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Gender Trouble: A Review, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1500

Essay

Judith Butler’s book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, is a study that examines patriarchy, feminism, gender roles and relationships, and sexual identity.  Her belief is that sexual identity and gender identification is not biologically based, but rather socially constructed.  As such, it can be successfully restructured within society.  Since the idea of gender is considered to be performative, she does not view the process as a performance, but rather, but rather a behavior that develops within society.This paper will discuss Chapters 2 and 3 in her work, providing both summary and analysis.

  1. Chapter 2: Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix

In this section, Butler begins by questioning whether or not a patriarchal society ever existed, one which would have laid the foundation for the history of the oppression of women.  Discussions have involved the question of whether there were any prepatriarchal cultures, or whether they were dominated by matriarchy, dispensing of the notion that patriarchy had a beginning or an end. Feminists, she says, have often reverted to the alleged-patriarchal culture as the foundation upon which to create a new, non-oppressive culture.  As a result, narratives regarding the early transformation of sex into gender via the incest taboo have been extremely helpful to feminist train of thought.  She explores three of the most popular accounts: Claude Levi –Strauss’s structuralism, which involves the incest taboo requiring a kinship organization ruled by women’s interactions; a psychoanalytic description of “womanliness as a masquerade” that camouflages masculine identification, which hides a desire for another woman; and Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of mourning and melancholia, wherein loss causes the ego to incorporate qualities of the lost loved one (Butler.)

According to Butler, reverting to prepatriarchal societies merely benefits the goals of culturally conservative forces and leads to an exclusionary method in feminism that causes fragmentation which is the complete opposite result that was intended.  She says that the idea of having a “before” within feminist theory is a political problem because it limits potential efforts to create an idealized version of the past since it inadvertently promotes the “reification” of a world of the authentic feminine orb that predates culture ”.  Butler believes that the idea of the original femininity is purely nostalgic, and refuses to acknowledge the modern demand for a conceptualization of gender that is a “complex cultural construction.” She critiques the theories of Engels, whose theories of structural anthropology are viewed as reactionary and which would universalize the subordination of women.  She believes that these theories, which she calls social feminism, cannot help but enforce gender hierarchies.

Butler has many problems with the theories of Levi –Strauss, expressing the view that structuralist anthropology is replete with fallacies that result in undermining the notion of gender.  Describing Levi–Strauss’ notions of gender, she feels that incest is “a pervasive cultural fantasy” and that the existence of this taboo precipitates the desirous feelings.  She rejects his beliefs that there is open quote a natural or biological female who was subsequently transformed into a socially subordinate “woman” with the consequence that “sex” is to nature or “the raw” as gender is to culture or “the cooked” (Butler.) She believes that if the Levi –Strauss framework were indeed valid, it would be possible to follow the conversion of sex into gender by finding that stable mechanism of cultures, the “exchange rules of kinship,” which impact that change in relatively regular ways.  In this view, sex remains before the law in that it is culturally and politically undefined, providing the basic material of culture that only becomes valid through after its exposure to the laws of kinship.

Butler also presents significant critiques of Freud.  In regards to Freud’s notion of bisexuality, she believes that the taboo against homosexuality actually creates heterosexual tendencies that facilitate the playing out of the Oedipal complex.  In addition, the Freudian conceptualization of gender identification is based on sadness that internalizes the prohibited object as taboo.  As a result, the same-sexed gender identification is dependent on an unresolved and forgotten homosexual attachment with the father, rather than the mother that typifies the Oedipal saga (Butler.) She argues that heterosexual depression is experienced as the price of stable gender identities and in order for this identity to remain consistent, the concept of homosexuality must exist, because it remains forbidden but essential within the parameters of cultural norms.  She again points to the usefulness of the incest taboo because it both generates and regulates the socially acceptable heterosexuality as well as the rebellious homosexuality.

  1. Chapter 3: Subversive Bodily Acts

Contrary to the work of Lacan, who created a paternal symbolic order and repression of the femininity that is necessary development of language and culture, Kristeva returned women to the narrative by asserting that the language of poetry—the “semiotic”—represented the reemergence of the maternal presence in writing, and was uncontrolled by the paternalistic element.  Kristeva’s philosophy was that poetic expression along with maternity are the only culturally acceptable paths for women to revisit the motherly body that carried them, since female homosexuality is not an option.  Kristeva also addresses the influences of psychedelic type experiences as well as eastern religions, and their impact on energy and drives.  She views the paternalistic influence as a disruption of that return to the female origins.  Butler confronts her arguments, insisting that the claim that the maternal predates culture and that poetry is a form of returning to the maternal body is merely a trap: According to Butler, Kristeva envisions this maternal drive as having an existential status before patriarchy existed, but she neglects to think about how that very law might actually be the source of the desire it is meant to repress.  She believes that the idea of maternity as a nostalgic safe place for women is merely a social construction.  In addition, rather than viewing gender identity as being formed from without, she believes that there are forces and drives that coordinate that energy from within.Butler believes that Kristeva’s strategic method of explaining the futile disruption of paternal law is a failure, and largely stems from her uncritical use of drive theory.

Butler turns to Foucault’s theories to express that the idea that maternity defines the female is by itself a result of conversation, so that it is possible that repression actually creates the object that it ultimately denies.  In other words, the paternal law, which is symbolic, manufactures the concept of “feminine” which it ultimately represses.  In this section regarding the Foucault, Butler deconstructs his introduction to the journals of a hermaphrodite, Barbin, which he published; Barbin later killed himself after police forced him to live as a man.  Foucault wrote, in his introduction, that Barbin’s early life was happier because she was able to live in the gender with which she was comfortable at that time.  Butler’s response to this was that Foucault was engaging in romanticism, and that it was in contradiction to his earlier writings in which he expressed that true sexual identity an allusion, and that instead of one’s sexual identity being a response to a repressive culture, the sex itself was not an answer to that system but was rather a part of it.  Her belief was that Barbin’s earlier life was part of a larger system of social control rather than one of happiness and freedom from constraints of gender identity.  She writes: “(Barbin)’s pleasures and desires are in no way the bucolic innocence that thrives and proliferates prior to the imposition of a juridicial law, and neither does she fully fall outside the signifying economy of masculinity.…” (Butler.)  Ultimately, Butler expresses that Foucault’s writings in that introduction actually were a confession of his own homosexuality.

In the Wittig section of Chapter 3, Butler addresses her thinking about lesbianism as the only recourse to the constructed concept of sex.  Wittig wrote that the idea of sex is always regarded as female, a method of establishing a non-male by his absence.  Therefore, women cannot avoid being burdened with the association with sex, claiming that even giving body parts a name puts an emphasis on those features themselves, creating fragmentation out of what once was a whole.  Butler questions idea that the body itself is a natural entity that “admits no genealogy”: the ways that the outline of the body are clearly defined as the taken-for-granted turf upon which gender signification is determined, a mere facticity without worth, prior to importance. She believes that the boundaries of the body had been established to return certain taboos about limits and if possibilities.  For example, it is homophobia that causes the press to write about AIDS being the result of “pollution” of homosexual’s sexual activity, particularly sodomy.  She suggests that homosexuals practice “drag” as a means of shaking up the outside / inside persona, and to mock the idea that there is an “original” gender; Butler prefers to use exaggeration order to whimsically demonstrate that all gender in reality written, rehearsed, and displayed.

Work Cited:

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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