Limitations to seeing gender as ‘done’: gender performativity
The most influential current theories about gender by Judith Butler (for example, 1990), sound very similar to socialization theories (Hood- Williams and Harrison, 1998: 89) and to symbolic interactionist approaches about doing gender, but could more accurately be described as arguing that gender ‘does us’. Her work has been important because she has outlined how ‘sex’, not just gender, is socially constructed and has made important contributions to debates about how gender and sexuality are connected. She argues that gender is not ‘natural’, it is a stylized repetition of acts (Butler, 1990). Butler is a political philosopher and is therefore working within a different intellectual tradition to the symbolic interactionists. Butler (1988) does refer to Goffman in some of her
very early work, but in adopting J. L. Austin’s notion of performatives branches off into what can be thought of as a more radical understanding of gender. Performatives are words that do things. They bring into being the thing of which they speak. The classic example of a performative is the phrase ‘I do’ within a wedding ceremony. Uttering this phrase ‘performs’ the wedding. It is part of the legal procedure that makes you married. Another example is the phrase ‘I bet’ which when you say it brings the bet into being. Expanding this idea beyond narrow linguistic bounds, Butler puts together a sophisticated argument about gender as performative.
Butler argues that as soon as new parents announce ‘it’s a girl’ then the process of gendering begins. With that phrase the girling of the girl starts to be performed, and the femininity of that individual begins to be constructed. Girls and boys are made feminine and masculine by selecting from available meanings about gender. She describes the citation of gender norms as central to gender practices. This sounds like a good deal of agency is involved, but Butler (1993: x) is adamant that gender is not something you can choose to do in the way you choose what clothes to put on. There is, Butler argues no ‘“doer” behind the deed’ (1990: 25). It seems slightly puzzling to say that gender is a matter of copying, with slight variations, existing ways of doing gender and yet to say that it is not something that we actively choose to ‘do’. In many places Butler does seem to suggest that agency operates, that gender is done, but this seeming contradiction can perhaps operate with some usefulness because she has a slightly different view of the self and subjectivity to the Meadian one used by symbolic interactionists. Butler, like Goffman, thinks that there is no ‘real’ basis to gender identity. She describes gender as a kind of masquerade with no substance behind it. Femininity does not exist except as a constantly shifting set of symbolic acts. What is ‘feminine’ has no basis in women’s bodies or experiences; it is made up, it consists only of a collection of ways of acting that are considered feminine. There is only the pretending. However, this pretending produces the illusion that gender is a fundamental part of who we are.
Butler arguably improves on symbolic interactionism by explaining how gender brings us into being as social individuals. Goffman and West and Zimmerman slide back into a vision of gender as something individual actors choose how to do, while Butler works hard to maintain a vision of gender as something that makes us who we are in an ongoing way. Gender is not performed, it is performative. We must attribute a gender to someone in order to make sense of them as a human being. Only as gendered beings are persons ‘culturally intelligible’ (Butler, 1990: 16—17).Yet gender constitutes us without ever becoming part of us. As gender meanings are cited in many different ways and always changing, then our gender is never ‘fixed’.
Butler’s fluid view of gender suggests breaking down, ‘troubling’ (Butler, 1990), or ‘undoing’ (Butler, 2004) the binary categories ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. However, her attempts at this are not always thought successful, nor politically wise (Seidman, 1994). She suggests that gender is not fixed but does not seem to think it can be done away with (Jackson, 1998b). Is it really that radical to propose that ‘women’ and ‘men’ can behave in ways that upset gender norms? However, Butler can help us think further about something only hinted at in Goffman and West and Zimmerman: that gender is in some sense imposed, or done to us, but not in entirely predetermined ways. This is something I want briefly to consider in some final remarks on the tricky question of whether gender is something we do.