Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Transgender Critique of Butler's Notion of Gender

This essay is a response to the the following question raised here:

I think I might grasp what you're alluding to here -- especially with regard to the social dimension of gender, and the interaction between biochemical input and gender realization -- but I'd very much like to hear what I assume will be your much more articulate assessment of what the Butlerian gender model leaves out.

I draw my understanding of Butler's view of gender primarily from her book "Gender Trouble" (available as an e-book), and "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution". (and yes, I have read her more recent book "Undoing Gender" as well)

In Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, Butler argues as follows:

Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.
(* an aside - this will not be a detailed dissection of Butler's paper *)

This is significant to me because it foreshadows Butler's view of gender as primarily existing as a social construct, to some extent influenced by biology.

Significantly, if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief. If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.

There is a surprising irony in Butler's position. On the one hand, she dances around the concept of Gender Identity as having an individual reality, and then settles in a place where she ultimately ends up rejecting the concept, subsuming it under the social and biological aspects of gender.

Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.

The problem I have with Butler's model is that it fails to successfully encompass a few key aspects of cross-gender (and in particular transsexual narratives).

First, there is a common dimension to many transsexual narratives (not all, but enough to be significant) that includes an awareness of being "built wrong" from an exceedingly early age - often before any socialization or 'gendered behaviour' is evident.

Second, is the dyssonance that transsexuals express with regard to their lives in their pre-transition gender roles. If gender were solely a matter of social construct informed by physical biology to some degree, it becomes extremely difficult to square the model with the expressed dyssonance. In Butler's model, there is no room for dyssonance. In some respects, Butler appears to try addressing the issue as one of 'discontinuity', but she fails to appreciate that while a transsexual's pre-transition identity may be externally continuous, that is not the internal experience.

Third is the situation of David Reimer. I do not claim that Reimer was a transsexual - such was unquestionably not the case, but his case is important and revealing of some key aspects of transsexual narrative.

It is very significant that when John was being raised as Brenda, he fought against being treated as a girl at every turn. Physically, and to the best of his knowledge, John had always been Brenda - and yet refused to be Brenda - not just in respect to social aspects of gender, but was also horrified by what puberty would bring. (artificially induced or not)

From a transsexual's perspective, Reimer's narrative is undeniably consistent with the 'built wrong' narrative so common among the transsexual population. There is no doubt in my mind that this should be seen as independently validating the notion that gender identity may exist and is not fully informed by either social or physical cues. (as an aside, I suspect that where there are some interesting phenotype variations that are being identified among transsexuals in more recent years.

If, as Butler proposes, gender is defined primarily in the context of social and physical cues, then one might imagine that the John Reimer story would have had a much different outcome. As it is, eventually Brenda learned the truth of her history and chose quite consciously to transition to living as John. A train of events that substantially calls into question a model of gender which is based solely upon social and physical factors. (* Butler attempts to address John Reimer's story in Undoing Gender, however my reading of her on that matter leads me to believe that she fails to understand some key aspects of the situation. *)

Similarly, I do not believe that Butler's model explains the dissonance that so many transsexuals describe as overwhelming their pre-transition lives. Butler's model suggests strongly that if one's body is physically of one gender, and the social signals received are consistent with that gender, then everything should be good, right? So why is that transsexuals so consistently report something dramatically different? Further, why is it that therapists have found that transsexuals are generally not responsive to the kinds of corrective therapy techniques that work well in other situations where cognitive dissonance is reported?

Where I fundamentally disagree with Butler is in her rejection of the notion of an abstract, but essential attribute of 'gender identity' as distinct from our physical and social gender behaviours. The problem that Butler's model faces is in the narratives of thousands of transsexuals - and those narratives reveal a significant incompleteness which leads many radical feminist thinkers to engage in tactics such as erasure in order to sustain the perceived validity of Butler's model in the dimensions where it has greater strengths - namely in the understanding of the socially constructed aspects of gender.


Natacha said...

This post represents my thinking entirely. However it is not just transsexuals feelings of being internally wrong which has precipitated this idea. The fact that most transgender people become aware of their different gender identity at a very young age, strongly suggests that socialisation cannot be a cause of gender identity. There is something much more fundamental about it.

Whilst it may be that Gender Roles are socially determined to a very large extent, maybe we need to appropriate the notion of "essentialism" in terms of Gender Identity and recognise that this can include trans people. Trans people are simply part of the natural range of human diversity.

In a sense, our views of gender up to now have been Structuralist, with an imposed binary structure which, once deconstructed, is woefully inadequate to explain all aspects of gender. It would appear that this Structuralism is still apparent in Butler's work, despite being thought of as a Poststructuralist. It is this adherence to the binary gender which has led to attempts at erasure by some feminists, of inconvenient genders.

MgS said...


I fundamentally agree with you. I wrote with a focus on the language of transsexuality rather than transgender simply to give myself a degree of consistency in terms of articulating my position in a finite amount of space.

I believe that what I have written applies broadly to the transgender spectrum, however that is a much more complex terrain to describe adequately.

