What is the means by which we come to see this delimiting power, and what are the means by which we transform it?" (Butler, J. 1999 Preface)

"I pronounce you man and wife" says the priest

Normative gender is a term derived from Butler's reading of Michel Foucault, it means gender as you are required to be it, morally.

See the responses of Pope Benedict 16 and the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim and the Social Science Dictionary entry on marriage

The purpose of this lecture is not to take sides in this ethical and theological debate, but to explore the relation between natural science (biology) philosophy and social theory in Judith Butler's work. Its focus is not religious determinism, but biological determinism.

Like Foucault, Judith Butler works by posing questions. I think those questions are useful ones, whatever answer one gives.

Work in historical context

24.2.1972 Judith Butler sixteen years old. She later referred to "my own tempestuous coming out at the age of 16" and spoke about her experience, as a child and a young adult, of "the violence of gender norms"

6.4.1975 Simone De Beauvoir "Why I am a feminist"

1984 Judith Butler's Ph.D

1986 "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex"

1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and

"Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory."

1993 Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"

Summer 1994 "Interview with Josephine Butler" by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal: Radical Philosophy issue 67, Summer 1994, pages 32-39.

1997 "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,"

21st century Genetics and the sociology of identity [2013 Sociology]

"Butler ... reflects on the dualistic relationship between a material embodiment of sex in chromosomes and genitals... and the socially construed formation of gender identities."

1984 Judith Butler received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University. Her thesis was on the French reception of Hegel. A revised version was published in 1987 as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France

Jesse Jackson stood as a potential Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in 1984 and 1988. During the campaign Jackson began speaking of a "Rainbow Coalition"

# 30.11.1984 North American release of Madonna's Material Girl.

"the boy with the cold hard cash Is always Mister Right, 'cause we are Living in a material world And I am a material girl"

The European cover was more sexual, putting much more emphasis on Madonna's body and much less on wealth than the USA cover shown here.

Amongst other things, the work of Judith Butler is a commentary on some of the work of Simone De Beauvoir. I will start by considering De Beauvoir and then consider Butler's commentary on the distinctions De Beauvoir makes.

But first of all, a bit of sexe French poetry from André Breton (1896-1966):

Detached Single Flower of Gladiolus Cardinalis
"Ma femme aux fesses de printemps
Au sexe de glaîeul
Ma femme au sexe de placer et d'ornithorynque
Ma femme au sexe d'algue et de bonbons anciens
Ma femme au sexe de miroir
Ma femme aux yeux pleins de larmes"

"My woman with the springtime buttocks,
With a gladiolus sex
My woman with her gold mine and duckbill sex,
My woman with her sex of algae and old sweets,
My woman with her mirror sex,
My woman with her eyes full of tears"

Polite meanings of sexe in French dictionary

Biology: whether a living being is male or female

By extension: the characteristics of men or women [but the word genre can also be used]

Collectively: men or women [the two sexes]

The sexual act

The other meaning of sexe in French:

sexual organ

So sexe is close to your body and can get sticky like old sweets, whereas

genre, from which we get gender is ones manner.

De bon genre: gentlemanly, ladylike.

Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex

Simone De Beauvoir wrote (my emphasis)

"One is not born a woman: one becomes one. No biological, mental or economic destiny, defines the figure that the human female presents in society. It is the whole civilisation that develops this intermediate between male and eunuch that qualifies as female. Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other. In so far as it exists for itself, the child does not see itself as sexually differentiated. In girls and boys, the body is first of all the radiation of a subjectivity, the instrument that makes possible understanding the world. It is through the eyes and hands, not the genitals, that children apprehend the universe."

We will look at what De Beauvoir means in a moment, but let us look first at some images of children.

Most images of children are created by adults. This one seems to suggest that what is under the nappy is a good indicator of the child's personality.

Sigmund Freud said "human beings consist of men and women and ... this distinction is the most significant one that exists."

He added that "Nature has determined woman's destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness." (Click here for full quotation)

According to Sigmund Freud, sexual life "starts with plain manifestations soon after birth".
In 2002, Laura Leland explored what he meant in relation to her own beautiful baby.

These two dolls do not look very different.

However, they are what is called "anatomically correct" and you can see that one has a "slit" between its legs and the other has an external tube of flesh.

The one with the slit is called a girl and the one with the tube is called a boy.

In childhood the main functional difference appears to be that waste water passes from the body differently. The boy can point his water. The girl pees downwards. Curious, but how close does it come Freud's distinction that "is the most significant one that exists"?

De Beauvoir says that it makes a lot of difference socially and culturally, but not much biologically. Let us look in more detail of how she thinks about children exploring the world.

"It is through the eyes and hands, not the genitals, that children apprehend the universe".

