No Choice; Where Women’s Studies Got it Wrong

Recently I was asked a question on Tumblr about gender performance theory which stirred an intense awakening of old memories and forgotten aggressions from my early days of coming out. When I came out, I didn’t know anyone gay, queer, or trans* and my only feasible connection to people like me was my campus’ Women’s Studies department. Like many people, my initial coming out was a frustrating, painful, and isolating experience. I desperately wanted answers to why I was the way I was and I thought Women’s Studies would have them. Turns out it didn’t, but it had something else: Judith Butler’s Gender Performance Theory and a dedicated hoard of faculty, students, books, and films telling me that it was my choice to be trans, and it was my fault.

I am a proud feminist. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of love for Women’s Studies. All in all, the department served as significant safe space for me and I am grateful. But the good things about Women’s Studies don’t block out the problematic elements ingrained into the origins of gender theory that are continued to be taught today. No, we wouldn’t have Queer Theory if it hadn’t been for the charges of Women’s Studies pushing it into legitimacy, but we wouldn’t have a lot of inner community transphobia either. Know all those sayings about how trans people mutilate themselves and are trying to steal people’s spaces? Yeah, women’s studies theorists wrote that shit too, or have we forgotten second wave feminism and Janice Raymond? Women’s Studies is awesome for a lot of reasons, Gender Performance Theory is not one of them. “Choice” is not always a choice. There have been many points in my life where I have been told I could fix “it” if I made different choices – it was just a matter of wanting it. I could be happy, if I wanted to. I could be healthy if I believed I could. I could do well in school, if I tried harder. If I wanted to, I could be feminine and pretty, and when I came out I was additionally told I could be masculine and tough if I worked at it. If I really wanted to, I could pass as a guy and no one would harass me. If I wanted to, I could stop being trans and just be a lesbian, or better yet be straight. If I wanted to, I could be everything I’m supposed to be, agree with everyone, and fit in just fine. Seems like people assume that I’m a weird, stupid, crazy, trans, queer, genderfucked, failure on purpose. But what does that have to do with Judith Butler? Nothing really, except to point out that this idea that we can and should control and change certain integral elements of our bodies and identities is the center of every “-ism” I know.

Did the Butler intend for gender performance theory to be oppressive? Of course not. “Gender as performance” was one of the women’s empowerment movement’s moves to legitimize gender difference and subversiveness, primarily referencing expression but at the time, gender expression and gender identity were thought to be the same thing. Under this theory, there is no personalized element of gender and that is the main fallacy; It denies is the most human element of gender: identity – the personal. Gender Identity is expressed through visible cues and we figure out what feels right based on our identity and work from that. If our decisions about presentation (or “performance”) are based out of some internal drive to express ourselves, is it really a choice? My femme exists as an embodiment of what I feel, to show the femme I have on the inside. I didn’t choose to be feminine, but I do technically choose to allow myself to express femme. I could force myself to not be feminine, but if I am given the choice to either be myself or to be someone I’m not, I don’t think I actually have a choice. I didn’t come this far to live as someone else. If I was going to do that, I never would have transitioned in the first place.

Gender identity and gender expression are linked to one another, not as a point of causation, but as a series of interactions. The clothes don’t make the human. Sometimes I feel the most masculine when I appear to be the most feminine. I can wear a dress and make it masculine simply by being a male person who is wearing it. I can still be masculine, it is just a different kind of masculinity that, perhaps includes some femininity or is just genderqueered. Or I can make myself more feminine by wearing a dress, and my femininity can be masculine or it can be genderqueered. It’s all about how we conceptualize it, and we must conceptualize it via rejecting cultural definitions of gender. I’m like a broken record, always saying that gender is the key to societal recognition. If you are outside a heteronormative construct of gender expectations you can not be recognized by society as anything but “other” without challenging gendered society itself. I think thatButlerintended this same idea in the original argument of gender performativity – people wanted to challenge gendered society and reject definition by presentation. The problem is that they took the theory too far, enabling it to delegitimize every form of gender expression and identity. A perfect example of this is Femme-phobia. Gender performativity states that if you are feminine, you are choosing to perform it, and according to some branches of feminism, being feminine is supporting the patriarchy that sexualizes women as beauty objects. So femmes are choosing to support the patriarchy. There is no option for someone to like being feminine for the sake of enjoying femininity. This is essentially saying that femininity is bad and that a woman can not be feminine for her own pleasure without being a sell out. It is arguments like these that lead me to believe gender performance theorists were down right delusional. How is that feminist? And speaking of feminism, as I mentioned before, gender performance theories are at the root of second wave feminism’s rampant transphobia. If we are performing gender, then we are choosing to violate our bodies and minds, and taking the rest of society down with us.  We are impostors, perverts, and invaders transitioning out of weakness or selfishness, or both.

