Gender Performativity in Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino". The Social Constructions of Identity

Seminar Paper, 2021

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity

3. Critique of Judith Butler’s theory

4. Gran Torino Synopsis

5. Gran Torino and gender performativity

6. Conclusion

7. Sources

7.1. Literature
7.2. Film
7.3. Online

1. Introduction

“Death is often a bittersweet occasion to us Catholics. Bitter in the pain. Sweet in the salvatio n“

- Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalsky

In 2008, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino opened to a huge audience and large ticket sales worldwide, convincing critics and audiences on several levels. Gran Torino was perceived as Eastwood’s résumé, a movie reflecting his own career as an actor and director of iconic western and cop movies. Movies about men taking things in their own hand when moral authorities like church and state fail. Eastwood, an outspoken conservative, always told and retold the myths of American folklore, that can easily be interpreted as outright reactionary. In the Dirty Harry movies for example, we see him playing a cop who deeply doubts the functionality of a liberal America and subsequently takes justice in his own hands, enforcing a „law and order“-policy beyond the applicable law. Often operating along and beyond the borders of the law, his characters were morally ambiguous to the point of being villanously brutal, often leaving interpretive rooms of doubt concerning Eastwood’s exact political beliefs. In a sense, this aspect can be interpreted as the overarching mission of his oeuvre, telling stories about the unsettled borders of being an American man following his callings.

In the confines of his movies’ narration, Eastwood’s portrayal of men and what it tells the viewer about how a man has to behave, remained unreflected for most of his career. His iconic depictions of tough male characters could in a sense be interpreted as some of the only resilient entities navigating through uncertain, everchanging America. In Gran Torino, at the age of 78, we find Eastwood patrolling a new found border: He tackles and questions the concept of masculinity, that defined his career. Walt Kowalsky, the protagonist of Gran Torino, is an old, bitter version of dirty Harry who mostly wants to spend the rest of his life drinking, smoking and shouting racial slurs at his Hmong neighbors. As he unexpectedly finds a friend in Thao, the son of the Hmong family next door, Walt tries to pass down his idea of being a man to him. In the process of doing that, some almost parodist scenes are presented to the viewer showing the crisis conservative concepts of masculinity seemingly find themselves in. In a sense, Gran Torino shows deconstructive approaches when it comes to Eastwood’s concepts of masculinity, at times in line with the gender performativity theory by Judith Butler. In a very interesting way, we find Eastwood’s very conservative values in a fruitful conflict with postmodernist identity theory.

To examine, how Gran Torino mirrors the discourse on gender identity and how it shows a conservative take on a masculinity crisis, this paper will analyze the movie based on popular positions concerning the topic. The following chapters will sum up Judith Butler’s theory on gender performativity and go into a fruitful counterposition by Slavoj Žižek, that will later be applied to the implications we find in the movie. To get an idea of contemporary conservative thoughts on the topic, some positions of the popular psychologist Jordan Peterson will be presented. With Gran Torino walking the line between very progressive and very conservative statements, it’s analysis can be seminal tin pointing out the indefinite differences, but also in uncovering common ground that might be hidden between hardened fronts.

2. Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity

In her book „Gender Trouble“, Judith Butler developes her idea of gender identity as being performatively constructed through societal practices. On the fundamental basis of her argument, she challenges the distinction between sex and gender. She states that the category of sex, traditonally traded as a prediscursive biological reality, also coins the gender identity of an individual through societal discourse. In the logic she criticizes, gender identity becomes a mere interpretation of the biological facts. Butler claims, that discourse can never get a full picture of the biological sex, because referring to the physical qualities of a body never can be prediscursive. Referring to bodies as male and female would always be linked to certain sets of attributes, that are discursively imposed on physical appereances. The respective discourses, according to Butler, always follow societal and political concerns and predominant ideologies forming conceptions of sexes accordingly.1 Butler writes:

„The notion that there might be a“truth” of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms. The heterosexualization of desire requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between “feminine” and “masculine,” where these are understood as expressive attributes of“male” and “female.” The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot“exist”—that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “follow” from either sex or gender.“2

Butler emphasizes, that there is a broad array of identities, that get negated by the binary matrix. As a consequence, she proposes to not make a difference between sex and gender and to ban the category of sex from the discourse in order to focus the discussion on gender. By lifting the strict separation of sex and gender, gender would be recognized as the motor behind the generation of identity, not merely as the cultural interpretation of sex.

