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A Doll’s House: Gender Performativity, Quest for Identity and Production Shifts Over Time


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Judith Butler’s Notion of Gender Performativity


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Gender and Performativity in Contemporary American Novel: A Butlerian Reading of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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2019, University of Kurdistan

One of the most challenging approaches toward literary works is the feminist approach. After three waves of feminism through the history of literary criticism, Judith Butler has introduced a new vision that is gender-based rather than sex-based. She has strongly influenced the domain of feminism and queer theories. In her preeminent book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Butler sharply criticizes the former feminists for their division of men and women into two distinct groups, the latter being the underdog and the former being the superior. Butler argues that gender is a cultural and social construct. One's gender is performative for one's actions determine and construct his/her gender identity. The present paper aims at investigating Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2012) in terms of Butlerian concepts of gender and performativity. The novel takes advantage of certain characters to depict the idea of gender, as performative. The current study explores the concept of gendered identity focusing on the characters of Amy Elliott Dunne, Margo Dunne, and Maureen Dunne. Further investigations of the characters, particularly Detective Rhonda Boney and Amy Elliott Dunne, illustrate the link between the concept of performativity and the novel.

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One of the most challenging approaches toward literary works is the feminist approach. After three waves of feminism through the history of literary criticism, Judith Butler has introduced a new vision that is gender-based rather than sex-based. She has strongly influenced the domain of feminism and queer theories. In her preeminent book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Butler sharply criticizes the former feminists for their division of men and women into two distinct groups, the latter being the underdog and the former being the superior. Butler argues that gender is a cultural and social construct. One’s gender is performative for one’s actions determine and construct his/her gender identity. The present paper aims at investigating Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) in terms of Butlerian concepts of gender and performativity. The novel takes advantage of certain characters to depict the idea of gender, as performative. The current study explores the concept of gendered identity focusing on the characters of Amy Elliott Dunne, Margo Dunne, and Maureen Dunne. Further investigations of the characters, particularly Detective Rhonda Boney and Amy Elliott Dunne, illustrate the link between the concept of performativity and the novel.

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This article attempts to respond to the fractional presence of feminist discourse around René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. First I briefly examine the relevant critical stands on mimesis, and then proceed to rehabilitate it for feminism via an analysis of Judith Butler’s theory of performative gender. By bringing together selected aspects of Girard and Butler’s work, it is possible to build a constructive dialogue between the two thinkers. Girard is concerned with giving an account of conflictual mimetic desire in social and cultural formation. I follow a slightly different direction and concentrate on non-acquisitive, peaceful mimesis in identity formation, particularly with regard to gender. What is more, I treat gender as a particular case of mimesis starting from an assumption that we perform gender as we perform mimesis. This acts as a kind of intellectual experiment that allows me to explore the complexities of the relationship between gender and mimetic desire. The theories of Butler and Girard can be productively read together in order to explore new ways of thinking about gender. I show that the “failure” in mimesis, that is the constant approximation to the perfect imitation, guarantees unrestricted differentiation in gender, for which Butler argues. This combination of Girard and Butler aims to open up Girardian theory to exchanges with feminism, queer and transgender studies. In the second part of this article I present a case study featuring Sigmund Freud’s masculine “little girl.” There I demonstrate how a Girardian reading solves theoretical problems that both Freud and Butler encounter in interpreting this masculine “little girl.” I argue that Girard’s theory of mimesis offers Butler new possibilities for thinking about gender and identification. My claim is that the psychoanalytical framework that Butler draws upon is the cause of theoretical impasses that she encounters and that Girard’s theory allows for overcoming these deadlocks.

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The title of this focus section points at a major innovation in contemporary British narratives. Whereas a "feminization of American cultural values" and the "ambivalence that constructs the contradictory nature of femininity in the [19-century literary] text" (Bhabha 1994, 5-6) have been debated at least since the publication of Ann Douglas's 1977 study The Feminization of American Culture, investigations of a similar development hardly ever appeared on the agenda of English Studies before 1990 and are still rare. For British Cultural Studies the issue was raised when the death and funeral of Princess Diana caused unequalled expressions of public mourning and by "[t]he general 'feminization' of British society that was deduced by some observers from the events in the autumn of 1997." It is the purpose of the present collection of essays to explore contemporary British novels with reference to the aspect of 'feminization,' and the ai...

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The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory

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28 Performativity and Performance

Moya Lloyd is Professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University.

  • Published: 09 July 2015
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This chapter explores the concepts of performativity and performance in feminist theory. It begins by examining the idea of gender performativity in the work of Judith Butler, tracing its development from her earliest writings through Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter , and showing how Butler’s initial argument draws from phenomenology and from performance studies (where acts are understood in theatrical terms). This is followed by a discussion of gender understood ethnomethodologically as a type of routine performance or form of “doing.” The second half of the chapter focuses on linguistic theories of performativity, derived from J. L. Austin and Jacques Derrida, and how they have been used by feminists, such as Catharine MacKinnon, Rae Langton, and Judith Butler, to illustrate pornography and hate speech. After a discussion of the performativity of pornography, the focus turns to citationality, resignification, and “talking back.”

In 1990, a book was published that changed feminist theory profoundly. The book was Gender Trouble , and its author was Judith Butler . The transformations it wrought on feminist understandings of the relationship between sex and gender centered on the effect of one of its central concepts. The concept in question was performativity or, more accurately, gender performativity , for performativity has a history that predates and exceeds the work of Butler . It originates initially in speech act theory, specifically, in the work of English philosopher J. L. Austin (1962) , where it is used to denote a specific kind of linguistic utterance: words that “do” things. It is this notion that words could do things—that communication is a type of action—that was to prove hugely influential both within and outside feminism, giving rise to one of the main fault lines dividing current theories of performativity—namely, that between those who treat performativity as a formal quality of language and those who construe it as a social, cultural, or corporeal practice. 1 In what follows, we will see examples of both strands of thinking at work in feminist theory.

Performativity is not the only analytical frame relevant to this chapter. The metaphor of performance has also been used widely to understand gender. There are at least two main, sometimes interrelated, traditions of performance theory that are relevant to feminist thinking. The first derives from performance studies broadly conceived and understands “acts” in dramatic or theatrical terms. The other found in (feminist) sociology, conceives of gender ethnomethodologically as a “performance or accomplishment achieved in everyday life” ( Brickell 2003 , 159). While there is some overlap in vocabulary, with, for instance, performance studies using performative as the adjective form of performance , and the theory of gender performativity referencing gender “performances,” conceptually, performance and performativity tend to connote different things, have distinct theoretical origins, and have diverse implications in relation to gender.

This article divides broadly into two parts. In the first, I examine how performativity and performance have been used to understand gender. In the second part, I focus on what might be termed linguistic performativity and how it has been taken up within feminism to understand pornography and hate speech. Since Gender Trouble is the pivotal text in feminist discussions of gender performativity, it is where I begin. Of necessity, this exploration will require us to examine some of Butler’s earlier writings, in which the traces of an alternative configuration of the performativity-performance nexus may be discerned. For although Butler is best known for her philosophically grounded understanding of performativity in Gender Trouble and beyond, her first forays into the field drew from feminist phenomenology and performance studies.

Gender Performativity

A common characteristic of Anglo-speaking feminism throughout the 1970s and 1980s was the effort to differentiate between sex and gender. As one classic formulation contended, “ ‘Sex’ is a biological term,” connoting “the differences between individuals that make them male and female,” while “ ‘gender’ is a psychological and cultural one” referencing the features ascribed to men and women ( Oakley [1972] 2005 , 7). From this perspective, sex was regarded as the fixed biological bedrock upon which culturally variable gender, masculinity, and femininity, was constructed. Feminists drew attention to the category of gender not in order to do away with or to replace the category of sex (see Nicholson 1994 ); rather, they stressed the difference between sex and gender in order to challenge both biological determinism, the idea that the differences between men and women are natural and cannot be changed, and the sexism they saw following from that position. Their diverse understandings of the relation between sex and gender aside, they proposed that the constructed nature of gender renders it contestable and perhaps even ultimately eliminable. Few of these feminists challenged, in fact most of them took for granted, the naturalness of sex. Indeed, many regarded the sexed body as the factor that united all women.

In Gender Trouble Butler interrogates this relation between sex and gender, and, in particular, seeks to show that sex is just as constructed as gender. Radically and controversially, in fact, Butler rejects the assumption that sexual difference is the foundation upon which gender is erected. Building on arguments derived from, among others, Michel Foucault (1978) , Adrienne Rich (1980) , and Monique Wittig (1981) , she conceptualizes gender as the “apparatus” that produces sexual difference ( Butler 1990 , 7). 2 It is in the context of her discussion of how subjects acquire gendered identities within the terms of what she calls the “heterosexual matrix” (34), or the “law of heterosexual coherence” (138), now generally described as heteronormativity, that Butler deploys the idea of performativity.

The concept of performativity, as noted, originally stems from the speech act theory of J. L. Austin. A revised and influential version was also developed by Jacques Derrida ([1972] 1988 ), whose idea of performativity as a quality of language emerges out of his critical reading of Austin. Although Butler will eventually draw explicitly from Derrida as well as engage with Austin, the idea of gender performativity has rather different beginnings. It arises initially out of Butler’s changing assessments of Simone de Beauvoir ’s idea that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” ([1949] 1983, 295; see Butler 1986   1988 , 1989 ; see Lloyd 2007 ), and so is part of Butler’s exploration of what she terms, in an article prior to the publication of Gender Trouble , a “politics of performative gender acts” (1988, 530).

Two claims of Beauvoir’s that Butler focuses on in these writings are relevant to our discussion. The first is that the body is not a “natural fact” but an “historical idea” that only gains meaning from being “signified within an historically specific discourse.” Butler reads this as implying that gender is an idea that the body assumes “ as if it were its natural form” (1989, 254: my emphasis). We might see in this reading of Beauvoir the first stirrings of Butler’s own view that sex is gendered. The second is the claim that one becomes a woman. It is in the process of investigating what this involves that Butler’s notion of gender performativity begins to take shape.

According to Butler, for Beauvoir gender is not “only a cultural construction imposed upon identity,” but to “become” a woman is also “a process of constructing ourselves.” Butler (1986 , 36) parses this as meaning that becoming a woman entails “a purposive and appropriative set of acts” leading to the assumption of a “certain corporeal style.” Or, as she puts it in a later piece, in words she will later use to describe her own theory, for Beauvoir gender is “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts ” (1988, 519; original emphasis; see also Butler 1990 , 140). Additionally, although the idea of self-construction might appear to imply both that we can shape our gender in any way we like and that we can become any gender we want, actually this is not the case, since, Butler notes, Beauvoir never envisaged any genders “beside ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ ” To Butler (1986 , 47), this suggests that Beauvoir understands gender as limited by the binary system men/women, a system that is a historical construct, not an “ontological necessity.” It is within the terms of this gender system that certain persons become women, a process that involves “interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos, and prescriptions” (40), a view Butler will later recast as a process of engagement with constraining gender norms, although she does not yet describe this mode of “enacting and re-enacting received gender norms” as performative (48).