I can already picture people getting upset about what I’m saying; I’m being too harsh on gender theories and I need to take them contextually. I don’t think I should have to apply context to any theory that does not apply context to me. If every Women’s Studies classroom was teaching Gender Performance Theory through a critical lens, discussing the complexities of social gender presentation and personal gender identity and expression, then I would have nothing to say about it. But that is not the case, so here I am writing this post. It is not that I don’t see some value in Butler’s original ideas. I think that ‘performance’ can be used to reference gender presentation, but only in certain circumstances. One could say the difference between performing gender presentation and expressing gender identity through presentation is the genuineness of it. A lot of culturally gendered practices and expressions (such as make up, or “macho-ness”) are acts of cultural coercion and therefore ingenuine. I perform gender very consciously sometimes: When I am on the road in the inner Midwest, I almost exclusively try to pass myself off as female because it is safer to be a punked out, possibly lesbian woman than a flamingly queer guy. I will raise my eye brows, raise my voice, smile a lot, and do whatever else we stereotype to be “female” behavior.” It is an act and I use femininity as a tool. On stage, I use visible gender performance in ways that correlate closely to Butler’s Gender Performance Theory. I use gendered elements such as clothing, movement styles, and expressions that are culturally coded as masculine or feminine in order to create a conversation about gender. The cultural binary framework for what is masculine and what is feminine enables me to raise and lower gendered elements, combine them, or erase them. I think this might be how Butler really intended us to think about Gender Trouble and everyone just interpreted it wrong, but I could be just trying to be supportive of a history that I want to support me…

Gender performance isn’t all bull, there are elements to be analyzed, but it can not be done without oppressing gender variant communities unless it is supplemented by the recognition of gender identity and personal gender expression. I think that a lot of people intend to think of gender performance in this way, but because of privilege, they don’t realize that by simply stating ‘gender is performed’ they are being problematic. Let’s be real, if there was a “How to exercise non-trans privilege 101” gender performance theory would be in chapter one. Gender Theory has a lot of updating to do because as it is now it is actively promoting the oppressions it originally set out to demolish. We must destroy the idea that there is one way to be feminine or masculine, and instill the knowledge that there are ways to be both or neither. Once that happens, if it ever does, then performance will really be seen as what is deliberate and chosen, like on a stage, and expression is what is understood and personal, and that the two are not the same. Then, and only then, can we be certain that all the future’s baby genderqueers will go searching for a safe space, searching for answers, and actually find them.


11 thoughts on “No Choice; Where Women’s Studies Got it Wrong

  1. Andrew F says:

    This is from Butler’s “Performance Acts and Gender Constitution”: wondering what you think!

    “As a consequence, gender cannot be understood as a *role* which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self’, whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act’, broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority. As opposed to a view such as Erving Goffman’s which posits a self which assumes and exchanges various ‘roles’ within the complex social expectations of the ‘game’ of modern life [which I’m tempted to say you seem to subscribe to!], I am suggesting that this self is not only irretrievably ‘outside’, constituted in social discourse, but that the ascription of interiority it itself a publicly regulated and sanctioned form of essence fabrication. Genders, then, can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent. And yet, one is compelled to live in a world in which genders constitute univocal signifiers, in which gender is stabilized, polarized, rendered discrete and intractable.” (528)

    Someone else that I think you would benefit from, if just to give you even more to chew on and allow you to have a bigger breadth of academese to pull from, is Joan Riviere’s notion of masquerade.

    But I’m thinking of Foucault now, and those crazy notions of how your sense of self is really just part of and constructed through/by discursive regimes of power. Yeah… it’s not really about ‘choice’ or ‘I feel this way’. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

    • JAC says:

      Andrew – This passage highlights ideas from Butler that I really like. I think that society’s obsession with gender expectations is almost like a kind of brainwashing – we are trained to accept it, then we love it, then we live it. I have always taken Butler’s idea of “social fiction” and “sanctioned fabrication” to be referring to this. Society accepts a greater system of oppression that is then ingrained into us until it is in our own psychological sense of self, making cultural gender inseparable from how we think of our own identities and expressions. What we must be careful of – which is the point of this post – is getting caught up in the idea so far that it makes us unable to recognize the difference between cultural gender, and the psychological/personal attachments to it, and gender identity. Butler herself isn’t the full culprit, it is how people use Butler’s theories that is the problem.

      I’m actually quite familiar with Joan Riviere’s work. I think her ideas about masquerade, and the concept of using gender expression as a tool (such as how she describes using femininity to promote certain self-images or to mask other traits) to be very applicable, similar to my agreement with Butler’s ideas about performance as a tool. I also like her because of her association with Klein and (A.) Freud – back in the day I took interest in their developmental psychological theories.

      I’ve actually always had a soft spot for Foucault because I like how he challenged the idea of sexuality being defined. I lean towards postmodernism so that also explains my interest in his way of thinking. He doesn’t leave much room for choice, but depending on the topic that can be positive or negative. The thing I like most about him is that he talked about sexuality as being essential to humanity, and that sexuality was deeply rooted within a person, unchangeable and unchosen. “Choice” and “feeling” are two different things. The idea of repression, as Foucault described it (granted he didn’t apply it to gendered elements) can be applied to many spheres where culture demands one thing, but our actual experiences promote something else (like gender expectations versus variance.)

