This post was originally posted here

I recently saw a 3 minute video entitled “Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender”, wherein Judith Butler summarises the notion of ‘gender performativity’. It’s possibly her most famous contribution to feminist academia:

There are remnants of a good working definition of Gender here that most of us broadly agree with: Gender is socially constructed rather than innately wired, and is rigidly enforced by the world at large. My problem is with the invocation of ‘performativity’ to explain the simple concept that our behaviours create our social reality. I have just a few small remarks on this.

JL Austin was a philosopher of language, whose area of interest was Pragmatics. In very broad terms, this is the study of how we use language as social, communicative beings. Among other contributions, he identified a special group of verbs he named “performatives” – verbs like ‘bet’, ‘promise’, ‘sentence’ and ‘declare’. These verbs do something and change the social reality simply by virtue of having been uttered. For example: when I say “I bet you a tenner”, I’ve done the bet just by saying it. The same goes for when a friend says “I promise not to tell”, or when a judge says “I sentence you to 10 years in prison”. For obvious contrast, if I sit on the floor and say “I am running”, I’m still not actually running. I’m just saying that I am. (Regardless of what I say at any point in time, it’s a pretty sure bet that I’m not running).

By exporting this concept and applying it to Gender, it seems to me that Butler has done two things. The first is actually a departure from the postmodern idea that language is the principal lens through which we understand phenomena in the world (and as such can be used in the interests of power). With gender performativity, this notion has been expanded into treating other social phenomena in the world as if they are the same thing as language. I won’t comment more on this, other than to suggest that it’s a category error; language is entailed in the set of all social behaviours, not the other way around.

The second, related consequence of this application is that Butler has framed Gender not in terms of a cultural system into which we are conditioned, but as a thing that we do. Moreover, as a thing that we can electively do in the same way as making a bet. By treating Gender in the same way as performative verbs, the stifling norms of Gender simultaneously (and confusingly) become “a domain of freedom and agency”. This treatment elides the reality that Gender is in fact a set of cultural products we internalise through our social learning from birth. Gender socialisation shapes and constrains who we are in a very real way, whether we like it or not. Even oppositional displays of “playing with Gender” have been necessitated by the constraint of imposed Gender in the first place.There is no opt out.

One new feature that results from this redefinition of Gender is that effeminate behaviours exhibited by people outwith the female sex caste are now treated as though they are the same thing. I think this is an unhelpful conflation. The perpetuation of observed ‘feminine’ behaviours by individuals outside the conditioned caste (i.e. females), such as the behavioural effeminacy exhibited by some gay men, is perceptually and experientially distinct from the process by which females acquire their Gender Role. Indeed, it’s in part perceptually distinct precisely because it is not being exhibited by caste members. Such instances can be accounted for without recourse to any notion of ‘performativity’, and certainly without redefining Gender itself. They require a power-based, caste analysis.

Reducing Gender to the realm of moment-to-moment occurrences makes structural analysis of power differentials very difficult. It’s also unnecessary for making the point that gender is socially constructed. The simple point (and it is a shockingly simple point) that behaviours create our social reality does not require the misapplied invocation of ‘performativity’, nor the redefinition of Gender. It requires an analysis of where these behaviours come from and what they are for. The extent to which more elective performances reinforce and fuel the conditioned status quo would perhaps be a more interesting question to ask here, if any.

Your behaviour does not create “your Gender”. Gender creates your behaviour. And that’s kind of the whole problem.