The issue that concerns Butler is how Beauvoir conceives of “acts.” Butler (1988 , 519) takes Beauvoir to be adopting and recasting “the doctrine of constituting acts from the phenomenological tradition.” The problem with this tradition, Butler alleges, is that it relies on individualist assumptions, since it focuses on the particular subject enacting—becoming—their gender. From a feminist perspective, Butler charges, this approach risks overlooking the systemic nature of women’s oppression and neglecting the collective dimensions of gendered performances. To redress this deficiency, Butler (1988 , 519) turns to an alternative tradition of acts, “acting in the theatrical sense,” or performance.

Within the context of a theatrical performance, the staging of a play, for example, acts are a shared, collective experience encompassing actors and the audience; actors embody roles that are scripted and rehearsed; although scripts might be enacted in different ways by different actors, nevertheless those enactments are always constrained to some degree by the terms of the script. Butler suggests that thinking of gender as an act in this way. To consolidate her argument, she consults the work of social anthropologist Victor Turner. Butler (1988 , 526) derives from Turner the idea that human life as ritual social drama depends on the repetition of social performances, a repetition that is simultaneously “a reenactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established,” but one that also secures their legitimation. Butler conjectures that the same is true of gender; it, too, is a “ritualized, public performance” (1988, 526n9;: my emphasis), and not, as is often assumed, an individual expression of an inner gender identity. The effect of gender is produced by the repetition of particular bodily gestures, activities and movements, and these repeated gender performances are the mechanisms whereby the dualistic, heteronormative (or presumptively heterosexual) structure of sex and gender is perpetuated and an individual gender identity created.

Butler, at this stage, tethers her account of gender performativity to performance theory rather than to the linguistic philosophy of either Austin or Derrida (see also Loxley 2007 ). 3 When she suggests that gender reality is performative , “real only to the extent that it is performed” (1988, 527), she is contending that gender is “real” only insofar as it is sustained through repeated social performances understood theatrically or dramaturgically. 4 By the time Gender Trouble appears, however, Butler’s work has undergone a number of important modifications that bear on her discussion of gender performativity. Little remains of her initial reading of Beauvoir as some kind of performative theorist avant la lettre ; all explicit references to a phenomenological theory of constituting acts have disappeared in this text; and the only direct reference to Turner is hidden in a footnote ( Butler 1990 , 169n71). 5 Instead, much of the language used in her earlier discussion and many of the key assertions are now presented as features of Butler’s own account of gender performativity that, for example, gender is a form of “ritual social drama” (1990, 140; see also 1988, 526); that gender identity is an effect of the “ stylized repetition of acts ” rather than the expression of an inner core (1990, 140); that such acts are fundamentally somatic; and that it is the repetition of these acts that maintain compulsory heterosexuality. Nevertheless, there are some important changes.

The essence of Butler’s (1990) account of performativity in Gender Trouble is her claim that “gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed.” Indeed, she writes a little further on, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its result” (25). Instead of Turner or Beauvoir, Butler now iterates this notion by way of Nietzsche, specifically his claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming” (quoted in Butler 1990 , 25). Gender is performative, for Butler, in that it only exists in the “doing,” in the replication of the corporeal repertoire (actions, gestures, movements) that renders one masculine or feminine. This notion of gender performativity also has radical implications for how the subject is understood. Butler jettisons the conception of an autonomous agent able to implement his/her goals and projects at will; instead, it is the repeated doing of fleshly acts that constitutes the gendered subject as a gendered subject. In other words, for Butler, doing gender is not performed by an already fully fledged gendered subject who consciously directs his/her own activities. Doing gender is the means by which a gendered subject is produced.

The anti-essentialist account of subjectivity that follows from apprehending gender as performative also has implications for how agency is theorized. For Butler, it, too, inheres in the repetitions constituting the gendered subject, repetitions that generate the illusion of a stable gender identity. Calling on Esther Newton’s (1972) anthropological study of female impersonators, Mother Camp , Butler proposes that gender shares the same imitative structure as drag. All gender performances, she suggests, masculine or feminine, gay or straight, are a form of impersonation. It is just that some appear to be natural—namely, those in which sex, gender, and desire converge in the way determined by compulsory heterosexuality; that is, in which masculinity follows from a male body and femininity from a female body, and both issue in sexual desire for the opposite sex and gender. They appear that way because, by repeating specific gestures, actions, and movements, they reproduce a rough approximation of what idealized heterosexual gender is supposed to look like. By somehow exposing the artificiality of gender, as the drag artist does in “his” parody of femininity, it is possible to disclose the performative or constituted nature of gender. This is why in Gender Trouble   Butler (1990) argues that “the task is not whether to repeat” the practices constitutive of gender; it is “ how to repeat” so that “through a radical proliferation of gender” it is possible to “ displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” (148; first emphasis mine, second in the original).

Critics came out in force in response to Butler’s arguments. Some took her to be advocating a volitional politics ( Rothenberg and Valente 1997 ), often centered on the idea drawn from her discussion of drag and parody that, as Elspeth Probyn (1995 , 79) puts it, “we can have any whatever type of gender we want” and that “we wear our genders as drag.” (See also Martin 1992 ; Hawkes 1995 .) They read her, in other words, as suggesting that the individual performs gender in the same way that an actor takes on a role on the stage. Others took the opposite tack. They believed that the theory of gender performativity entailed a mode of determinism that meant subjects were inextricably caught in power relations they were unable to resist or transform ( Weir 1996 ). These reservations about the conception of agency that gender performativity apparently entailed also led to concerns about the view of the subject it seemed to imply ( Benhabib 1995 ; Assiter 1996 ).

In Bodies That Matter , Butler (1993) revisits the question of how political action to undermine gender norms is doable even when there is no “ ‘doer’ behind the deed” (1990, 25). She explicitly reorients her understanding of performativity by way of Derrida’s discussion of Austin. In contrast to the language-based forms championed by Austin and Derrida, Butler’s original innovation in relation to performativity was to see it as a form of a bodily enactment or style of the flesh—that is, as nonverbal (see Walker 2003 ). This was, as observed, an understanding of performativity partially indebted to a theatrical conception of acts. From Bodies That Matter , however, Butler’s account of performativity shifts course. It is now increasingly presented in linguistic terms.

In “Signature Event Context” ([1972] 1988) , Derrida takes issue with certain features of Austin’s account. After setting out the general conditions for successful, or what Austin (1962) , in How to Do Things with Words , calls “happy,” performatives, Derrida then sketches a distinction between serious and nonserious uses of language. It is this distinction that troubles Derrida. Nonserious uses, for Austin (1962 , 22), include words pronounced by an actor on a stage, for instance, or “in soliloquy.” Austin describes these words as “hollow or void,” as “ parasitic upon” ordinary speech, and as “ etiolations of language” (22, original emphases). Derrida ([1972] 1988 , 18) demurs: he sees them as no different from ordinary speech. Any performative utterance, whether on stage or in life, succeeds, he contends, only by repeating “a ‘coded’ or iterable utterance.” Its success depends, in other words, on its being a citation .

Taking her lead from Derrida, Butler proposes that both sex and gender are similarly citational. She thus writes, for example, that “the norm of sex only takes hold to the extent that it is ‘cited’ ” (1993, 13), as when, for instance, a doctor announces a child’s sex at its birth (7), and that femininity is the effect of “the forcible citation of a norm” (232); behavior is identifiable as feminine precisely because it reiterates—cites—the fleshly styles (acts, gestures, movements) that historically have come to signify femininity (wearing makeup, sitting with legs crossed, or, in a different cultural context, wearing a veil).

One particular consequence of this turn to Derrida for Butler’s argument is noteworthy in the light of her earlier work. It concerns the rejection of any linguistic distinction between “real life” and “the stage,” both of which for Derrida, contra Austin, rest on the same structure of citationality, a position Butler also accepts. The move to understanding “performativity as citationality,” as Butler now labels her discussion of performativity, has particular implications for its theatricality. She (1993) returns to the idea of an “act” to explain. Acts, understood from the perspective of performativity are not “singular,” “deliberate,” or freely chosen, and as such cannot be “simply equated with performance” understood dramaturgically (13, 225, 94). The “actions” constitutive of gender are, by contrast, reiterative actions, repetitive actions, actions that “echo […] prior actions” (227). Moreover, they are compulsory, enforced actions, involving “regularized and constrained repetition,” and the “embodying” of gender norms (95, 231). She continues that it is “in relation to such a compulsory citationality that the theatricality of gender is also to be explained” (232; my emphasis). It is not that all gender is dramaturgical or staged; it is not a role put on and taken off by a preexisting self or actor. A citation will appear to be theatrical, she now asserts, to the degree that it “ mimes and renders hyperbolic the discursive convention” by which it is governed (232; original emphasis), whether through a “hyperbolic ‘performance’ ” of death in ACT UP “die-ins,” or by a “hyperbolic display” of femininity at a drag ball or AIDS benefit (233).

Such hyperbolic gestures are important for Butler not only in terms of her exploration of the relation between performativity and theatricality; they are also important in respect of the possibilities for agential change. They offer an opportunity, she suggests, to work “ the weakness in the norm ” (1993, 237)—that is, to contest the terms of heteronormativity. Butler invokes a second aspect of Derrida’s argument here: that no sign is ever tied indelibly to any particular context but always has the capacity to split from one situation to be reiterated in any number of others, such that its meaning shifts in the process. Gender norms, Butler proposes, may be similarly “decontextualized” and resignified or reworked. Agency, for Butler, is thus not an inborn property of the individual. It is a possibility integral to the performative practice of citation that supports and maintains the regulatory force of gender norms. The critical potential of drag, though nothing can be guaranteed, rests on its ability to challenge the taken-for-granted nature of heterosexual performativity by demonstrating that “heterosexual regimes” are unable to “contain their own ideals” (237), as when, at its most simple, a (gay or straight) male “does” femininity.

While Butler is widely credited with introducing the idea that gender is a form of “doing,” and that gender might be conceptualized as a performance, in fact, she is not the first to make these claims. In the next section, I consider three thinkers whose work, although theoretically distinct from Butler’s, nevertheless anticipates Butler’s in a number of important ways.

Gender as Performance, Gender as “Doing”

According to Greg Smith (2011 , 125), the first person to introduce the concept of social performance to sociology was Erving Goffman (1959 , 1976 ). His ethnomethodological account was to have a significant influence in sociology in general, but also on the development of feminist sociology specifically (see West 1996 ; Deegan 2014 ). In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) , drawing on the metaphor of a theatrical performance (“life as theatre”), Goffman explores the ways in which social interactions are structured, concentrating on the “enacted and displayed aspects of our everyday ‘performances’ ” ( Smith 2011 , 137). The gist of Goffman’s argument is that the self is an effect of its “performances” to others. In social interactions, “interactants” will endeavor to manage their “impressions” so as to create the right effect on their “audience.” To convey what he means by this, Goffman talks of the “scripts” the actors use, of “belief in the part one is playing” (28), of “dramatic realization”—the capacity to “express … what he wishes to convey” (40)—of setting, “scenery,” and “stage props” (32), and so forth.

What concerns Goffman (1959 , 246) is not the “aspects of theatre that creep into everyday life” but “the structure of social encounters.” Although the individual is to some degree able to “manage” the impressions she/he is attempting to create by manipulating elements of the performance, by, for example, donning garb that makes the performance of a particular role more convincing, or by moving in the “right” way, she/he nevertheless does not have full freedom to act. Individuals are not able to stage performances just as they wish or to define situations in any way they please; rather, social conventions—or what he (1974) later called “frames”—exist within which those individual performances take place, including “shared vocabularies of body idiom” ( Goffman 1963 , 35; see also Lloyd, 1999 , 119–121; Brickell 2003 , 160; Smith 2011 , 138-140).