  2. Maya Sen says:

    I’m so horrified that you were treated this way, especially by people in a Women’s Studies Department!

    I’ve never read Butler, but I’ve read *about* her (that’s basically the same, right? ;) ). I’ve never tried to articulate this, so I might not say it right. My impression was always that the idea of gender as performance meant that we make conscious decisions about how we show what we feel inside with regards to gender.

    I thought it included the idea that you can perform what you are, or something that you are not – like when I used to dress up in feminine clothes, I would say that I was pretending to be a real girl – showing people what they expected me to because it was expedient and useful to me.

    I also thought of it as saying that people make assumptions about who you are based on what you project to the world – that your clothing and actions make statements to others (regardless of what your intentions were).

    I kind of thought of Butler’s theory as freeing, because it emphasized that you could be active in your choice of how you portrayed yourself, and that people who appear to fit the standard mold may just be doing it thoughtlessly, due to societal expectations, but that when it was discussed as performance, maybe they would see it more as a choice they were making.

    So yes, there *is* choice in our performance of gender – but it is choice in how you perform your true self – how much you want to share that with others, and in what way. I just don’t understand how people could take this as a way to blame someone for performing their true gender and encourage conformity.

    I don’t know if I explained it well, but I’m going to keep going with my own interpretation of what Butler’s theory meant, rather than the soul-sucking interpretation you were given.

    • JAC says:

      Maya – Your interpretation is how I initially interpreted Butler. I really loved how she challenged the societal concept of gender, aiming to removed the cultural restraints and build something personal and deliberate from gender. Plus I felt really smart reading all her big words :P I don’t think Butler is bad or wrong and, like I said in the post, I don’t think that she ever thought that people would apply her theories in oppressive ways. If Butler is applied correctly, the theories can be really supportive – unfortunately a lot of people don’t do that. That is what this is all about, not Butler being wrong or evil, but that people take her ideas and, ironically, use them within the oppressive constructs that she was fighting against.

  3. Ellen O says:

    Sorry to come of a bit skeptical but….. have you read “Gender Trouble”?

    She is quite pro trans, and is very masculine herself. She clearly states throughout the first section of the book that her argument is AGAINST second wave essentialism and that we do NOT choose how to express.

    You have to view “Performance” in the same way as postmodernism views language. Saying “i am a woman” cannot completely encapsulate me as a mtf person, in the same way that how i express (or “perform”) my gender cannot completely encapsulate who i am to another person.

    Her argument is not that gender means nothing and is 100% social, but that how we have been juridicially forced into our assigned genders is based on sex, and as she argues sex is equally constructed as gender.

    If you have read it i encourage you to read it again. There are definitely problems with Gender Trouble but the overall argument affirms trans and queer people identities. But those problems can be chalked up to it being written in 1990. Things have changed. She wrote “Undoing Gender” in 2004 for this purpose. I have not read it yet but i plan to, i know she explores gender performitey in the case of David Reimer.

    • JAC says:

      Hi Ellen,
      Lol, yes, I have read Gender Trouble. I would not be talking about it if I had not. And as the post says, my issue is not with Gender Trouble or Butler herself, but how people USE the theories she created. Butler wrote about gender subversiveness and challenging cultural gender expectations. What people frequently turn that into is the negation of personalized gender and an erasure of gender identity. Gender must be looked at from all sides, social and personal – and I feel that a lot of people overlook that when they reference gender performativity. We have to, as you said, analyze it complexly and think of all of the interacting elements related to gender, perception, identity, and expression.

      I actually like Undoing Gender much better than Gender Trouble, I encourage you to read it! I feel it is more relevant and applicable to the modern existence of gender variant people (Gender Trouble is a little old school for my tastes).

  4. AJ says:

    I have been reading your blog for about an hour now and I know this comment is about 6 months late but I felt compelled to do it anywayof. This post is well written and I have made some of the same arguments against Judith Butler and since I too am heavily entrenched in the WGSS department/feminism, I have been met with some of the same resistance. You are spot on when you talk about the interpretations of Butlers performance theory being problematic and not necessarily her work itself. Also, I agree that we somehow conviently forget that second wave feminism, while not entirely problematic, did lay the groundwork for a lot of the oppresive language and behavior Trans* people experience today. Great post!

    • JAC says:

      Thanks AJ! I think that whenever people emotionally bond themselves with a field or discipline, such as WGSS, it can be hard to separate the theories for what they are: the perspectives of individuals which are then interpreted and re-interpreted though scores of papers, and sometimes with problematic results. When an analyzation turns out problematic, that doesn’t mean there can not be positives in the original theory, nor does it mean that the discipline itself is some big bad system of oppression. It just means that academia, just like any other system, has the potential to be used as a tool of oppression and we must not make excuses for it because it occurs in the supposed sacredness of a book versus, say, a bumper sticker or TV show. What is the point of all of this analyzation and “intellectualism” if it is still intended to be skewed towards a certain historical framework? If we do that, learning isn’t learning, it is training. Last time I checked, WGSS was supposed to be all about deconstructing stuff like that!
      thanks for commenting!! better late, than never :)

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