My recommendation is not to solve this crisis of identity, but to proliferate and intensify this crisis.

(Butler 1990a:121)

Perhaps the most significant challenge to the concept of gendered identities is contained in the work of the postmodern feminist theoristJudith Butler, particularly her conception of gender as ‘performativity’.

Martin (1992:101) draws on Judith Butler’s work on the ‘deconstruction of feminist identity politics and its foundationalist premises’ and her call for ‘the disaggregation of sex, gender, sexual identity and desire’ (ibid,). Butler argues that division along gender lines is simply the articulation of repeated performances of culturally sanctioned acts of gender. She states that

The deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics; rather it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated. This kind of critique brings into question the foundationalist frame in which feminism as an identity politics has been articulated. The internal paradox of this foundationalism is that it presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate.

(Butler 1990a:148)

Drawing on aspects of poststructuralist analysis, Butler shows that the plurality of discursive domains within which women are located establishes diversity around issues of ‘subjectivity’, ‘identity’ and ‘difference’. As Martin (1992:103) maintains, ‘“the subject of feminism” cannot be thought of as a stable, unified, or internally coherent woman, or lesbian’, without in the process ignoring the range of discourses within which ‘subjects are constituted’. Butler maintains, however, that resistance to and subversion of dominant hegemonies can only emerge ‘“within the practices of repetitive signifying”, not from claims to independent and discrete identities’ (Martin 1992:103). Martin, in a comprehensive summary of Butler’s work, shows how Butler’s argument stresses the importance of ‘surfacing’ and making ‘visible the complexities that already exist’, but which are rendered invisible by dominant discourses ‘with deep investments in defining viable subjects’ (1992:105).

Butler’s (1990a:137) radical conception of identity advances a model which creates spaces for a range of sexual identities—including gay, queer, lesbian identities— which act to destabilise the unity of identity categories, exposing ‘the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence’. As such, Butler claims that she is not interested in ‘difference qua difference’, nor in ‘celebrating each and every new possibility qua possibility’, but in ‘redescribing those possibilities that already exist, but which exist within cultural domains designated as culturally unintelligible and impossible’ (Butler 1990a:148-149, cited in Martin 1992:103).

It is in this context that aspects of performativity within homosexual practices ‘such as drag and butch-femme roles, become privileged sites for the redescription of “possibilities that already exist”’ (ibid,). It is the identification of gay men and lesbians with butch/femme roles that act to subvert essentialist notions of identity. As Martin (1992:104) claims, Butler’s conceptions of drag2 and butch-femme roles show that ‘a model of signification might displace the debates over whether gay and lesbian sexual practices constitute imitations or the real thing…’. Both drag and butch-femme are seen as performative in that neither can be seen as imitative since, as Martin shows, all performances are ‘imitations of fantasized ideals, hence masquerades’ (ibid,).

For Butler, heterosexuality is itself a masquerade. She claims that ‘drag is subversive to the extent that it reflects on the imitative structure by which hegemonic gender is itself produced, and disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality’ (1993a:125). However, both ‘drag’ and ‘butch-femme’ are problematic conceptually and in their application, which reflects difficulties with the concept of performativity. Modleski (1991:158) claims that Butler ‘speaks of a situation in which “the anatomy of the performer is.. .distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of these are distinct from the gender of the performance”, which suggests a “dissonance .between sex and gender, and gender and performance”’ (Butler 1990a:137, cited in Modleski 1991:158).

In her application of the concept of drag in her now famous analysis of the film Paris is Burning, a film on the subcultural practices of black and Hispanic gays, Butler (1993a) recognises that these representations are ambivalent and she acknowledges that they could be ‘read’ as being of homophobic, misogynistic and racist origins.3 The butch-femme as an example of ‘the performative’ is also problematic. Teresa de Lauretis claims that ‘The butch-femme role playing is exciting not because it represents heterosexual desire but because it doesn’t; that is to say in mimicking it, it shows the uncanny distance like the effect of ghosting, between desire (heterosexually represented as it is) and the representation’ (cited in Modleski 1991:158).4

Modleski notes that the contrast between the approach of Butler and de Lauretis, both lesbian feminists, both theorising the issue of gender identity, is an interesting one. In contrast to Butler’s emphasis on gender as ‘performativity’, de Lauretis, far from deconstructing the concept of gender, is concerned to understand the means by which women become ‘gendered’ and in the process serve as ‘sources of empowerment’ for other women.

Martin is an advocate of Butler’s performative account of gender, and of the separation of the analytically and politically distinct categories of sexuality and gender. As Martin contends the normalisation of sex and gender works to obliterate pluralities and, while not wanting to dismiss lesbian feminist positions such as Adrienne Rich’s, she recognises the limitations of this position in terms of sexual desire and sexual essentialism. However, Martin does not subscribe fully to Butler’s deconstruction of gender as ‘a significant social marker’ (1992:117). There are also other criticisms of Butler’s position from those like Benhabib (1992), who argue from a somewhat ‘modernist’ perspective that it involves a concept of identity without a subject. However, for Butler, the identification of a subject in any real sense limits the possibilities of diversity. For Butler (1990a: 121) the answer to the issue of both identity and representation is to ‘proliferate and intensify the crisis and she calls for a chaotic multiplicity of representations’.