Although Goffman did not address questions of gender directly in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , he did in later work, where he posits what appears to be a social constructionist—or anti-essentialist—account of sex and gender. So, he argues, for instance, that arrangements between the sexes that seem to be an effect of natural biological differences between them—he uses segregated toilet facilities as an example—are, in fact, ways of “producing” sex difference (1977, 316) and that the placement of all infants into one or other “sex class” may be characterized as a form of sociological “sorting” (302–303). Goffman (1976) characterizes gender as a “behavioral style,” “stylization,” “ritual-like” display and as a mode of enactment. At times, the language used, together with his repudiation of the idea that there is an “underlying reality” to gender, or anything that “lies behind or underneath” expressions of femininity or masculinity (77)—is resonant of Butler’s later theory of gender performativity. At other points, however, Goffman’s argument clearly moves in a different direction from Butler’s, as, for example, when he talks of the “apparent optionality” (71) of gender displays or performances, a position that has the effect, according to one set of scholars, of “segregating gender display from the serious business of interaction” and of obscuring the ways that gender is an “ongoing activity embodied in everyday interaction” ( West and Zimmerman 1987 , 130).

It is to the account developed by Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987) , the scholars just alluded to, that I now want to turn. Dissatisfied with standard theorizations of the sex-gender relationship, in “Doing Gender” West and Zimmerman develop what they refer to as an “ethnomethodologically informed … understanding of gender as a routine, methodical and recurring accomplishment” (126); gender as a form of interactional or social “doing.” 6 Their thesis rests not on the standard dualistic sex/gender division familiar from feminism but on a tripartite classification that differentiates among “sex” (understood as “a determination made through the application of socially agreed upon biological criteria for classifying persons as females or males,” for example, chromosomes or genitalia); “sex category” (which is “established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the other category” but which allow claiming membership in the other sex category when the “sex criteria” are lacking, say, where a male might pass as female); and “gender” (“the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category” ( West and Zimmerman 1987 , 127).

From Goffman they draw the idea that gender is some form of “socially scripted dramatization” of idealized gender displays ( West and Zimmerman 1987 , 130). Concerned, however, about Goffman’s tendency to separate gender from interaction proper, West and Zimmerman treat “doing gender” as a continuous and inescapable feature of daily social interaction. In an argument that seems to prefigure Butler’s later discussion of drag as highlighting the constituted character of gender identity, the authors invoke Harold Garfinkel’s study of Agnes, a male-to-female transsexual, in order to explore the connections among sex, sex category, and gender. For West and Zimmerman, “Agnes’s case makes visible what culture has made invisible—the accomplishment of gender”—because to pass as female both before and after her surgery Agnes had through social intercourse to learn how to “do,” to perform , femininity (1987, 131).

Gender performance has a number of characteristics for West and Zimmerman. As noted, it is interactional. Further, because society is organized around sex difference “doing gender is unavoidable” (1987, 137). There is no time, that is, when we cannot do gender. Following Goffman, gender performance is also considered to be dependent on the construction of a series of “institutionalized frameworks” (137) through which so-called essential sex differences are produced and enacted. Moreover, in yet another move that seems to anticipate Butler’s contention that sex is an effect of gender, West and Zimmerman note that: “doing gender also renders the social arrangements based on sex category accountable as normal and natural, that is, legitimate ways of organizing social life” (146).

Finally, gender performance is “accountable.” By this they mean that it can be assessed in terms of whether or not a particular performance conforms to “normative conceptions of masculinity or femininity.” Every gender performance is “ at the risk of gender assessment ” by others ( West and Zimmerman 1987 , 136; original emphasis). When “we do gender appropriately,” we “sustain, reproduce, and legitimate the institutional arrangements” based on sex category. When, however, our gender performance is “inappropriate,” then, “we as individuals,” rather than the institutional arrangements within which we operate, “may be called to account” (146). All in all, “a person’s gender is not simply an aspect of what one is, but more fundamentally, it is something that one does , and does recurrently, in interaction with others” (140; original emphasis).

There is no published evidence that Butler had recourse to the work of West and Zimmerman; yet there are several parallels between their respective works: both see gender as a form of “doing”; both apparently consider gender to naturalize the idea of binary sex; and both note the connections between gender and compulsory heterosexuality, though Butler pursues this insight further. This has led one commentator to speculate that had West and Zimmerman been reading Austin “at the time, they might have called this [“Doing Gender”] an analysis of the performative character of gender” ( Connell 2009 , 105). But they did not. For all the similarities, however, there are important differences between them.

The theoretical frameworks from which they derive their ideas vary significantly. West and Zimmerman draw primarily from ethnomethodological sources, including, most notably, Goffman and Garfinkel but also the writings of Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna (1978) . By contrast, Butler works within a theoretical framework influenced by Continental philosophy, incorporating ideas from Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida, among others. Moreover, Butler has, more than once, differentiated her approach to gender from that of Goffman, on whose work West and Zimmerman expressly build, on the grounds that Goffman’s view of the self is opposed to hers. He, Butler suggests, operates according to some sort of “behaviorist model,” in which “ ‘expressions’ are said to construct or fashion a social self” (1995, 134; see also Butler 1988 ); whereas she is concerned with the way that the “interiority” of the subject is “a publically regulated and sanctioned form of essence fabrication” (1988, 528).

So far, we have concentrated on how the twin concepts of performativity and performance have been employed to understand gender, identifying two particularly important approaches: an account of gender performativity and an understanding of gender as a form of social performance or interactional doing. This has revealed some of the diverse ways in which performance has been understood—that is, both in theatrical and in ethnomethodological terms—and performativity theorized, both as a “gestural style” ( Sedgwick 2003 , 6) and, particularly in its deconstructive mode, in more strictly linguistic terms. I suggested at the outset that there are two principal ways in which performativity , specifically, has been relevant for feminist theory. The first, just covered, in terms of gender performativity; the second, in terms of the capacity of speech, broadly conceived, to harm, wound, degrade, or humiliate its addressees. Within feminism, discussion has centered primarily on pornography as a mode of speech that subordinates women. In the next section, I examine these feminist debates, starting with the work of Catharine MacKinnon. To set the context for the arguments that follow I return very briefly to Austin’s account of performative speech acts in How to Do Things with Words .

Performativity and Language

The focus for Austin is the pragmatics of speech, that is, language as action upon the world. In defining language as performative, Austin emphasizes that certain forms of speech perform the action they describe, as when we say “I bet” or “I promise.” Austin distinguishes three types of speech act, a distinction that will become particularly pertinent to feminist discussions. The three sorts of speech act are the locutionary , the illocutionary , and the perlocutionary . A locutionary utterance he defines as “the act of ‘saying something’ ” (1962, 94; my emphasis)—that is, making a meaningful statement. An illocutionary act entails “the performance of an act in saying something” (94; my emphasis), a saying that is simultaneously a doing (as in the two examples “I bet” and “I promise” previously given). Finally, a perlocutionary speech act is an utterance that “will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects” on others (101; my emphasis), where, in other words, an ensuing effect is produced by saying something (see also Langton 1993 ; Loxley 2007 ). For Austin, simply put, words perform actions and, as a result, a stark differentiation between speech and conduct is untenable.

The Performativity of Pornography

In Feminism Unmodified , MacKinnon (1987 , 130) puts forward the view that pornography is a “form of ‘speech’ ” that is also “a kind of act.” Elaborating in Only Words , she (1994) notes that pornography is “constructing and performative rather than merely referential or connotative” (15). Although MacKinnon (1994 , 86–87) develops her account independently of Austin, she acknowledges that, like him, she is advancing an account of “doing things with words” that undermines the dichotomy between speech and conduct. It is not the content of pornography that concerns her but what pornography enacts; not what it says but what it does. Pornography equates to “subordinating women through sex” (20). It is a form of “sexual abuse as speech” (7) that “violates women” (1987, 192); constructs “the social reality of gender, the force behind sexism, the subordination in gender inequality” (1987, 166); and “makes women into objects” (1987, 182). In short, it “makes the world a pornographic place” (1994, 17).

Pornography, for MacKinnon, is not, as it has conventionally been understood, a matter of obscenity, free speech, or morality. Akin to hate speech, it is rather a matter of social inequality, inequality that is “substantially created and enforced—that is done through words and images” (1994, 9; original emphasis). Pornography is a “constitutive practice” ( MacKinnon 1987 , 173) that produces gender inequality by constructing the abuses suffered by women (rape, battery, sexual harassment, and prostitution) as sex. It “sexualizes” these abuses and “thereby celebrates, promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes them.” In so doing, it constructs women “as what men want from sex” (171) and in the process “institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy.” 7 As such, pornography “eroticizes hierarchy … [and] sexualizes inequality” (172). MacKinnon’s contention, however, is that pornography does more than only subordinate women (as if that were not enough).

Drawing from the work of Andrea Dworkin, MacKinnon (1987) contends that it also silences them. As the “speech of men,” pornography stops women—subordinated by its texts and images—from speaking out, rendering their speech “impossible, and where possible, worthless” (209, 181). It does so, she speculates, by creating a hostile environment in which they are reluctant to protest the violence against them by, for example, reporting rape; when women do speak, pornography produces a context in which their words are often distrusted, and it silences them by evacuating meaning from their words, as when a woman’s no is taken to mean yes (see also West 2013 ). MacKinnon (1994) illustrates this by recounting the plight of Anita Hill. Hill alleged that then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her with inappropriate talk, including about pornographic films. Hill testified to this effect during Thomas’s Senate confirmation hearings, and MacKinnon reports that “much of the response was disbelief, the reaffirmation of the silence of ‘nothing happened.’ ” “When speech is sex” (44), women’s speech lacks the authority, plausibility, and influence of men’s speech.

In her paper “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” feminist philosopher Rae Langton (1993 , 299), responding to claims that MacKinnon’s argument is “philosophically incoherent,” sets out to assess whether the dual claim that pornography both subordinates women and silences them is philosophically defensible. First, Langton determines whether speech can, in fact, subordinate. Her answer is that it can, provided the speech in question fulfills three criteria: that it ranks a particular group of people as inferior, that it legitimates discriminatory behavior toward them, and that it unjustly deprives them of important powers. Langton considers what happens when a legislator in apartheid Pretoria utters the words “Blacks are not permitted to vote” (302). The effect, she observes, is to deny the right to vote to black South Africans and, thus, to subordinate them.

To count as a subordinating illocution, pornography needs to operate in the same way. It must have what Langton, invoking Austin, calls verdictive and exercitive force. For Austin (1962 , 151), verdictives (from verdict) involve giving an estimate, appraisal, or reckoning of some kind; they rank . Exercitives involve the “exercising of powers, rights, or influence,” described by Langton as “actions of ordering, permitting, prohibiting, authorizing, [and] enacting law;” they legitimate . As Langton (1993) understands them, exercitives also—and this will become relevant later on—“confer powers and rights on people, or deprive people of powers and rights” (304; my emphasis). For Langton, both exercitives and verdictives are “authoritative”—delivered by someone with the appropriate (formal or informal) authority, such as the legislator in Pretoria in her example. In Austinian parlance, this is one of their “felicity” conditions.