"The dramas of birth and weaning take place in the same way for children of both sexes."

They have the same interests and the same pleasures. Sucking first is the source of their most pleasurable sensations...

then they go through an anal phase where they derive their greatest satisfaction from the excretory functions, which they have in common.

"Their genital development is similar, they explore their bodies with the same curiosity despite the differences. From the clitoris and penis they derive the same vague pleasure. "
" Already their sensitivity requires and object and they turn to the mother: the soft female flesh, smooth and elastic arouses sexual desire and these desires are prehensile: the girl like the boy kisses, feels, and caresses her mother in an aggressive way. They feel the same jealousy when a new baby is born, and they show it in the same way through anger, sulking and urinary problems, and they use the same coquetry to capture the love of adults. "
There is no difference in the attitudes of girls and boys during the first three or four years; both try to perpetuate the happy condition that preceded weaning; in both sexes enticement and showing-off behaviour occur: boys are as desirous as their sisters of pleasing adults, causing smiles, making themselves admired.

Up to twelve years of age the girl is as strong as her brothers, she manifests the same intellectual capacity, there is no area where she is not allowed to compete with them

Simone De Beauvoir argues that we explore the world in different bodies, but the natural differences do not mean that our worlds are very different - society builds difference around relatively insignificant biological differences

Judith Butler does not dispute any of that, but she asks to what extent our bodies are natural?

[Butler's commentary]

The body politic

"If 'existing' one's gender means that one is tacitly accepting or reworking cultural norms governing the interpretation of one's body, then gender can also be a place in which the binary system restricting gender is itself subverted."

"Simone de Beauvoir does not suggest the possibility of other genders besides 'man' and 'woman', yet her insistence that these are historical constructs which must in every case be appropriated by individuals suggests that a binary gender system has no ontological necessity."

[We do not have to divide people into men and women]

"Simone de Beauvoir's ... strength of ... vision lies less in its appeal to common sense than in the radical challenge she delivers to the cultural status quo."

"To become a gender means both to submit to a cultural situation and to create one ... The body becomes a choice, a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms which surface as so many styles of the flesh."

Outline of Butler's arguments developed from an August 2009 summary by Malcolm Richardson

Judith Butler in 2008
Judith Butler is the author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), in which she argued against a biologically determined gender identity.

Judith Butler reinterprets Simone De Beauvoir's suggestion that "one is not born a woman, but, rather becomes one".

De Beauvoir can be read as making a distinction between gender and sex in which gender is socially created around the natural body of sexual differences.

Butler argues that

"there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not qualify as a pre discursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along". (Butler, 1990 p.8).

Judith Butler uses some of Michel Foucault's ideas about the construction of self-identity to develop a performative theory of gender which argues that our sex is not something fixed and determinate, but something which is much more fluid and open. Butler develops the idea of Foucault, in a chapter called "docile bodies", that society inscribes on our bodies what we are.

The idea of perfomativity has a relationship to the idea of performance, but the emphasis is on the way discourses shape us rather than on our creatively acting a role.

Looked at from this more active perspective, Butler argues that gender is something we continually act out, or perform, in everyday life. It's analogous to a drag artist performing a male or female character. But it is more habit than creativity. Creative performance, however, is needed to subvert the perfomativity that we are given.

1990 "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre

Performativity and performance

Perfomance and perfomativity are related concepts, they are not the same.

Let us start with the concept of performance that we all know, and which is one of the key concepts of sociology.

Role Action!

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts".

(William Shakespeare.
As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7, 1.36)

The part an actor played on stage was once written on a separate roll of paper. From this, the part became known as a "role". From the idea that the whole social world is a stage on which the same people play different parts at different times, social scientists in the 20th century created "role theory".

Talcot Parsons says we are actors in a social system. By clicking on this link you can read extracts from his work.

Irving Goffman uses the "perspective... of the theatrical performance" to explain "everyday life". Dramaturgy is the art of making plays. Goffman says he is applying "dramaturgical principles" for his social theory. As a result, dramaturgy is (now) also in the Oxford Dictionary as a sociological theory which interprets individual behaviour as the dramatic projection of a chosen self".

Performativity See performance

"I pronounce you man and wife"
says the priest
Language is performative if the saying of something does the deed. If the authorised person says "I pronounce you man and wife" in the right circumstances, the two people it is said to become man and wife. We say "I would like to introduce you to..." when we are actually introducing people.

In social theory, Judith Butler calls for

"...the understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains."

She appears to be saying that the discourses that we are part of produce what we are.

In a society that seriously discusses which people are witches and which ones are not there will be people who identify and are identified as witches.

Consider, for example, Salem in the 17th century.

Such a society, however, would not not have beauty queens.

