What does it mean that gender is performative?
Judith Butler: It’s one thing to say that gender is performed, and that’s a little different from saying that gender is performative. When we say gender is performed, we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role. We’re acting in some way, and that our acting, or our roleplaying, is crucial to the gender that we are and the gender that we present to the world. To say gender is performative is a little different, because for something to be performative that means that it produces a series of affects. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.
Butler: You know, I was walking down the street in Berkley when I’d just arrived several years ago, and a young woman who was, I think, in high school, leaned out of her window and she yelled “Are you a lesbian?” And, and she was looking to harass me, and maybe she was just freaked out or she thought I looked like I probably was one and she wanted to know. But instead I just turned around and I said “Yes, I am.” And that really shocked her.
Butler: We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality, or something that’s simply true about us, a fact about us. Actually, it’s a phenomenon that’s being produced all the time and reproduced all the time. So to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start. I know it’s controversial, but that’s my claim.
How should this notion of gender performativity change the way we look at gender?
Butler: Think about how difficult it is for sissy boys, or how difficult it is for tomboys to function socially without being bullied or without being teased or without sometimes suffering threats of violence, or without their parents intervening to say “Maybe you need a psychiatrist” or “Why can’t you be normal.” So, you know there are institutional powers, like psychiatric normalization, and there are informal kinds of practices like bullying which try to keep us in our gendered place.
Butler: There’s a real question for me about how such gender norms get established and policed, and what the best way is to disrupt them and to overcome the police function. It’s my view that gender is culturally formed, but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom. It’s most important to resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender-different, who are non-conforming in their gender presentation.