In order to understand, how Butler retraces the cultural construction of gender, another classification has to be made. She developes a concept of gender performativity in differentiation to gender performance, describing gender performance as the idea of a role being actively taken on by the individual, implicating some form of true self hiding behind the performance of an actor. On gender performativity she says:

„For something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman. […] 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.“3

To suppose that gender is performative means, that through certain actions taken by the individual subject and society, a gender identity is imposed on the individual externally and also reproduced performatively. Butler’s conclusion to this realization is, that gender can be playfully experienced with in order to freely shape one’s own identity. She says: „It’s my view, that gender is culturally formed, but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom.“4 In a radical conclusion, Butler adopts Nietzsches assumption, that a deed is all that constitutes a subject. She claims, that there is no identity that results in certain deeds or performative expressions, but the deeds themselves constitute the identity. In this approach, the identity becomes an interactively configurable fiction.5

3. Critique of Judith Butler’s theory

The extremely popular conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson is a vocal critic of what he calls „pathological post-modernism“ and the „ideological possession“ of academics like Judith Butler. His approach as a psychologist focuses on the needs of a subject to function in a chaotic world, that he thinks is getting even more chaotic with deconstructionist and postmodern thinkers erasing the traditions and values that constitute a subject.6 He writes:

„In the West, we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures, partly to decrease the danger of group conflict. But we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness, and that is no improvement at all.“7

Peterson’s critique is exemplary for the conservative notion of all-encompassing nihilism as a necessary consequence of the postmodern deconstruction of identity, tradition and values.

Ten years after Gran Torino, Jordan Peterson published a bestselling self-help book called 12 rules for life - An Antidote for Chaos. On first sight, it provides simple rules to live by for the reader to live a better life and be a better person in the face of the overwhelming complexity of the present. The rules presented in this book are extremely simple, giving, in Butler’s words, performative advices to live your life by. The essays reasoning those rules often show, on which basis he resents the deconstructionist views of Judith Butler. The first rule says „Stand up straight with your shoulders back“.8 He reasons this performative advice by referring to the dominance gestures of lobsters, stating that lobsters with a more dominant body language will be more successful in territory conflicts, be respected more by male and more eligible for female conspecifics.9 Peterson clearly wants defend the notion of a natural essence in male and female behavior, that precedes the forming of an identity. He also writes about a subconscious value calculator, that measures an individual’s dominance and determines it’s position in society.

„The ancient part of your brain specialized for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability.“10

By linking personal content to the dominance behavior one is capable of, Peterson seems to aim at reinstating a darwinist social order, where the „Alphas“ have unlimited access to sources of happiness while the weaker individuals are exposed to endless suffering. This ultimately serves as an argumentative basis for the defense of problematic masculine ideals, that can be seen in classic Eastwood characters like Dirty Harry. In this exemplary and very popular conservative view, the identity is indefinitely linked to natural conditions and classic male and female roles serve a higher natural order.

Slavoj Žižek weighs in on the debate on biological sexes and what he calls „Judth-Butlerian Historicism“ by accusing Butlerian theorists of misusing essentialist language. He does not question the contingency and social construction of gender identities, but he emphasizes, that the individual experiences identity as something essential and by doing so retroactively renders it essential. He says:

„I’m an atheist, i don’t believe we have an eternal nature that includes sexual identity before we were born. What i’m only saying is that in our sexual, symbolic […] practice, […] we act as if we have such an a priori identity. […] this paradox of how our practice retroactively presupposes or posits such an essence, which doesn’t exist in itself, is the act of freedom, what Hegel called self positing. […] This closed loop, it’s a fiction, but it’s not simply an ideological fiction. Because it is a fiction only if you presuppose a full texture of fully determined reality, but the moment you accept that there are cracks in reality, that reality is in itself incomplete, then such retroactive loops, where an effect retroactively posits it’s cause, such loops are possible.“11


1 Cf. Butler, Judith: Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, 1990, p. 22ff.

2 Butler, p. 23f.

3 Butler, Judith: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender. In:

4 Ibid.

5 Cf. Butler: Gender Trouble, p. 33

6 Cf. Peterson. Postmodernism: How and why it must be fought. In:

7 Cf. Peterson, Jordan: 12 Rules for Life - An Antidote for Chaos. Canada, 2018, p. 26

8 Peterson, p. 31

9 Cf. Peterson, p. 31ff.

10 Peterson, p. 44

11 Žižek, Slavoj: Is gender a social construct? In:

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Gender Performativity in Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino". The Social Constructions of Identity
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Queer Theory
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ISBN (Book)
Clint, Eastwood, Gran, Torino, Dirty, Harry, Jordan, Peterson, 12, rules, for, life, judith, butler, gender, trouble, performativity, identity, queer, theory, conservatism, hollywood, critique, analysis, movie, film, cinema, slavoj, zizek, antidote, chaos, neoconservatism, right, wing, ideology, male, female, behavior, schelling, walt, kowalsky, ford, constructivism, constructivist, western, conscious, unconscious, biography, role, essential, essentialism, subject, subjective, experience, historicism
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Maximilian Ahrens (Author), 2021, Gender Performativity in Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino". The Social Constructions of Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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