Sara Salih writes in The Judith Butler Reader (Kindle Locations 2137-2143):

""What about the materiality of the body, Judy?" This was the question with which Butler was frequently accosted after the publication of Gender Trouble, the familiar, diminutive appellation intended, she suspects, to bring her back to a sense of her bodily belonging. Perhaps one can sympathize with Butler's interlocutors' mild sense of outrage: after all, it is one thing to argue that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, but surely by "woman" Beauvoir and Butler mean "feminine" rather than "female"? Wouldn't both theorists accept that one is born with a sexed body, i.e. with recognizably male or female genitalia, and that one's sex is determined before one is born? In Gender Trouble, Butler described gender as a "corporeal style" and she gave extensive analyses of how foreclosed sexual desire is incorporated on the surface of the body. However, wouldn't it be rather far-fetched to argue that there is no body preceding that melancholic incorporation? How could sex be a performative construct, a "repeated stylization" which only appears to be the basis or "ground" for sex and gender but turns out in the end to be no ground at all? Surely Butler can't argue away physical experiences such as pleasure and pain, experiences which lie outside of and have nothing to do with language? Or can she? These are some of the questions posed in Bodies That Matter"

"I pronounce you different bodies"
says society
Language is performative if the saying of something does the deed. If the authorised person says "I pronounce you man and wife" in the right circumstances, the two people it is said to become man and wife

Performativity is a pronouncement of what we will perform. Society does the pronouncing

Judith Butler asks:

"Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? And how does the category of "sex" figure within such a relationship?"

Sometime between 1877 and 1893 the old nurse posed with her teenage charge for a photograph by the new electric light

The teenagers name is Charlotte Mew, from which you can work out that you should say she and her.

But Charlotte thought (outrageous child) that she could imagine and write as she liked, and so in her poetry she is sometimes him and sometimes her.

In more recent times, Crona is somewhat less sure how to cope with gender.

Judit Butler was a board member and then ... board chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission from 1994 to 1997

an organisation that represents sexual minorities on a broad range of human rights issues.

"There I came to understand how the assertion of universality can be proleptic" [representing something future] "and performative, conjuring a reality that does not yet exist, and holding out the possibility for a convergence of cultural horizons that have not yet met."

Summer 1994 "Interview with Josephine Butler" by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal: Radical Philosophy issue 67, Summer 1994, pages 32-39.

"certain bodies go to the gynaecologist for certain kinds of examination and certain bodies do not"

"But ... Why is it pregnancy by which that body gets defined?"

"the question of pregnancy ... is centering that whole institutional practice here."

... although women's bodies generally speaking are understood as capable of impregnation, ...

  • "there are female infants and children who cannot be impregnated,

  • there are older women who cannot be impregnated,

  • there are women of all ages who cannot be impregnated,"

    "and even if they could ideally, that is not necessarily the salient feature of their bodies or even of their being women."

    What the question does is try to make the problematic of reproduction central to the sexing of the body. But I am not sure that is, or ought to be, what is absolutely salient or primary in the sexing of the body. If it is, I think it's the imposition of a norm, not a neutral description of biological constraints.

    I do not deny certain kinds of biological differences. But I always ask under what conditions, under what discursive and institutional conditions, do certain biological differences ... become the salient characteristics of sex.

    It's a practical problem. If you are in your late twenties or your early thirties and you can't get pregnant for biological reasons, or maybe you don't want to, for social reasons - whatever it is - you are struggling with a norm that is regulating your sex.

    It takes a pretty vigorous (and politically informed) community around you to alleviate the possible sense of failure, or loss, or impoverishment, or inadequacy - a collective struggle to rethink a dominant norm.

    Why shouldn't it be that a woman who wants to have some part in child-rearing, but doesn't want to have a part in child-bearing, or who wants to have nothing to do with either, can inhabit her gender without an implicit sense of failure or inadequacy?

    When people ask the question "Aren't these biological differences?", they're not really asking a question about the materiality of the body. They're actually asking whether or not the social institution of reproduction is the most salient one for thinking about gender. In that sense, there is a discursive enforcement of a norm.

    1998 Judith Butler won first prize in the fourth Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature. See Press Release

    Her first-prize sentence appeared in "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time," in the scholarly journal Diacritics in 1997:

    "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."

    [This is about the move from relatively centralised conceptions of power structures in society, which Butler associates with Louis Althusser, to decentralised conceptions of conflict rather than harmony, associated with Althusser's student Michel Foucault. She is saying that in the new Foucauldian view, power is, at least in part, a struggle over the way we say (articulate and/or perform) things. If we can alter the way we say or perform things, we can alter society.]