Langton (1993 , 307) concludes from her assessment of MacKinnon’s work that pornography is verdictive insofar as it “ranks women as sex objects.” Moreover, it is exercitive in that it “legitimates sexual violence” against women. In these senses, it subordinates. That is, pornography is an “ illocutionary act of subordination” (308; original emphasis). The issue is whether it constitutes authoritative speech. Langton asks, “Do its speakers have authority?” (311). The answer depends on whether or not pornography is believed to be the utterance of a powerless minority or fringe element of society, or whether, as MacKinnon proposes, “pornography’s voice is the voice of the ruling power” (311). Langton notes simply that this is a question that cannot be “settled from the philosopher’s armchair” since it is “empirical” (312, 329). Nevertheless, she concludes on the basis of her evaluation that pornography may indeed subordinate, and that therefore the claim is philosophically coherent.

What, though, of the contention that pornography silences women? “If speech is action,” Langton (1993) notes, “then silence is failure to act.” As she, rather than MacKinnon construes it, the issue here is whether pornography impedes women from “doing things with their words” (314). What primarily interests Langton are occasions of “illocutionary disablement,” when the right words are spoken, “with the appropriate intention,” but the speaker fails to perform the illocutionary act intended (315), when they are somehow prevented or disabled from doing so. If, she surmises, the ability to perform illocutionary acts is a feature of authority or power, then the inability to do so is indicative of a lack of authority or power. Does pornography render women’s speech acts “unspeakable”? MacKinnon suggests it does. For Langton, the question is, how? What happens to prevent a woman’s no from “achieving its intended purpose” (323)—that is, to refuse sex?

Langton (1993 , 324) interprets MacKinnon’s claim that pornography silences women to mean that the “ felicity conditions for women’s speech acts are set by the speech acts of pornography ” (original emphasis). The words of the pornographer, like the words of the legislator, are “words that set conditions” that determine the rules of the linguistic game and decide what kinds of speech is possible. If pornography works in this way, and again, Langton suggests this is only verifiable empirically, then it is authoritative in that it distributes certain linguistic rights and powers. It thus fulfills the third criterion: it is a class of illocution that deprives women of the ability to utter certain kinds of speech act. By silencing women, pornography also subordinates them. For Langton, the claim that pornography silences women is thus also philosophically defensible.

I want to return briefly to MacKinnon and to the political and legal solutions she has put forward to deal with pornography. As is well known in feminist and legal circles, MacKinnon, together with Andrea Dworkin, was involved in drafting a number of local antipornography civil rights ordinances in the United States, beginning in 1983. These ordinances defined pornography as “a form of discrimination on the basis of sex” that subordinates women “through pictures/and or words,” including in ways that dehumanize them or present them “as sexual objects” who “enjoy humiliation or pain” or experience “sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other sexual assault” ( MacKinnon 1987 , 262n1). The purpose of the legislation was not to criminalize the production, sale, or consumption of pornography; rather it was to allow women to sue for damages from pornographers for demonstrable harm done to them by pornographic material and to petition for a future ban on material proven to be harmful. (For a critique of the anti-pornography legislation, see Strossen 2000 .)

The fact that MacKinnon champions the legal regulation of pornography is often interpreted through the lens of the First Amendment to the US Constitution protecting free speech. 8 Some critics, most notably Ronald Dworkin (1985) , railed against this, suggesting that for the ordinance to censor pornography as it was proposed doing entailed a denial of free speech. Plenty of feminist ink has already been spilt rebutting Ronald Dworkin’s case (see Langton 1990 , 1993 ; Hornsby 1993 ; West 2003 by way of example), and I do not want to reprise that controversy here. I want, instead, to look at an alternative critique advanced by Judith Butler in Excitable Speech (1997) .

Hate Speech and the Politics of Performativity

One consequence of the line of reasoning presented by MacKinnon and supported by Langton (among others)—namely, that pornography silences women—is that in the current pornography-imbued climate, freedom of speech for women may be meaningless. The “purposes of the First Amendment, premised upon conditions presumed and promoted by free speech,” MacKinnon ([1985], 2009 , 309) writes, “do not pertain to women because they are not our condition.” This is a condition, she continues, in which the “free speech of men silences the free speech of women.” The standard defense of the First Amendment is that in a democratic society all viewpoints have the right to be expressed in the “free market place of ideas. ” Langton, building on MacKinnon, takes issue with this. Free speech, she (1993, 328) surmises, is not about ideas; freedom of speech is “good” when it “ enables people to act ” (original emphasis). If women are unable, as Austin put it, to “do things with words,” unable to act, then for Langton “that … is not free speech” (327).

In Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative , Butler (1997) engages the antipornography views of MacKinnon and Langton, as well as the critique of assaultive speech—or “words that wound”—proposed by a prominent group of critical race theorists. 9 She does not offer an orthodox free-speech defense of pornography, however. Instead, she draws her critique from the linguistic approaches of Austin and Derrida. There are several points of connection between Butler and her opponents—the stress on the performativity of language, its centrality to the construction of reality in inegalitarian and exclusionary ways, and the implied connections between language and subjectivity/identity—but they divide significantly over the best strategy for dealing with wounding words and subordinating speech. What is required to combat “hate speech” (broadly construed), Butler contends, is not its legal regulation but “talking back,” a strategy extrapolated from the idea that, structurally, speech and conduct are always dissociable.

Butler is interested in what it means to claim that language has the capacity to harm. What concerns her is the idea that pornography and hate speech, in and of themselves, directly and immediately enact the subordination of oppressed groups or persons. She sets out to demonstrate that contra the claims of MacKinnon and Matsuda et al., subordinating speech is perlocutionary rather than illocutionary. For Austin, the two were distinguished by the fact that they operated, as Butler puts it, according to different temporal logics: illocutions require the simultaneity of word and deed and perlocutions require only that an utterance bring about certain effects. Truncating a longer argument, Butler (1997 , 51) avers in Derridean fashion that for any performative to succeed (illocutionary or perlocutionary), it has to repeat or recite a “ prior and authoritative set of practices ” (original emphasis). Every speech act “exceeds the instance of its utterance” (3) and has a past, present, and future iterative context. Pornography and hate speech are no different. They are citational. They refer to “already existing discursive practices, to already circulating images and encoded trauma” ( Passavant and Dean 2001 , 377). So, although an individual illocutionary speech act might enact its effects as it is uttered, its force (its capacity for success) derives from its historicity, from its repetition over time.

Butler (1997 , 16) is also concerned about what she terms “the sovereign conceit” that she alleges is at work in the writings of MacKinnon and the critical race theorists. As she notes of the former, when MacKinnon contends that pornography subordinates women, she “engages a figure of the performative, a figure of sovereign power that governs how a speech act is said to act—as efficacious, unilateral, transitive, generative” (74). The allegation is that hate speech and pornography always attain their harmful, subordinating effects in ways that are, to borrow from Lisa Schwartzman (2002 , 423), “immediate and fully predictable.” Again, Butler disagrees: hate speech and pornography do not “always work” (19). In fact, they can sometimes take on a meaning unlike that intended by their speaker because of the “excitability” of language. In corroboration, she presses into service Austin’s differentiation between “felicitous” and “infelicitous” speech acts—that is, speech acts that succeed and those that, for various reasons, fail.

In How to Do Things with Words , Austin (1962) , lists a number of conditions that are necessary for happy performatives, as well as the different forms of “misfires” and “abuses” to which they may be prone. Infelicities happen for Austin when certain of the conventions that govern the performative are breached; for instance, when the person conducting a marriage service (the purser in Austin’s illustration) is legally ineligible to do so (16). Derrida understands this to mean that Austin construes the risk of performative failure as extrinsic to the utterances themselves when, as Derrida has it, it is intrinsic to language, “its internal and positive condition of possibility” ( Derrida [1972] 1988 ). Failure, in other words, is not circumstantial; it is structurally inherent in language as a feature of its iterability. By implication, any term can potentially be wrested from its context and made to connote differently. Butler concurs. This insight is important politically for her because she sees the failure of hate speech and pornography as performatives as the occasion for a critical response to them ( Butler 1997 , 19).

To explain how Butler allies these insights borrowed from Derrida with an interpretation of Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation (when “hailing”—or calling—someone constitutes the person as a subject) to suggest that noxious speech can be resignified. (Recall that MacKinnon thought that pornography was a means by which women were subjectivated.) Instead of identifying censorship as the solution to sexually and racially assaultive speech, Butler argues that egregious words can be appropriated and recited to counter their historical associations and that interlocutors to that speech can refuse its subordinating interpellations by, for instance, taking up a pernicious designation as a self-description. In this way, the damaging potential of hate speech and pornography can be defused. Changes in meaning of the term queer shed light on what she intends here. Once employed as an abusive term to stigmatize and shame those to whom it was addressed, restaged as “part of an affirmative practice” (Butler in Olson and Worsham 2000 , 759), it has become an expression celebrating and legitimizing homosexuality ( Butler 1993 ).

One important consequence that follows from Butler’s discussion concerns where the responsibility for hate speech and pornography lies. In rejecting a legal solution, Butler appears to reject the idea that individuals should be prosecuted for uttering wounding words on the twofold ground that to do so reduces the widespread structural and institutional dimensions of sexism and racism to individual acts of speech. And she ignores that any individual utterance is itself always already a recitation of existing racist or sexist language. Not surprisingly, some critics worry that Butler appears to be absolving those deploying hate speech and pornography of legal culpability ( Mills 2003 ).

Feminist theory operates throughout a range of different subject disciplines. The same is true of the discussions of performativity and performance outlined in this chapter. Butler’s theorization of gender as performative had a radical impact on feminist theory, in gender and sexuality studies and in queer theory, with its anti-essentialist characterization of the subject and its particular account of agency (indeed, in 2009 she defined performativity as an “account of agency” [i]‌). Indeed, Gender Trouble is routinely taken to be one of the originating texts of queer theory, and gender performativity, one of its inaugural ideas. 10 Moreover, gender performativity as a framework has been used as a lens through which to inform readings of diverse cultural texts, from the BBC television series The Office ( Tyler and Cohen 2007 ) to Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby ( Jones 1998 ) to explorations of transgender issues ( Chávez 2010 ) to theorizations of the performance of sexuality in geographical space ( Bell et al. 1994 ; Valentine 1996 ) to studies of gender practices at work ( Martin 2003 ) and to investigations of the relation between gender performativity and rape law ( Loizidou 1999 ), among many other things. This is not to suggest, of course, that everyone accepted or endorsed Butler’s approach. In fact, it has been and continues to be the subject of some controversy.

While its reach in terms of influence is perhaps not as great as Butler’s idea of gender performativity, West and Zimmerman’s proposal that gender is a form of “doing” nevertheless helped to shape the debates in feminist sociology and gender studies. Described as “groundbreaking” by Francine Deutsch (2007 , 106), “Doing Gender” was, in 2009, “the most cited article ever published in Gender & Society ” ( Jurik and Siemsen 2009 , 72). Echoes of West and Zimmerman’s work are discernible in studies of female-to-male transsexuals and transgendered persons ( Dozier 2005 ), explorations of the connections between “doing gender” and “doing heteronormativity,” when so-called gender normals interact with transgender people ( Schilt and Westbrook 2009 ), and investigations of the role of female surgeons ( Cassell 1997 ). There have also been, in response to the critical charge that “doing gender” is principally an account of gender conformity, attempts to extend their framework to the notion of “undoing gender” ( Deutsch 2007 ).

