One aspect of critical theory that is overlooked, even by prominent academics, is queer theory, gender studies, and philosophical feminism. Judith Butler is a philosopher whose work intersects with each of these different areas in the 20th century.
Her best-known work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, continues the notion that gender is socially constructed, critiquing the conventional notions of gender and sexuality that she views as perpetuating traditional patriarchal values. She extends this further by explaining it as a justification for the oppression of homosexuals and transgender persons. By stating that gender is socially constructed, she means that gender is constituted by action and speech in which their behavior is the forefront of their identity.
In Gender Trouble, she argues that “gender is always a doing, though not a dong by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed.” By this, Butler means that individuals do not choose their gender, nor can they change them by simply behaving in a certain manner. Controversially, Butler states that sex, i.e. being biologically male or female, is to some degree a performative social construct. It’s performatively constructed, representing an arbitrary distinction and then later reinforced through speech acts such as “it’s a girl!”. This is the problem with our modern culture in Butler’s views in that these repeated performances of this distinction are the imposition of a sexual norm that sustains heterosexual values, crowding out differential perspectives.
These concepts of queer theory become connected to Butler’s opinion on much of the feminist political theory that had become dominant at the time. Butler asserts that the normative concept of the “woman” is an exclusionary construct that “achieves stability and coherence only in the context of the heterosexual matrix.” Wow! That might seem like a whole lot of word salad. Let’s break it down a little further. By this, she means that when we attempt to define how we understand what a “woman” is, there will inevitably be a gray area in which subjects who might identity with “woman” don’t fit the concepts and boundaries that we have pre-defined, which disproportionately falls on those who don’t fit traditional sexual norms.
Thus, Butler is suspicious of conventional political activism that claims to represent or protect women’s rights and interests. Butler instead wants to push towards destabilizing the category of “woman”, suggesting that this will help expose the artificiality of conventional gender roles and the arbitrariness of traditional correspondences between gender, sex, and sexuality. The most obvious parody of this “gender parody” comes about through cross-dressing, especially drag according to Butler.
To learn more about Butler’s work, watch some of these videos below!