Fashion Theory: Judith Butler

Part 5 of a 6-part series on aspects of fashion theory, specifically cultural studies and object analysis. Written partly to reassure myself that I do understand the concepts and partly to help clarify things for others, this post is based on notes I took during a lecture at London College of Fashion by Dr Agnès Rocamora
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The final lecture in the Approaches to Contemporary Fashion unit that I studied last term was about Judith Butler (1956-), a philosopher most commonly associated with queer theory. In this context, queer is that which is not “fixed” – it is the things that lie “between”.

Female artist Casey Legler models for Ford Men

Butler questions existing categories of identity and looks at all the categories which are excluded from discourse, exploring the power relations between people talking about gender/sexuality. In her book Gender Trouble, she explores the spaces of resistance to dominant discourses. How can we go beyond the boundaries imposed on us by discourse? She also explores the concept of agency.

Butler says that identity is always a fluid process that is forever unfolding. Therefore, identity is never about “being” or “becoming”, because it is never fixed – it is a “doing”. It is widely believed that gender is a cultural construction which is shaped by discursive forces (and also by the self), but Butler also argues that biological sex isn’t outside discourse. After all, a baby’s sex is announced straight away – sex is always part of a discourse of power relations.

The use of a biological characteristic of a human being is another way to empower some and disempower others. Assigning masculinity to male and femininity to female allows no space for otherness. What if you are neither… or both? Butler also argues that using the category “woman” excludes the idea of difference. It’s too normative and too constraining.

Andreja Pejic by Damon Baker
Image via Models.com

In Gender Trouble, Butler looks at the performativity of masculinity/femininity and makes a distinction between performative act and performance. Performance refers to acting – playing someone else – as you return to yourself when you leave the stage. The term performativity is preferred as we are always acting – there is no true self or “original” being. In this sense, all gender is like drag, because of its performativity. Butler sees drag as a critical engagement with gender. As a parody, it exposes the ideas behind masculinity and femininity. It’s a reverse discourse.

Without guidance, it would seem it is very easy to misunderstand Butler’s work. There were some excellent comments on Suzanne Moore’s recent Guardian article, where she uses the fact that she’s read some of Judith Butler’s work to explain why she couldn’t possibly be transphobic. Commenter Pollystyrene explains things a little more clearly:

I wish people would read Butler before coming out with stuff like: “And the theory was Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Leo Bersani and those guys. Gender, we thought, was just a performance, a social construct, though no one ever explained why we are compelled to repeat the same performance over and over.”

If you understood Judith Butler at all Suzanne, you would realise that she argues gender is not ‘just a performance’ but performative. IE you do not have free choice as to which gender you are expected to perform – hence anyone who displays gendered behaviour at odds with their perceived biological sex is heavily penalised in most societies.

‘Gender trouble’ is actually an examination of whether lesbians fit into the category ‘woman’ and whether ‘conventional’ feminism enforces compulsory heterosexuality as a result.

Judith Butler is almost impossible to read, so maybe that’s the explanation for why so many don’t bother. Bodies that matter is actually a tiny bit more accessible and explains the idea better. But please stop just lazily repeating things.

Butler also made the point that ‘subverting’ gender isn’t as easy as everyone seems to think, and that the chapter on drag at the end of gender trouble was wrongly seized on as a way to destroy gender by simply subverting it. Since we can see that post Bowie this is very much the case (I remember a couple of years back the amazing idea that men might wear make up being posited, which caused hollow laughter amongst most of us over 40) and Bowie basically reverted to Mr Normal married dad, I think she had a very good point.

UPDATE: If this is all a bit tricky to understand, why not check out Judith Butler Explained With Cats over at BINARY THIS. Another extremely useful resource is the TransAdvocate interview with Judith Butler, where she discusses the trans experience and how the concept of gender perfomativity has been misconstrued by some.