The importance of MacKinnon’s critique of pornography for feminism cannot be underestimated either. While some feminists rejected the argument that pornography subordinates women in the radical sense deployed by MacKinnon (see, for instance, Cornell 2000 ), and others challenged MacKinnon’s definition of pornography ( Strossen 2000 ), her view nevertheless helped to shift the discussion away from the conventional view that pornography offends to the position that pornography directly (performatively) harms, silences, and oppresses women. One of the most fecund developments in relation to MacKinnon’s writings was in the realm of feminist philosophy where numerous authors ( Hornsby 1993 ; Hornsby and Langton 1998 ; McGowan 2003 , 2005 ; Maitra 2009 ), including Langton (1990 , 1993 ), began to explore pornography through Austin’s speech act theory, 11 and some of the more recent texts are critically indebted to both MacKinnon and Langton.

It was, in part, the arguments put forth by these two authors that prompted Excitable Speech , which in turn sparked considerable debate in feminist and gender circles. Commentators challenged the accuracy of Butler’s readings of MacKinnon, Austin, et al., ( Jenkins 2001 ; Schwartzman 2002 ), and registered concern that Butler had underestimated the degree of difficulty of resignifying certain particularly entrenched forms of racial or gender slur ( Lloyd 2007 ). Additionally, questions were posed about why MacKinnon’s own discussion of pornography did not count as an example of resignification for Butler ( Jenkins 2001 ), and about whether Butler’s account either adequately addressed the “authority” of hate speech “in the empirical world” ( Schwartzman 2002 ) or the possibility of resistance ( Mills 2000 ).

Although much more could be said here about the significance of each individual approach, what ought to be clear is that exploration of the two concepts, performance and performativity, significantly transformed feminist theory’s apprehension of gender in ways that cannot now be undone.

For general discussion of the concept of performativity in philosophy, social and political theory, including the work of J. L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, see Loxley (2007) and Lloyd (2011) .

For further discussion of Butler’s account of sex and gender, see Lloyd (2007) .

In her 1988 article Butler also makes explicit reference to texts in performance studies by Bruce Wilshire, and Richard Schechner, as well as to Turner.

She does, however, recognize that there is a difference between theatrical performances of gender and gender performances in nontheatrical contexts, where the risks attaching to the performance may be much higher (see 1988, 527).

The index gives a second reference to Turner (allegedly on page 2); however, this appears to be a proofing error because there is no mention of Turner at that point in the text.

For West and Zimmerman, conventional understandings do not address the difficulties sometimes attendant on ascribing biological sex to a body or to the apparent fixity of gender from an early age. Additionally, they often do not recognize that the relation of biology to culture is more complex than often assumed.

MacKinnon’s discussion also extends to children, though for the purposes of this article I have focused on how it relates to women.

In fact her reference point is the Fourteenth Amendment—the equal protection amendment.

One of Butler’s targets is the volume Words That Wound , written by critical legal scholars Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1993) .

The other academic routinely identified as inaugurating the field of queer studies is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Sedgwick develops an idea of “queer performativity” out of the work of Austin and explores its operation in literary texts, including the work of Henry James (see, for example, Sedgwick 2003 ).

As we have seen MacKinnon understands pornography to be performative. But as noted, she does not deploy Austin’s technical vocabulary, such terms as “illocutionary” or “perlocutionary,” to do so; yet as Langton (1993 : 307) notes, her account rests on the use, in particular, of illocutionary verbs such as “promote,” “authorize,” “legitimate” to expose what pornography does.

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West, Caroline . 2003 . “ A Free Speech Argument against Pornography. ” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 33 (3): 391–422.

West, Caroline . 2013. “Pornography and Censorship.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2013 edition. Edward N. Zalta . ed. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/pornography-censorship/ (accessed October 13, 2014).

West, Candace , and Don H. Zimmerman . 1987 . “ Doing Gender. ” Gender & Society 1 (2): 125–151.

Wittig, Monique . 1981 . “ One Is Not Born a Woman. ” Feminist Issues 1 (2): 47–54.

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Judith Butler: their philosophy of gender explained

dissertation on gender performativity

Lecturer in Gender Studies, University of Adelaide

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It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, both for intellectuals and for queer communities. There are scholarly books, university courses, fan clubs, social media pages and comics dedicated to Butler’s thinking.

They (Butler’s preferred pronoun) did not single-handedly invent queer theory and today’s proliferation of gender identities, but their work is often credited with helping to make these developments possible.

In turn, political movements have often inspired Butler’s work. Butler served on the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission , spoke at the Occupy Wall Street protests, has defended Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns, and famously declined a Civil Courage Award in Berlin because of racist comments made by the organisers.

This has at times led to controversy. Some right-wing movements and religious figures who are attached to conservative gender roles have seen Butler as a threat to society. This is ironic, given Butler’s work has always maintained a commitment to justice, equality and non-violence.

Gender performativity

The most influential concept in Butler’s work is “gender performativity”. This theory has been refined across Butler’s work over several decades, but it is addressed most directly in Gender Trouble (1990), Bodies That Matter (1993) and Undoing Gender (2004).

In these works, Butler sets out to challenge “essentialist” understandings of gender: in other words, assumptions that masculinity and femininity are naturally or biologically given, that masculinity should be performed by male bodies and femininity by female bodies, and that these bodies naturally desire their “opposite”.

dissertation on gender performativity

Living in gay and lesbian communities, Butler had seen how even in feminist circles, these assumptions often resulted in unliveable lives for those who did not follow gendered expectations.

Butler therefore set out to challenge the way descriptions of current ways of performing masculinity and femininity are usually also taken to be values about the right way to do gender. Butler uses the concept of gender “norms” to describe this confusion of what “is” with what “should be”, a confusion that prevents us seeing other possible ways of life as legitimate, or even imagining such possibilities at all.

Instead, Butler proposes that gender is not biological, but “performative”. The term “performativity” does not simply mean performance. We can think of it in terms of the linguist J.L. Austin’s concept of the “performative utterance”, which refers to a statement that brings about that which it states. The classic example is “I now pronounce you man and wife”. Spoken by a person socially approved to do so, these words create a married couple.

Butler argues that gender works in this way: when we name a child as “girl” or “boy”, we participate in creating them as that very thing. By speaking of people (or ourselves) as “man” or “woman”, we are in the process creating and defining those categories.

Some gender theory distinguishes between biological “sex” and social “gender” , but Butler finds this counterproductive. For Butler, it makes no sense to talk about biological “sex” existing outside of its social meanings. If there is such a thing, we can’t encounter it, because we are born into a world that already has a particular understanding of gender, and that world then retrospectively tells us the meaning of our anatomy. We can’t know ourselves outside of those social meanings. In fact, much of Butler’s work reminds us we cannot fully know ourselves at all.

dissertation on gender performativity

At this point, Butler is often accused of thinking gender is entirely caused by language and has nothing to do with bodies, or that we can simply decide what gender to be when we wake up in the morning.

But this is not what they mean. Butler argues that we reproduce gender not only through repeated ways of speaking, but also of doing. We dress in certain ways, do certain exercises at the gym, use particular body language, visit particular kinds of medical specialists, and so on. Through such repetitions, gender is reinforced, layer by layer, until it seems inescapable.

However, this work of creating and redefining gender is never finished – for gender norms to hold, they must be constantly repeated. This means in the longer term, gender norms are intrinsically open to change. We can never get them exactly “right”, and if we stop doing them, or do them differently, we participate in changing their meaning. This opens up possibilities for gender to change.

These are not easy ways to think, because they challenge some of our most familiar assumptions about what a person is, what gender is, and how language works. This is one reason why Butler’s writing has been notorious for being “difficult”. But the popularity of their work shows there are many people who feel their lives are not adequately described by “common sense” ways of thinking.

Read more: Explainer: what does it mean to be 'cisgender'?

Grievable life, vulnerability and non-violence

Over the past 20 years, Butler’s writing has expanded beyond gender into other areas of political exclusion and oppression. An underlying theme across much of this more recent work is a concern about the ways some people are discounted as “human”.

dissertation on gender performativity

Butler summarises this through the concept of “grievable life”, which draws attention to the ways in which some lives are not publicly mourned, because they were never publicly acknowledged as being properly alive in the first place. For example, Butler points out that AIDS victims rarely receive obituaries in mainstream US newspapers, nor do prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, Black people killed by US police, or refugees and stateless people who die crossing borders.

These populations can be abandoned to unliveable, precarious lives and unnoticed deaths without any serious public accountability. In our contemporary globalised, neoliberal world, more and more people are living in such situations, without adequate social support, health care, sustainable environments or access to the public sphere. Butler calls this situation “precarity”.

Often this exclusion is justified through “frames of war”, which position certain groups of people as threats to “security”. To defend this security, it is tempting to violently impose precarity on others, as the US administration did after 9/11 in the “war on terror”.

dissertation on gender performativity

To counter such frames of war, Butler proposes an ethics of non-violence, based on the understanding that we become ourselves only in relation to others. This means that no life is fully secure, self-contained or independent. We cannot choose who shares the planet with us, and they can always hurt us. Ultimately, if we are to survive together, we must learn to acknowledge and live with mutual vulnerability, as challenging as that may be.

This may sound idealistic, but it is not an ethics that assumes people are “nice”. It starts from the proposition that they are not. Performing non-violence will always be ambivalent and difficult, especially in a violent world. But it is in our own interests to realise that our own capacity to live a “liveable life” depends on life-sustaining conditions that also allow others (human and non-human) to live.

Butler finds performative enactments of this approach in some collective protests, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, in which people from different backgrounds gathered to call for a more just and equitable world.

Butler reminds us that vulnerability is not all bad; it is what makes life possible. All bodies must be in some way open to the world and to others. They must be able to take in and give out: to eat, breathe, speak, be intimate. A body unable to do this could not be alive. Ultimately, Butler reminds us, often poetically, that to be fully ourselves, we need each other.

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Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

Feminism is said to be the movement to end women’s oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.

1.1 Biological determinism

1.2 gender terminology, 2.1 gender socialisation, 2.2 gender as feminine and masculine personality, 2.3 gender as feminine and masculine sexuality, 3.1.1 particularity argument, 3.1.2 normativity argument, 3.2 is sex classification solely a matter of biology, 3.3 are sex and gender distinct, 3.4 is the sex/gender distinction useful, 4.1.1 gendered social series, 4.1.2 resemblance nominalism, 4.2.1 social subordination and gender, 4.2.2 gender uniessentialism, 4.2.3 gender as positionality, 5. beyond the binary, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the sex/gender distinction..

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir ). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.

Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, a Time magazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that women’s thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women’s intuition’ is based on and impair women’s ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men’s corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).

In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person’s sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals’ sex and gender simply don’t match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Feminism should aim to create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).

In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin’s, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the ‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).

So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism for more on different ways to understand gender.)

2. Gender as socially constructed

One way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They are causally constructed (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are qua women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women’s subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.

Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24- hour old infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’ treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’ behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122–126). [ 1 ]

According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children’s books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TV’s Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers’ efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow’s approach differs in many ways from Freud’s.

Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from men’s well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others’ needs and interests.

Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women’s oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.

Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objects for satisfying men’s desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is constitutively constructed : in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are by definition hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined in terms of sexuality) would cease to exist.