    21st century Genetics and the sociology of identity

    October 2013:

    Sociology, a journal of the British Sociological Association, devoted a whole number to

    Genetics and the Sociology of Identity

    In relation to genetics, the introduction uses Judith Butler as a key theorist to negotiate

    "the tension between determinism and voluntarism in sociological accounts of identity formation" (p.876)

    Read that part of the introduction here

    Determinism Your genes decide who you are

    Voluntarism You decide who you are

    Genetic Carried in your genes

    In the 1930s the theory developed that the genetic information about what characteristics are inherited are carried in an organic chemical which we now call DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid). These acids are generally found only in the chromosomes - Thread like structures in cells, see left. Experiments in the 1940s and 1950s, using micro-organisms, showed that DNA was the material that transmitted genetic information.

    Butler: a more sophisticated enquiry

    Sociologists tend to stress social determinants of behaviour and personality and/or voluntaristic ones, rather than body ones

    If you want to see how one sided this sociological approach can become, watch "The Gender Equality Paradox" shown on Norwegian television in March 2010. This was the first of a seven part series in which Harald Eia confronted Norwegian social scientists with the evidence for some biological influence on personality.

    Judith Butler's theoretical work is valuable in devising a more sophisticated sociological approach to genetics (and the body generally) because she acknowledges the reality of the body [materiality] but argues that no aspect of it is free of cultural interpretation.

    She says:

    "there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings".

    We have to examine the dialogue of material and cultural reality:

    The genetics issue of Sociology says:

    "Butler ... reflects on the dualistic relationship between a material embodiment of sex in chromosomes and genitals... and the socially construed formation of gender identities."

    Genetically, biologists argue, we have our biological sex (gender) determined by the combination of X (female determining factor) and Y (male determining factor) chromosomes in our cells. Females have two X chromosomes (XX) - Males have one of each (XY).

    The drawings below are by Steven K Ellis . In most people the type of sex chromosome matches the type of genitalia (sex organ). The genitalia are also called "primary sexual characteristics". However, not everyone engages in sex and reproduction whereas urinating is universal.

    A diagram depicting the 23 human chromsomes. Based on a diagram in the glossary of the National Human Genome Research Unit. It shows both the female (XX) and male (XY) versions of the 23rd chromosome pair. (Source Wikipedia)

    Twenty two of the chromosomes in which the biological information is stored to transmit to future generations have the same form in men and women. The twenty-third is different. This then appears, on the surface, to be the simple, biological, explanation for why men are not women.

    The genetics issue of Sociology says:

    "The common understanding of genetics, and the social practices in which it is employed, continue to be largely based on the assumption that genes cause or are stable indicators for individual characteristics."


    First of all we need to recognise that biological determination is not that straightforward. For example, there are people who for complex reasons are given different sex identities to just "male" or "female".

    The genetics issue of Sociology says:

    "Bodies, genes, processes of brain development and aspects of gender identity come in many irregular forms, including atypical genetic variations in the sex chromosomes, which occur in 1 out of 700 live births, as well as the many other ways in which bodies and desires trouble the hetero-normative ideal of sex and gender identity"

    Spanish hurdler Maria Patino considered herself a woman, as did everyone else. Standard sports tests said the same in 1983 but then in 1985 the tests said that she was a man.

    Judith Butler suggests that looking at the way we think about people with an anomalous biological sex can help us to understand more about how we understand sex generally. She says

    "The point here is not to seek recourse to the exceptions, the bizarre, in order merely to relativize the claims made in behalf of normal sexual life. ... it is the exception, the strange, that gives us the clue to how the mundane and taken-for-granted world of sexual meanings is constituted."

    The genetics issue of Sociology says:

    "the complexity of individual experience and desires does not fit with stereotypical identities. Individuals are forced to match imposed (or seemingly imposed) societal expectations."

    So reality is more complex than genetic determination. As well as the influence of the body, we have to take into account the social stereotypes that society imposes and the complexity of individual experience and desires.

    The genetics issue of Sociology says:

    "Recent developments in genomic science and its interpretation appear to favour following Butler... genetic research has highlighted the extent to which ordinary bodily development is shaped and defined by social as much as genetic and other biological factors. Scientists and clinicians are nowadays much more inclined to assume that physiology, sexual desire and gender identity, far from being naturally linked or aligned with one another, are profoundly shaped by cultural idioms and individual experiences."

    See Subject index on biological bases of behaviour. Gina Rippon's articles on "neurononsense" make for interesting reading.

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    The ethical context

    Work in historical context

    Ph.D context



    Simone De Beauvoir wrote

    Images of children

    Hands and eyes, not genitals

    Judith Butler's question

    Butler's commentary: the body politic

    Gender Trouble




    witches and beauty queens

    Bodies that Matter

    Judith Butler's actual question

    Charlotte Mew and Crona

    International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

    interview - gynaecologist

    Reproduction norm

    First prize