Zoe Brain said...

"I am normal : you are not. My Ideology trumps your experience."

It's classic cis-gendered privilege, where those who are not of an oppressed minority arrogantly dictate to that minority what they must be.

Just as the Patriarchy used to define what femininity must mean, and to have that definition accepted because they were in positions of power. They were thus able to ignore and demean what women were saying about themselves.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle,

I find your reading of Butler quite profound, as in highlighting the trans narratives of dissonance neglected by her framework, you quite clearly demonstrate how dissonance as a whole is missing from this presentation of gender.

Namely, if gender is learned performance, how on earth do we end up with feminists? If the sole driving forces for gender creation are social inputs and sex-based biochemical facts, surely all women should have adopted the learned gender prescribed in performance by society as a whole?

Or is this something perhaps more in keeping with my inner perception of gender (namely, that I have none)? Is gender a suit people wear or struggle with depending on what their core, human selves feel about the restrictions that suit brings with it?

This isn't to deny the inner truths of others -- namely, that they have inner genders/gender roles -- but to bring to bear the one problem ascribed to the noumenological truth approach to gender identity: practical application.

If we define gender as something wherein the only essential truth is an inner one, how is it that we still come up with only four possible outcomes: male, female, intersex/trans (the way some trans persons refer to themselves as both), or neither?

The very narrowness of these options, predicated on the two existing, oppressive gender frameworks, are very curious to me. If our inner truths are not joined with biochemical or social cues, why are they so narrowly defined?

Furthermore, I've been wondering about setting policy on the basis of inner truth alone. With transsexuals I expect this is easier: It's an inner truth made manifest in external modification. But what of transgendered people who don't take that route? Where is the phenomenological manifestation of their inner gender identity? If a very masculine-looking sex-male self-identifies as a lesbian woman, what -- save that self-identity -- makes that person different (and deserving of different treatment, different inclusivity) phenomenologically from a heterosexual sex-male, gender-male?

This last has recently been the subject of extreme commentary, with some exceedingly reactionary rhetoric I don't buy into, but the core of the argument still strikes me as having no easy resolution. This gets especially more complicated when transableism is brought into the picture: I don't know what your thoughts are on this community, but at the very least I think they utilize the language of both feminist and trans activist discourse in a way that highlights limitations therein. If self-identity is the sole guaranteed factor of transgender identification, then it equally becomes permissible to have an inner identity that matches with, say, an amputated leg or a sensory disability. Similarly, the feminist language of oppression, especially with regard to the mental illness argument for transgendered persons, is thrown back in feminism's face when applied to transableism: If we argue that transableism is a very clearly unhealthy manifestation of body dysphoria, the community is able to challenge a double standard for not thinking the same of transsexuality.

It's a bizarre paradigm we operate in -- one which clearly needs better definitions and operating principles than those we presently have. Everyone may self-identify as they choose, but how do we guarantee fair access to different spaces on the basis of self-identity alone?

Lot of thoughts churned up by your lovely post here; thanks in advance for the opportunity to respond!

All the best,


MgS said...


Is gender a suit people wear or struggle with depending on what their core, human selves feel about the restrictions that suit brings with it?

Referring back to my previous post on the matter, I think I would argue that what you are describing here is primarily focused along the social axis of gender.

I will point out that a lot of transsexuals live quite "successfully" in their birth gender role for extended periods of time, which does suggest that the social (outward facing) aspects of gender can be substituted as required by circumstances.

If our inner truths are not joined with biochemical or social cues, why are they so narrowly defined?

Largely because our understanding of gender beyond the male/female binary is still fairly new. Harry Benjamin started his research in the 1940s, so we have a little over 7 decades of material to draw from. The notion of gender (or sexuality) as occurring on a spectrum is fairly recent, and not necessarily well understood outside of the treatment and research communities that deal with gender and sexuality. (I discuss the notion of a spectrum in more detail in the essay series starting here (It's an older essay of mine, written during some of the SSM debate here in Canada)

Furthermore, I've been wondering about setting policy on the basis of inner truth alone.

I agree. Establishing public policy on the basis of "inner truths" is extremely difficult, and potentially fraught with both theoretical and real dangers.

I suspect that before truly effective public policy can be made in such matters that some significant shifts of public understanding need to take place. (for example, normalizing the breadth and depth of human sexual identities which has been happening since the 1960s with the decriminalization of homosexuality in several countries)

The subsequent question has to be whether or not specific policy is required in various situations. For example, someone who has a trans identity, but chooses not to express it may not experience the kinds of oppressive behaviours for being trans that a transsexual who is living full-time will encounter. Is there a need for public policy in such a situation?

I think that with gender and sexual minorities in particular, the need is to get beyond the "we are a people too" suffragette-echoing discussions. Until the public understanding of gender and sexuality is less absolute, it will remain an uphill battle. It is ironic that feminism (at least in the form that Butler, Bindel et al advocate) is one of the key sources of problems for gender minorities.

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