So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men are naturally disposed to sexually objectify women or that women are naturally submissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find women’s subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions men’s sexuality so that they view women’s submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon’s thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to ‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending women’s subordinate status that stems from their gender.

3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction

3.1 is gender uniform.

The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender: gender realism . [ 2 ] That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men). All women are thought to differ from all men in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines women’s gender and what women as women share. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon’s view. Being sexually objectified is constitutive of being a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.

One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow’s view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).

Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon’s view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines women’s gender, for failing to take into account differences in women’s backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on one’s race and class. [ 3 ]

For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender realists’ mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that condition their gender as women thus supposing that “the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).

Betty Friedan’s (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism. [ 4 ] Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedan’s suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women’s lives — a mistake that was generated by Friedan’s failure to take women’s racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).

Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.

This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has definitively shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isn’t so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines women’s gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists’ gender to condition women’s gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that women qua women do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar [2011] for a discussion of Mikkola’s critique of Spelman.)

Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. They critique gender realism with their normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); they also hold that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler’s normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its political counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics ). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.

Butler’s normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelman’s particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler’s second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminism’s subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term ‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow’s view of gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that these are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not ‘really’ a member of women’s category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.

Butler’s second claim is based on their view that“[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler’s view is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out (what they call) ‘identity categories’. They seem to assume that ‘woman’ can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler’s view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).

In order to better understand Butler’s critique, consider their account of gender performativity. For them, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential properties qua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men, qua women and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons’ persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time as women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit in coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and police those who do not fit this conception.

These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999, 42). Gender cores are constructed as if they somehow naturally belong to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually desire the opposite sex or gender.

Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly assumed to be expressions of one’s gender as a woman. Butler denies this and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts ” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling one’s hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and ‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think of gender as something they naturally are . Gender only comes into being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does not express her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others) makes her gendered a woman.

The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification scheme is a strong pragmatic construction : social factors wholly determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that s/he is really a man who only appears to be a woman. Instead, males dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person’s gender is just as real or true as anyone else’s who is a ‘traditionally’ feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278). [ 5 ] Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering ways.

For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43). That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics” (Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.

Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.

Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18 th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)

Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn’t straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). Based on a meta-study of empirical medical research, she estimates that 1.7% of population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that intersex individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes: ‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes (Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of intersex people suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to think that humans are either female or male.

To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always considered herself to be female and was considered so by others. However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from competing in women’s sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño’s genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to not make her female. Intersex people, like Patiño, illustrate that our understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that are influenced by social factors.

Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex, feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically, intersex people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and males need not always go together and that individuals can have some mixture of these traits. This suggests to Stone that sex is a cluster concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex. But, one need not satisfy all of those features or some arbitrarily chosen supposedly necessary sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007, 44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersex people (along with trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).

More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes), other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. In a different vein, Ásta (2018) argues that sex is a conferred social property. This follows her more general conferralist framework to analyse all social properties: properties that are conferred by others thereby generating a social status that consists in contextually specific constraints and enablements on individual behaviour. The general schema for conferred properties is as follows (Ásta 2018, 8):

Conferred property: what property is conferred. Who: who the subjects are. What: what attitude, state, or action of the subjects matter. When: under what conditions the conferral takes place. Base property: what the subjects are attempting to track (consciously or not), if anything.

With being of a certain sex (e.g. male, female) in mind, Ásta holds that it is a conferred property that merely aims to track physical features. Hence sex is a social – or in fact, an institutional – property rather than a natural one. The schema for sex goes as follows (72):

Conferred property: being female, male. Who: legal authorities, drawing on the expert opinion of doctors, other medical personnel. What: “the recording of a sex in official documents ... The judgment of the doctors (and others) as to what sex role might be the most fitting, given the biological characteristics present.” When: at birth or after surgery/ hormonal treatment. Base property: “the aim is to track as many sex-stereotypical characteristics as possible, and doctors perform surgery in cases where that might help bring the physical characteristics more in line with the stereotype of male and female.”

This (among other things) offers a debunking analysis of sex: it may appear to be a natural property, but on the conferralist analysis is better understood as a conferred legal status. Ásta holds that gender too is a conferred property, but contra the discussion in the following section, she does not think that this collapses the distinction between sex and gender: sex and gender are differently conferred albeit both satisfying the general schema noted above. Nonetheless, on the conferralist framework what underlies both sex and gender is the idea of social construction as social significance: sex-stereotypical characteristics are taken to be socially significant context specifically, whereby they become the basis for conferring sex onto individuals and this brings with it various constraints and enablements on individuals and their behaviour. This fits object- and idea-constructions introduced above, although offers a different general framework to analyse the matter at hand.

In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed:

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)

(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also: Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack their view, consider the two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). Prima facie , this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would physical bodies. This is not Butler’s claim; rather, their position is that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1999, 11).

For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed : they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1). [ 6 ] When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts ). In effect, the doctor’s utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and that sex is as socially constructed as gender. They do not deny that physical bodies exist. But, they take our understanding of this existence to be a product of social conditioning: social conditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler’s views, see Salih 2002.)

For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again, this appears to be because of Butler’s general suspicion of classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male), then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist such construction.

However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we should make of Butler’s claim that sex “was always already gender” (1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex is gender but goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So, claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).

Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance) mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to justify women’s oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women (Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies, they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of each distinction is devalued (one’s bodily features are usually valued less that one’s mind, rationality is usually valued more than irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.

Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is something we can alter and change through individual choices. However, since women are said to be more closely associated with biological features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body, reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’ rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and reproductive features.

Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999, 6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one’s theory that tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).

Mikkola (2011) argues that the sex/gender distinction, which underlies views like Rubin’s and MacKinnon’s, has certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men should be feminism’s political goal. But this harbours ontologically undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give up the distinction on practical political grounds.

Tomas Bogardus (2020) has argued in an even more radical sense against the sex/gender distinction: as things stand, he holds, feminist philosophers have merely assumed and asserted that the distinction exists, instead of having offered good arguments for the distinction. In other words, feminist philosophers allegedly have yet to offer good reasons to think that ‘woman’ does not simply pick out adult human females. Alex Byrne (2020) argues in a similar vein: the term ‘woman’ does not pick out a social kind as feminist philosophers have “assumed”. Instead, “women are adult human females–nothing more, and nothing less” (2020, 3801). Byrne offers six considerations to ground this AHF (adult, human, female) conception.

  • It reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.
  • One would expect English to have a word that picks out the category adult human female, and ‘woman’ is the only candidate.
  • AHF explains how we sometimes know that an individual is a woman, despite knowing nothing else relevant about her other than the fact that she is an adult human female.
  • AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.
  • AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal.
  • AHF is supported by the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are often appropriately used as stylistic variants of each other, even in hyperintensional contexts.

Robin Dembroff (2021) responds to Byrne and highlights various problems with Byrne’s argument. First, framing: Byrne assumes from the start that gender terms like ‘woman’ have a single invariant meaning thereby failing to discuss the possibility of terms like ‘woman’ having multiple meanings – something that is a familiar claim made by feminist theorists from various disciplines. Moreover, Byrne (according to Dembroff) assumes without argument that there is a single, universal category of woman – again, something that has been extensively discussed and critiqued by feminist philosophers and theorists. Second, Byrne’s conception of the ‘dominant’ meaning of woman is said to be cherry-picked and it ignores a wealth of contexts outside of philosophy (like the media and the law) where ‘woman’ has a meaning other than AHF . Third, Byrne’s own distinction between biological and social categories fails to establish what he intended to establish: namely, that ‘woman’ picks out a biological rather than a social kind. Hence, Dembroff holds, Byrne’s case fails by its own lights. Byrne (2021) responds to Dembroff’s critique.

Others such as ‘gender critical feminists’ also hold views about the sex/gender distinction in a spirit similar to Bogardus and Byrne. For example, Holly Lawford-Smith (2021) takes the prevalent sex/gender distinction, where ‘female’/‘male’ are used as sex terms and ‘woman’/’man’ as gender terms, not to be helpful. Instead, she takes all of these to be sex terms and holds that (the norms of) femininity/masculinity refer to gender normativity. Because much of the gender critical feminists’ discussion that philosophers have engaged in has taken place in social media, public fora, and other sources outside academic philosophy, this entry will not focus on these discussions.

4. Women as a group

The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into question the viability of the category women . Feminism is the movement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women qua women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of the category women are successful, then what (if anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?

Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye 1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar 1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance, Young holds that accounts like Spelman’s reduce the category of women to a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is, wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse: for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman’s position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Ásta 2011; Frye 1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995, 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist — positions that deny there is something women qua women share and that seek to unify women’s social kind by appealing to something external to women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be something women qua women share (although these realist positions differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Below we will review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions. Before doing so, it is worth noting that not everyone is convinced that attempts to articulate an inclusive category of women can succeed or that worries about what it is to be a woman are in need of being resolved. Mikkola (2016) argues that feminist politics need not rely on overcoming (what she calls) the ‘gender controversy’: that feminists must settle the meaning of gender concepts and articulate a way to ground women’s social kind membership. As she sees it, disputes about ‘what it is to be a woman’ have become theoretically bankrupt and intractable, which has generated an analytical impasse that looks unsurpassable. Instead, Mikkola argues for giving up the quest, which in any case in her view poses no serious political obstacles.

Elizabeth Barnes (2020) responds to the need to offer an inclusive conception of gender somewhat differently, although she endorses the need for feminism to be inclusive particularly of trans people. Barnes holds that typically philosophical theories of gender aim to offer an account of what it is to be a woman (or man, genderqueer, etc.), where such an account is presumed to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman or an account of our gender terms’ extensions. But, she holds, it is a mistake to expect our theories of gender to do so. For Barnes, a project that offers a metaphysics of gender “should be understood as the project of theorizing what it is —if anything— about the social world that ultimately explains gender” (2020, 706). This project is not equivalent to one that aims to define gender terms or elucidate the application conditions for natural language gender terms though.

4.1 Gender nominalism

Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the category women intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals, projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she takes Spelman’s particularity argument to have established definitely that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000). Instead, women’s category is unified by certain practico-inert realities or the ways in which women’s lives and their actions are oriented around certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example, bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through women’s lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert objects and realities that position them as women .

Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance). Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces, clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women” (Young 1997, 32).

Although Young’s proposal purports to be a response to Spelman’s worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young’s view, something women as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together (Stone 2004).

Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified, feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282). Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women qua women do not share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes 2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price’s resemblance nominalism whereby x is a member of some type F only if x resembles some paradigm or exemplar of F sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).

Semantic considerations about the concept woman suggest to Stoljar that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, woman is a cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27). More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a) Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one’s sex or undertaking care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social, behavioural, psychological traits) and those termed ‘sex traits’. Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept woman applies to (at least some) trans persons, one can be a woman without being female (Stoljar 1995, 282).

The cluster concept woman does not, however, straightforwardly provide the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First, any individual who possesses a feature from at least three of the four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics, will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284). [ 7 ] Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently closely (on Price’s account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995, 284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.

