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Judith Butler

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Judith Butler in 2013

Judith Butler (born February 24, 1956) is an American philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is the Maxine Elliott professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Enormously influential in the fields of feminist studies and Queer Theory, Judith Butler is most famous for her work on gender, and specifically for her theory of 'performativity' – which has been described as "perhaps the single most important concept for the institutional recognition of queer thinking".[1]

Gender and Performativity

In Gender Trouble[2], Butler first outlined her theory of gender-as-performance and gender 'performativity', which she subsequently developed in subsequent texts, including Bodies That Matter and Undoing Gender.

Butler rejects essentialist-biological understandings of gender as being a somehow 'natural' or 'inevitable' characteristic. Influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, and adopting the notion of 'performativity' from Jacques Derrida, Butler proposes that we understand gender not as a thing or as a set of free-floating attributes, not as an essence, but rather as a 'doing': "gender is itself a kind of becoming or activity... gender ought not to be conceived as a noun or a substantial thing or a static cultural maker, but rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort". Gender is not simply 'performed', however, but the acts which constitute it are reiterated throughout time, and reinforced through discursive practices.[3]

Butler's notion of the 'performative' therefore "moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality. Significantly, if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief." [4]


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There are two main strands of criticism of Butler's work. The first focuses on her reliance on psychoanalytic theory, and her "neo-Freudian account of mourning and melancholia."[5] The second, linked, criticism concerns Butler's understanding of subjectivity, and more specifically, her belief that subjection cannot be avoided.

For Butler, the queer is not radically outside or beyond recognition and selfhood; it is that which makes a claim to be heard as human – within the norms of speech, gender, the polity and the symbolic – at the same time as it perverts the normative matrix. Even when writing in later works of the intersubjectivity of subjectivity[6], Butler's theory thus conceived still "allows for the (albeit problematic) maintenance of identity politics; for the assertion of oneself as this or that subject demanding recognition is both necessary for the social system at the same times as it introduces a necessary dynamism of the system."[7]

What is required is a movement beyond all identity and any notion of a unified subjectivity (howsoever constituted). Fortunately, post-Butlerian Queer Theory is moving in this direction, influenced by the radical thought of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.


Butler's work on gender has been widely influential throughout the social sciences, particularly in terms of generating institutional recognition of the fluidity of categories ("male", "female") previously understood as fixed and unalterable. This movement towards breaking down identities (gender, age, sexualities) and creating new possibilities for connections between bodies will be crucial for the acceptance in academic circles of the fundamentally flawed conceptualizations of "adult-child sex" and "the pedophile".

Further Reading

  • Judith Butler, 'Quandaries of the Incest Taboo', in Undoing Gender (Routledge: New York, 2004), pp. 152-161.
  • Judith Butler. (2011). 'Sexual Consent: Some Thoughts on Psychoanalysis and Law', in Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 3-27.[8]


  1. Tuhkanenin, Mikko, in Nigianni & Storr (eds), Deleuze and Queer Theory (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
  2. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990)
  3. Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex' (Routledge, 1993)
  4. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble, op. cit.
  5. Morland and O'Brien, quoted in O'Rourke, Michael, "Queer Theory's Loss and the Work of Mourning Jacques Derrida", Rhizomes 11/12 - Fall 2005/Spring 2006 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue11/index.html
  6. Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2004) 'to be a subject, we are always already that subject for another, so that the very basis of subjectivity is that we are somehow always constituted as/by being "beside oneself" '
  7. Colebrook, Claire, in Nigianni & Storr (eds), Deleuze and Queer Theory (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
  8. File:Judith Butler - 2011 - Sexual Consent - Psychoanalysis and Law.pdf (internal link). This paper is based on a paper presented in 2011, which was filmed and has been archived here and here.