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Gender performativity is a term created by post-structuralist feminist philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, which has subsequently been used in a variety of academic fields.
Butler characterizes gender as the effect of reiterated acting, one that produces the effect of a static or normal gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person's gender act. This effect produces what we can consider to be "true gender," a narrative that is sustained by "the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them."
On Butler's hypothesis, the socially constructed aspect of gender performativity is perhaps most obvious in drag performance, which offers a rudimentary understanding of gender binaries in its emphasis on gender performance. Butler understands drag cannot be regarded as an example of subjective or singular identity, where "there is a ‘one’ who is prior to gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender decides with deliberation which gender it will be today". Consequently, drag should not be considered the honest expression of its performer’s intent. Rather, Butler suggests that what is performed "can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility".
Butler suggests in both "Critically Queer" and "Melancholy Gender", that the child/subject's ability to grieve the loss of the same-sex parent as a viable love object is barred. Following from Sigmund Freud’s notion of melancholia, such a repudiation results in a heightened identification with the Other that cannot be loved, resulting in gender performances which create allegories of, and internalize the lost love that the subject is subsequently unable to acknowledge or grieve. Butler explains that "a masculine gender is formed from the refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love; a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the fantasy which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but ‘preserved’ through the heightening of feminine identification itself".
Amelia Jones proposes that this mode of viewing gender offered a way to move beyond the theories of the gaze and sexual fetishism, which had attained much prominence in academic feminism, but which by the 1980s Jones viewed as outdated methods of understanding women's societal status. Jones believes the performative power to act out gender is extremely useful as a framework, offering new ways to consider images as enactments with embodied subjects rather than inanimate objects for men's viewing pleasure.
Political potential and limits
Butler suggests that "[t]he critical promise of drag does not have to do with the proliferation of genders…but rather with the exposure of the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals", although such remarks fail to indicate how the inadequacies of heterosexual regimes might be explicitly exposed. Much of the discussion surrounds Butler's inability to differentiate clearly between notions of performativity and performance, even when pressed to define a clear division. In general, performativity is considered as describing the process of discursive production, whereas performance is a specific type of self-presentation.
According to Butler, gender performance is only subversive because it is "the kind of effect that resists calculation”, which is to say that signification is multiplicitous, that the subject is unable to control it, and so subversion is always occurring and always unpredictable. Moya Lloyd suggests that the political potential of gender performances can be evaluated relative to similar past acts in similar contexts in order to assess their transgressive potential: "Even if we accept that there are incalculable effects to all (or most) statements or activities, this does not mean that we need to concede that there are no calculable effects." Conversely, Rosalyn Diprose lends a hard-line Foucauldian interpretation to her understanding of gender performance’s political reach, as one's identity "is built on the invasion of the self by the gestures of others, who, by referring to other others, are already social beings". Diprose implies that the individual's will, and the individual performance, is always subject to the dominant discourse of an Other (or Others), so as to restrict the transgressive potential of performance to the inscription of simply another dominant discourse.
"Butler suggests to her readers that this sly send-up of the status quo is the only script for resistance that life offers [...] Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn't it exciting and sexy?"
- Butler, Judith (1999) . Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Subversive bodily acts, IV Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions). New York: Routledge. p. 179.
- Butler, Judith (1993). "Critically Queer". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1): 21.
- Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer". p. 24.
- Butler, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. University Press of Stanford.
- Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer". p. 25.
- Jones, Amelia, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. p. 370
- Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer". p. 26.
- Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer". p. 29.
- Lloyd, Moya (1999). "Performativity, Parody, Politics". Theory, Culture and Society 16 (2): 207. doi:10.1177/02632769922050476.
- Diprose, Rosalyn (1994). The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. London: Routledge. p. 25.
- Nussbaum, Martha (1999). "The Professor of Parody". The New Republic", 22 February 1999.