4.2 Neo-gender realism

In a series of articles collected in her 2012 book, Sally Haslanger argues for a way to define the concept woman that is politically useful, serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows woman to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically, Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept woman (2000b; 2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first. Haslanger’s analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists should be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33). [ 8 ] Now, feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices (Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to identify, explain and talk about persistent social inequalities between males and females. Haslanger’s analysis of gender begins with the recognition that females and males differ in two respects: physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to “privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she understands genders:

S is a woman iff [by definition] S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.
S is a man iff [by definition] S is systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)

These are constitutive of being a woman and a man: what makes calling S a woman apt, is that S is oppressed on sex-marked grounds; what makes calling S a man apt, is that S is privileged on sex-marked grounds.

Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger’s definition. And, similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This might suggest that Haslanger’s analysis should be rejected in that it does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger’s, are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.

Note also that Haslanger’s proposal is eliminativist: gender justice would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist (although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a woman: since Haslanger defines woman in terms of subordination,

any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)

But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able to challenge subordination without having to challenge one’s status as a woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola [2016] too argues that Haslanger’s eliminativism is troublesome).

Theodore Bach holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable on other grounds, and that Haslanger’s position faces another more serious problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):

Representation problem : “if there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234). Commonality problems : (1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012, 235).

According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we should on political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of the genders men and women according to which they are natural kinds with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women make up a natural kind with a historical essence:

The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)

In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.

Not everyone agrees; Mikkola (2020) argues that Bach’s metaphysical picture has internal tensions that render it puzzling and that Bach’s metaphysics does not provide good responses to the commonality and presentation problems. The historically essentialist view also has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016, 2020] develops this line of critique in more detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins (2016) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of the analysis” (2013, 235).

Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins (2016) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view, Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”; another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins 2016, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into women’s social kind, who on Haslanger’s social class approach to gender would inappropriately have been excluded. (See Andler 2017 for the view that Jenkins’s purportedly inclusive conception of gender is still not fully inclusive. Jenkins 2018 responds to this charge and develops the notion of gender identity still further.)

In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that her ameliorative analysis of woman may not be as revisionary as it first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing, ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger 2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something utterly different from what we think it means; and we could be entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger’s analysis, then, has captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger’s gender terminology is not radically revisionist.

Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that the gender terminology we in fact employ is Haslanger’s proposed gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger, then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is non-revisionary.

Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to understand and articulate this. However, Witt’s work departs in important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which failed to take women’s differences into account. Further, uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in response to the problem of how we should conceive of women’s social kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who we are. [ 9 ]

Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all members of some kind have in common qua members of that kind. The latter asks: what makes an individual the individual it is. We can further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks: what makes an individual that individual? The latter, however, asks a slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals? What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt’s uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.) From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role: these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a collection of particles. Witt’s example is of a house: the essential house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is) unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a, 6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.

It is important to clarify the notions of gender and social individuality that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men’s socially mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering” (2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes persons (those who possess self-consciousness), human beings (those who are biologically human) and social individuals (those who occupy social positions synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity, social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19). Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness. However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic features that could not exist without a social world.

Witt’s gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to social individuals , not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, qua social individuals, we occupy multiple social positions at once and over time: we can be women, mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social individual is constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like being white , cube-shaped and sweet do not make for a sugar cube). For Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a man): it is

a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and determines all other social positions both synchronically and diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)

By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given one’s social position(s) and one’s social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do) conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a single social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.

Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt takes it to be the social role — as she puts it, it is the mega social role that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1) if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social roles differ depending on the agent’s gender, since gender imposes different social norms to govern the execution of the further social roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race — is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role. Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view. Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender essentialism not only explains social agents’ connectedness to their gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women’s agency — something that is central to feminist politics.

Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category of women is feminism’s starting point, but various critiques about gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as positionality whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes one’s social position to foster the development of specifically gendered identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:

Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body . (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in original)

The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female, although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006, 172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena that position women and men: it can be

the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the development of differential forms of embodiment experienced throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)

Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one’s lived experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered social identities: one’s role in reproduction helps configure how one is socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically gendered social identities.

Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, “there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8). Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference (understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour) provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of hindsight

we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff 2006, 175)

That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance, technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women’s specifically gendered social identities that are constituted by their context dependent positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.

Recently Robin Dembroff (2020) has argued that existing metaphysical accounts of gender fail to address non-binary gender identities. This generates two concerns. First, metaphysical accounts of gender (like the ones outlined in previous sections) are insufficient for capturing those who reject binary gender categorisation where people are either men or women. In so doing, these accounts are not satisfying as explanations of gender understood in a more expansive sense that goes beyond the binary. Second, the failure to understand non-binary gender identities contributes to a form of epistemic injustice called ‘hermeneutical injustice’: it feeds into a collective failure to comprehend and analyse concepts and practices that undergird non-binary classification schemes, thereby impeding on one’s ability to fully understand themselves. To overcome these problems, Dembroff suggests an account of genderqueer that they call ‘critical gender kind’:

a kind whose members collectively destabilize one or more elements of dominant gender ideology. Genderqueer, on my proposed model, is a category whose members collectively destabilize the binary axis, or the idea that the only possible genders are the exclusive and exhaustive kinds men and women. (2020, 2)

Note that Dembroff’s position is not to be confused with ‘gender critical feminist’ positions like those noted above, which are critical of the prevalent feminist focus on gender, as opposed to sex, kinds. Dembroff understands genderqueer as a gender kind, but one that is critical of dominant binary understandings of gender.

Dembroff identifies two modes of destabilising the gender binary: principled and existential. Principled destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ social or political commitments regarding gender norms, practices, and structures”, while existential destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ felt or desired gender roles, embodiment, and/or categorization” (2020, 13). These modes are not mutually exclusive, and they can help us understand the difference between allies and members of genderqueer kinds: “While both resist dominant gender ideology, members of [genderqueer] kinds resist (at least in part) due to felt or desired gender categorization that deviates from dominant expectations, norms, and assumptions” (2020, 14). These modes of destabilisation also enable us to formulate an understanding of non-critical gender kinds that binary understandings of women and men’s kinds exemplify. Dembroff defines these kinds as follows:

For a given kind X , X is a non-critical gender kind relative to a given society iff X ’s members collectively restabilize one or more elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society. (2020, 14)

Dembroff’s understanding of critical and non-critical gender kinds importantly makes gender kind membership something more and other than a mere psychological phenomenon. To engage in collectively destabilising or restabilising dominant gender normativity and ideology, we need more than mere attitudes or mental states – resisting or maintaining such normativity requires action as well. In so doing, Dembroff puts their position forward as an alternative to two existing internalist positions about gender. First, to Jennifer McKitrick’s (2015) view whereby gender is dispositional: in a context where someone is disposed to behave in ways that would be taken by others to be indicative of (e.g.) womanhood, the person has a woman’s gender identity. Second, to Jenkin’s (2016, 2018) position that takes an individual’s gender identity to be dependent on which gender-specific norms the person experiences as being relevant to them. On this view, someone is a woman if the person experiences norms associated with women to be relevant to the person in the particular social context that they are in. Neither of these positions well-captures non-binary identities, Dembroff argues, which motivates the account of genderqueer identities as critical gender kinds.

As Dembroff acknowledges, substantive philosophical work on non-binary gender identities is still developing. However, it is important to note that analytic philosophers are beginning to engage in gender metaphysics that goes beyond the binary.

This entry first looked at feminist objections to biological determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the entry looked at how a unified women’s category could be articulated for feminist political purposes. This illustrated that gender metaphysics — or what it is to be a woman or a man or a genderqueer person — is still very much a live issue. And although contemporary feminist philosophical debates have questioned some of the tenets and details of the original 1960s sex/gender distinction, most still hold onto the view that gender is about social factors and that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is still out on what the best, the most useful, or (even) the correct definition of gender is.

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Beauvoir, Simone de | feminist philosophy, approaches: intersections between analytic and continental philosophy | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on reproduction and the family | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on the self | homosexuality | identity politics | speech acts


I am very grateful to Tuukka Asplund, Jenny Saul, Alison Stone and Nancy Tuana for their extremely helpful and detailed comments when writing this entry.

Copyright © 2022 by Mari Mikkola < m . mikkola @ uva . nl >

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Dissertations / Theses on the topic 'Gender performativity theory'

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Nilsson, Nina. "Gender Performativity and Motherhood in Coraline." Thesis, Umeå universitet, Institutionen för språkstudier, 2019. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-160255.

Gorney, Allen. "TRULY AN AWESOME SPECTACLE": GENDER PERFORMATIVITY AND THE ALIENATION EFFECT IN ANGELS IN AMERICA." Master's thesis, University of Central Florida, 2005. http://digital.library.ucf.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ETD/id/2284.

Nolan, Marissa. "The Rhetoric of Queer: Subverting Heteronormative Social Institutions and Creating New Meaning." Digital Archive @ GSU, 2013. http://digitalarchive.gsu.edu/english_theses/149.

Hallihan, Mark. "The biological subject : reworking Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity through Henri Bergson's matter and memory." Thesis, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2015. http://e-space.mmu.ac.uk/582253/.

Brady, Anita, and n/a. "Constituting queer : performativity and commodity culture." University of Otago. Department of Communication Studies, 2008. http://adt.otago.ac.nz./public/adt-NZDU20080429.113540.

Kaur, Surinderpal. "Gender Subjectivities Online : Harnessing Performativity theory in conjunction with other theoretical and analytical approaches in exploring gender and sexuality in online discussion boards." Thesis, Lancaster University, 2007. http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.524753.

Laing, Morna. "The 'woman-child' in fashion photography, 1990-2015 : childlike femininities, performativity, and reception studies." Thesis, University of the Arts London, 2016. http://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/9818/.

Andersson, Martin. ""Who am I now?" Sense of Gender and Place in Digital Gameplay : Affective Dimensions of gameplay in XCOM: Enemy Within." Thesis, Karlstads universitet, Institutionen för sociala och psykologiska studier, 2016. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:kau:diva-43466.

Schmidt, Melanie. "Performativität." Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, 2017. http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:15-qucosa-220882.

Hemzaček, Kristina. "Which Gender Is Being Mainstreamed in Global Politics?" Thesis, Malmö universitet, Institutionen för globala politiska studier (GPS), 2021. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:mau:diva-43359.

Gieseler, Carly Michelle. "Performances of Gender and Sexuality in Extreme Sports Culture." Scholar Commons, 2012. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/4049.

Schmidt, Melanie. "Performativität." Universität Leipzig, 2013. https://ul.qucosa.de/id/qucosa%3A15425.

Templin, Lisa Marie. ""I'le Tell My Sorrowes Unto Heaven, My Curse to Hell": Cursing Women in Early Modern Drama." Thesis, Université d'Ottawa / University of Ottawa, 2014. http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31832.

Mållberg, Amanda. "Det revolutionära språket : En studie om hur normkritiskt språk potentiellt förändrar världen och ger diskursivt utrymme genom subversiva performativa handlingar." Thesis, Södertörns högskola, Genusvetenskap, 2020. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-41805.

Andreasson, Lisa, and Jönsson Johanna Olsson. "I am still unlearning it : A qualitative study of how Indian journalists perceive their reality from a gender perspective." Thesis, Linnéuniversitetet, Institutionen för medier och journalistik (MJ), 2016. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-52167.

Heinkel, Polly Lynn. "12th NITE…WHATEVER: QUEERING AND (RE) GENDERING SHAKESPEARE’S PERFORMATVE SPACES, PLACES, AND BODIES IN TWELFTH NIGHT OR WHAT YOU WILL." Miami University / OhioLINK, 2012. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=miami1352140404.

