Performativity: Draft of 3W Encyclopedia Entry
Explain performativity to a high school / undergraduate / general public audience, and do it within a 750-word limit. It's harder than it sounds, I'll tell you what! I tried to pack everything in: a definition and history of performativity, critiques of it, and political strategies stemming from it. I'm sure I mucked it up real good. :o
PERFORMATIVITY. Performativity is the idea that gender is a daily, habitual, learned act based on cultural norms of femininity and masculinity. The idea comes from the work of Judith Butler, who was influenced by theorists who studied “speech acts,” or the power of authoritative words to both say and do at the same time. One example is, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” According to Butler, gender works in much the same way. As girls, many of us learn countless subtle ways to groom and arrange our bodies to be feminine and attain approval as “normal” in a culture that puts people into one category: man or woman. For example, girls internalize stereotypically feminine acts such as wearing dresses and makeup, shaving one’s underarms and legs, sitting with legs crossed, and playing with dolls (which, it could be argued depending on the kind of play, is a preparation for the adult woman's traditional gender role of raising children). Women and men continually “cite” these gender norms in their day-to-day behavior, usually without realizing it. Even the simple act of filling out a form and circling the “Mr.” prefix is a performance of gender. Most often, gender is among the first things one notices about another person, and that is not so much a result of biological differences as it is a result of these stylizations of the body and habits of mind supplied by cultural norms. Such norms are oppressive because a person’s social legitimacy and normalcy is dependent on conforming to one of the two genders.
Ever since the 1970s, feminists have insisted upon the difference between sex and gender. In 1975, Gayle Rubin argued that a predominately heterosexual society that institutionalizes sexuality in marriage and the family unit needs two – and only two – genders, and a causal relationship does not exist between sex and gender; in other words, one’s sex does not determine one’s gender. Butler extends the sex/gender distinction by saying that neither gender nor sex is completely natural; they are only naturalized through repetition and people's belief in the correct performance of their designated sex and gender: their designated term in the man/woman binary. Butler claims that there is no authentic, innate man or woman behind or before the entry into culture, society, and language.
Some theorists have critiqued performativity as a concept that can be misinterpreted as a simple putting on or taking off of genders: Today I’ll perform as a man, tomorrow as a woman. That performativity is based on cultural norms, however, makes it much more complex; consider, for example, the act of cross-dressing. If a teenager goes to school in drag, he or she will likely get beaten, harassed, or at least laughed at. Others have argued that performativity reduces the importance of the physical body. However, we can only know the body through language and culture, and that what we interpret as sex is an effect of the discourse surrounding gender. Most people assume that while a person can claim to be a man or a woman, the person’s sex is a fixed, objective reality, but in the case of an infant with ambiguous genitalia, we see how powerfully gender norms act upon the body. Sometimes, it is hard to discern whether an infant has a large clitoris or a small penis. In order to protect the child from ridicule, doctors and parents will often opt to surgically alter the genitals into a more feminine shape.
Butler points out that there are several ways to expose and undermine gender norms, including creating many new genders, making fun of gender through parody, and rejecting being categorized as either “man” or “woman.” We can see many genders in transgender and genderqueer discourse, including Stone Butches, Baby Butches, Daddies, Cowboys, Masters, Boy Scouts, Dandies, Princes, Knights, and Tranny Bois. Genderqueers, drag queens, and drag kings also play with gender by embodying caricatures of extreme masculinity or femininity. The androgynous 1980s Saturday Night Live character “Pat” is an example of what Butler calls resisting “cultural intelligibility.” In sketches, everybody asks Pat questions, trying to tease out which of the two genders Pat is. All the questions are parodies of gender stereotypes: they ask Pat if he or she wants a drink: “Would you like a beer or a cosmopolitan?” Pat always resists interpretation, saying, "Oh, I shouldn't. I just took an antihistamine." Although many feminist theorists, including transgender theorists and activists, see parody, the rejection of gender categories, the proliferation of genders as potent political strategies, other theorists critique this, arguing instead that performative political strategies aestheticize “gender expression” at the expense of correcting social inequities that harm women.
References / Suggested Reading
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998: 722-30.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 1.1 (1998): 1-19.
Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998: 533-60.
Snitow, Ann. “A Gender Diary.” Conflicts in Feminism. Ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990: 9-43.