Warkander, Philip. ""This is all fake, this is all plastic, this is me" : An ethnographic study of the interrelations between style, sexuality and gender in contemporary Stockholm." Doctoral thesis, Stockholms universitet, Institutionen för mediestudier, 2013. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:su:diva-87967.

Adam, Zoé. "Praxis Queer : les corps queers comme sites de création et de résistance." Thesis, Lille 3, 2018. http://www.theses.fr/2018LIL3H034/document.

Weiss, Hillary Weiss. "Beyond the Binaries: Passing as Cisgender in Middlesex, Trumpet, and Redefining Realness." Bowling Green State University / OhioLINK, 2016. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=bgsu1463410881.

Engström, Paul. "What does it mean to be 'manly'? : A corpus analysis of masculinity in the 19thcentury." Thesis, Stockholms universitet, Engelska institutionen, 2014. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:su:diva-104648.

Howell, Danielle Marie. "Cloning the Ideal? Unpacking the Conflicting Ideologies and Cultural Anxieties in "Orphan Black"." Bowling Green State University / OhioLINK, 2016. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=bgsu1460059315.

Finch, Frank Frederick. "« L'illusion de l'amour n'est pas l'amour trouvé » : Camp and queer desire in Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and Peau d'âne." Thesis, Virginia Tech, 2020. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/100782.

Adrian, Stine. "Nye skabelsesberetninger om æg, sæd og embryoner : Et etnografisk studie af skabelser på sædbanker og fertilitetsklinikker." Doctoral thesis, Linköpings universitet, Filosofiska fakulteten, 2006. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-7543.

Bonnevier, Katarina. "Behind Straight Curtains : Towards a queer feminist theory of architecture." Doctoral thesis, Stockholm : School of Architecture, Royal Institute of Technology : Axl Books, 2007. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-4295.

Stricker, Emelie. "A new standard : Ett könsöverskridande modekoncept." Thesis, Högskolan i Borås, Akademin för textil, teknik och ekonomi, 2017. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:hb:diva-12757.

Lind, Emma. "Inspiratörerna, innovatörerna, rebellen och kvinnorna : Framställningen av manligt och kvinnligt i författaporträtt i läromedlet Svenska impulser 2." Thesis, Södertörns högskola, Svenska, 2021. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-45655.

Chatagnier, Juliane Camila. "Feminilidades e masculinidades : ressignificação e criação de novas identidades em romances contemporâneos /." Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/11449/152958.

Alshaie, Fouzi Salem. "Examining the Influence of Visual Culture on a Saudi Arabian Child's Drawings." Thesis, University of North Texas, 2017. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1062875/.

Hrbková, Martina. "Povědomí o genderu a jeho reprezentace v dílech Virginie Woolfové z pohledu současného feminismu a genderové teorie." Master's thesis, 2017. http://www.nusl.cz/ntk/nusl-369827.

Hradecká, Anna Marie. "Performance maskulinity v prostředí českého extrémního metalu." Master's thesis, 2019. http://www.nusl.cz/ntk/nusl-398730.

Chapman, Christopher Stephen. "Particularly Responsible: Everyday Ethical Navigation, Concrete Relationships, and Systemic Oppression." Thesis, 2012. http://hdl.handle.net/1807/32679.

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Didem Havlioğlu Delivers the 2024 Walter Andrews Memorial Lecture 

W.A. Lecture

- A report by Sergen Avci

Dr. Didem Havlioğlu, a literary historian and Associate Professor at Duke University who works on women and gender in the Islamicate world, gave a fascinating talk titled “Performance, Subversion, and Gender-Bending in Ottoman Poetry” on April 18th, 2024. With this talk, Dr. Havlioğlu contributed to the Walter G. Andrews Memorial Lecture Series hosted by the Turkish and Ottoman Studies Program in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. Her lecture delved into the intricate field of early modern Ottoman poetry, exploring concepts of gender, performativity, and marginality, with a particular focus on the woman poet Mihrî Hatun (c. 1515). Dr. Havlioğlu successfully illuminated the experience of being a woman poet in early modern Ottoman court culture, scrutinizing Mihrî Hatun’s poetry alongside narratives produced by male authors about her.


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  5. The Concept of Gender Performativity and its Role: [Essay Example], 961

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  1. Award Winning Woman's Group Dance Performance on #genderequality #womenempowerment #womansdayspecial

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  1. PDF A Doll's House: Gender Performativity, Quest for Identity and

    to undertake this thesis topic regarding A Doll's House and gender performance. I would like to acknowledge Tad Davies for helping me develop a concrete thesis proposal. I would like to acknowledge Talaya Adrienne Delaney for her support through the thesis pre-work process. I would like to acknowledge Claudio Insenga, my dad, for being an ...

  2. A Doll's House: Gender Performativity, Quest for Identity and

    Abstract. This work details how Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House reveals social constructs, gender relations, and collective identity struggles. Ibsen depicts the awakening and liberation of Nora Helmer from her confined, domestic role as a housewife. Nora becomes a symbol for the women in nineteenth century bourgeois society who were ...

  3. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in ...

    The feminist appropriation of the phenomenological theory of constitution might employ the notion of an act in a richly ambiguous sense. If the personal is a category. which expands to include the wider political and social structures, then the acts of the gendered subject would be similarly expansive.

  4. PDF Judith Butler 's Notion of Gender Performativity

    gender is performative. What does Butler (1999, 2004, 2011) mean when she uses the term gender performativity and to what extent does her view of gender being performative leave room for gender as astable identity? In this thesisI argue that Butler's notion of gender performativity implies that that gender identity is unstable.

  5. PDF On Judith Butler and Performativity

    choice of gender style. The idea of performativity is introduced in the first chapter of Gender Trouble when Butler states that "gender proves to be performance— that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed" (GT ...

  6. Full article: The emerging intersectional performative gender of

    The interplay of intersectionality and gender performativity. Intersectionality is a theoretical and methodological approach that helps researchers to understand the multiple, multi-sited and interlayered realities and social inequalities as a gendered experience (Crenshaw Citation 1991; Yuval-Davis 2006; Shields Citation 2008).Gender does not operate independently from other identities.

  7. Gender performativity

    The notion of performativity in gender studies was introduced primarily through the work of philosopher Judith Butler (1956-), but the under-lying presuppositions performativity makes about the nature of gender as a social category have been very influential in language and gender research as well as in philosophy. The publication of Butler's

  8. Judith Butler's Notion of Gender Performativity

    In this thesis I argue that Butler's notion of gender performativity implies that that gender identity is unstable. However, since Butler responds to criticism with the explanation that gender performativity does not oppose all identity claims and all gender assignments, there could be some room for gender as a stable identity. It is commonly ...

  9. (PDF) Gender and Performativity in Contemporary American Novel: A

    This dissertation proposes to explore the ways in which the literary device of genderfuck is used to deconstruct gender and associated concepts. ... performance is stable and already determined. It is worth noting that in gender performativity we do not choose to do and perform, on the contrary we do it by repetition. Establishing one's ...

  10. Performativity and Performance

    Abstract. This chapter explores the concepts of performativity and performance in feminist theory. It begins by examining the idea of gender performativity in the work of Judith Butler, tracing its development from her earliest writings through Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, and showing how Butler's initial argument draws from phenomenology and from performance studies (where acts ...

  11. Gender performativity

    The performative quality of gender and sexuality is distinct from gendered and sexualized performance. If a performance is something controlled and possibly characterized by a degree of artifice, performativity is talking about something completely different. To say that gender is performative is simply to say that how we understand gender, and ...

  12. Judith Butler: their philosophy of gender explained

    Spoken by a person socially approved to do so, these words create a married couple. Butler argues that gender works in this way: when we name a child as "girl" or "boy", we participate in ...

  13. PDF Performing Female Identities: Gender Performativity in Charlotte Brontë

    1 Introduction This thesis will look at identity and gender as various performative acts in Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette (1853). Performance and acting, or theatricality1 in general, permeates the whole text of Villette, both on-stage and off-stage, and this thesis will firstly have a closer look at the connection between acting and gender performance and secondly what role, if any,

  14. A Performative-Performance Analytical Approach:

    Judith Butler's theory of performativity provides gender theorists with a rich theoretical language for thinking about gender. Despite this, Butlerian theory is difficult to apply, as Butler does not provide guidance on actual analysis of language use in context. ... (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Rhodes University, South Africa ...

  15. Judith Butler on performativity and precarity: exploratory thoughts on

    We turn to the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler for insight into how gender performativity (acting and actions restricted by gender norms) affects identity and thus individual agency. ... His doctoral dissertation is on consumer aspirations and luxury brand management in India. Log in via your institution.

  16. PDF Gender performativity in South African films with reference to Leon

    appears to be very little written on comedy and gender, specifically in a South African context. Judith Butler's performativity theory forms the methodological foundation of analysis of the representation of gender in Schuster's films. In addition, visual textual and constant

  17. A Study of Gender Performativity in Virginia Woolf's Orlando ...

    Abstract. The present paper aims at concentrating on Judith Butler's theory of gender as performance and how Virginia Woolf challenges the assumptions of heterosexuality in Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1992). Woolf rebels against the traditional view of gender as two separate categories by presenting Orlando as an androgynous and bisexual ...

  18. PDF Department of Culture and Literature Gender Performativity in The

    Gender Performativity in The Handmaid ... This thesis will contain a critical analysis of gender and relationships in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Collins's The Hunger Games and will explore the different ways in which the critique of essentialism is present in both novels' treatment of gender. I will focus

  19. Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

    In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed: ... AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.

  20. Performativity, Subjectivity, and Gender­ An Inquiry into the

    employed are: performativity, subjectivity and gender. The dissertation seeks to read Muriel at Metropolitan (Tlali 1994) as a performative act, that is, a discursive event which re-enacts the practice of fictional writing and thereby extends (and possibly changes) the convention of creative writing. If it is true that

  21. What is Judith Butler's Theory of Gender Performativity?

    The theory of gender performativity was introduced by feminist philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 text Gender Trouble . For Butler, and for queer theory more broadly, gender is what you do, not who you are. Rather than viewing gender as something natural or internal, Butler roots gender in outward signs and actions.

  22. Constructing the Perfect Girlfriend: Gender, Class, Race

    Dissertation Approval. The Graduate College The University of Nevada, Las Vegas August 27, 2021 This dissertation prepared by Christina Parreira entitled Constructing the Perfect Girlfriend: Gender, Class, Race & Performativity of Paid Intimacy in Nevada Brothels is approved in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

  23. Dissertations / Theses: 'Gender performativity theory'

    List of dissertations / theses on the topic 'Gender performativity theory'. Scholarly publications with full text pdf download. Related research topic ideas. Bibliography; Subscribe; ... Dissertations / Theses on the topic 'Gender performativity theory' To see the other types of publications on this topic, follow the link: Gender performativity ...

  24. Didem Havlioğlu Delivers the 2024 Walter Andrews Memorial Lecture

    -A report by Sergen Avci. Dr. Didem Havlioğlu, a literary historian and Associate Professor at Duke University who works on women and gender in the Islamicate world, gave a fascinating talk titled "Performance, Subversion, and Gender-Bending in Ottoman Poetry" on April 18th, 2024.