Gender is not a fact. A critical assessment of of Judith Butler's view

Essay, 2015

9 Pages, Grade: A


A Critical assessment of the view of Judith Butler that gender is not a fact.

The politics of gender continues to facilitate complex discourse of why, when and how gender is constructed and has attracted a plethora of theories. With third wave feminism being more inclusive of gender diversity the idea of gender as a social construct became a popular argument, as explored by Judith Butler in her book 'Gender Trouble.' Butler argues that "gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature language, the symbolic or the overwhelming history of patriarchy" (Butler, 1988 p 523). Butler looks at a new way of approaching sex and gender construct, as opposed to the traditional heterosexualized notion of masculinity and femininity. Like many other scholars, theorists and feminists such as Michel Foucault, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, Butler presents the argument that gender should be seen as fluid and adapt to our behavior and mannerisms at different times and in different situations rather than a rigid definition of who we are as gendered beings. Butler's entire argument of gender is centered on the idea of deconstructing the historical definition of gender, so as to move toward a more inclusive and equal society; one where we are not limited to feminine and masculine constructs. While many argue that gender is a biological, biosocial construct that is influenced by nature, work by Butler and other theorists, as well as the lived experiences of different human beings from various cultures, support the idea that gender is indeed not a fact but rather a socially constructed theory.

According to gender studies theorist and professor, Susan Stryker in "The History of Transgender people in the United States" there is a difference between gender and sex. She argues that despite the fact that the two terms are often used interchangeably, gender is generally considered to be cultural while sex is biological. Stryker also defines gender identity as "each person having a subjective sense of what fits with a particular gender. In some cases, an individual biological make up may not be aligned with how they feel and choose to identify themselves." These individuals are referred to across various cultures as "waria", "he-she" and "other", but are officially recognised as transgender. The term transgender according to Stryker is the "movement away from an initially assigned gender position." Although gender and sex are interrelated, sex does not determine the gender of an individual, but rather ones culture and personal politics (Butler 1988). Therefore while it may not be the norm, it is certainly not unheard of for an individuals' gender identity to differ from the gender they are assigned at birth.

Gender is rather performative and is seen according to Butler, as attitudes and behaviors that change over time. "Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed." Butler stresses on the view that "gender is not a fact" and our gendered attitudes are not something fixed and permanent, but rather something that is flexible and fluid, something that is not determined by traditionalists. "Gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis." Therefore it is almost impossible for someone to display the mannerisms and behavior associated with masculinity, if they identify and express as feminine beings, even if they are biologically male. This can be seen in many documented cases of transgender children and adults, who perform a certain gender, one that was not assigned to them at birth.

The argument put forward by Butler; that gender is not a fact, can be seen and understood in the Jamaican documentary "Kandi's Story". The documentary tells the story of a Jamaican transgender woman who speaks of her many struggles as a biological man who identifies as a woman in a Jamaican society. After being rejected by her family members and community, she left home at an early age in order to ensure her personal safety. She explained that people do not see her as a woman, but rather a feminine man, who was most likely homosexual. Due to the cultural homophobia in Jamaica, her gender identity put her at risk on a daily basis. Like most transgender people, Kandi explained that she knew from a very early age that she was a woman; at no point did she identify with the gender typically associated with her biological sex. Stories of mismatched identities have been recorded all over the world, as there are many others like Kandi.

Similar stories have been seen in Indonesia, where biological men who identify as women are called "waria". Like Kandi, they are often considered to be homosexual men, because of their ‘feminine' mannerisms and behavior. Religion plays a very important role in our history and cultures worldwide and is often used as guidelines for everyday living. Although warias, such as Mama Yuli in the documentary "Indonesia's Transgender under threat from Muslim Extremism", live openly, they still face abuse and danger in their professions, as many make a living through sex work. Muslim extremists often destroy their properties and in some cases, harm the warias, as an attempt to end what they see as an abomination and scare them into becoming "real men."

In the African documentary, "Transgender - Coming out in Africa" a young biological male, who identifies as a woman is forced to leave her country of birth, as her life is targeted because of her gender expression. In some parts of Africa such as Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana cultural homophobia is prevalent and compromises the personal safety of transgender individuals or anyone whose gender identity or expression does not ‘match' their biological sex. Further to this, in the documentary titled "A Story on Transgender Children" three children are interviewed, with the youngest child being six years of age. These children tell their stories of not being able to identify with their physical bodies and the gender performance expected of them. In the case of ten year old Riley, her parents attest to the fact that as early as three years of age, she would correct anyone who referred to her as a boy, he or him. Riley's mother painfully recalls how Riley fell into a state of depression at about age five, where she wanted to commit suicide because she was constantly referred to as he or him but did not see herself as or feel like a boy. Despite ridicule and bullying at school, Riley is absolutely sure that she is a girl and cannot understand why everyone else cannot see her as a girl. In this instance, we cannot help, but see gender as socially constructed. If gender was indeed a fact, then Riley would have naturally expressed herself according to the sex that she was assigned. This type of critique of gender as fact, further confirms and reinforces Butler's view that gender is not a fact.

The aforementioned stories beg the question, why would individuals whose gender identity differ from their biological sex remain adamant that they change their assigned gender if gender is biological rather than a social construct. Why would these human beings choose a life of abuse, ridicule and isolation which often comes with being transgender or not fitting into societal norms? Why wouldn't they adopt their assigned gender and identify and express themselves accordingly? If gender is indeed a fact like some scholars claim, why do individuals such as Riley, Kandi, Mama Yuli and many others feel trapped and cannot identify with the gender that they are assigned to? Stories such as these certainly challenge the notion that gender is determined at birth and is a rigid fact.

Kessler, in the "Medical Construction of Gender" adds to the debate of gender not being a fact by adding the discourse on intersexuality and the process of assigning a gender to an infant. "The birth of intersexed infants born with genitals that are neither clearly male nor clearly female, has been documented over time. In the late twentieth century, medical technology has advanced to allow scientists to determine chromosomal and hormonal gender, which is typically taken to be the 'real' or 'natural' biological gender, usually referred to as 'sex' ". Kessler, in agreement with gender not being a fact, expresses the fluidity of gender with emphasis on the medical construct of gender. In the case of intersex infants, their sex is unclear, therefore it is difficult to assign a gender to them as it cannot be determined by their sex. In cases like these gender is assigned to the babies by doctors or parents without surety of the true biological sex. Sex and gender cannot be one in the same and gender certainly cannot be fact when an infant is born intersex. There is the case of Jim Bruce, a child that was born with male chromosomes, but ambiguous genitals. The doctors decided that he would live a satisfactory life as a female and so assigned him the respective gender. However Jim grew up and could not identify with the female gender, later down the road he found out that he was born intersex and his gender was chosen by a doctor. Jim now lives as a man and expresses this as fulfilling and satisfactory. Gender is complex and in no way can be explained in a single theory. "Our chromosomes don't tell us who we are" said Dr. Allene Baratz, a Pittsburgh breast radiologist who has two intersex daughters in an interview. She continues by explaining that "we expect xx is pink and a girl and xy is blue and a boy, but we know from children with gender identity conditions that is not always the case, even when their bodies are perfectly typical." This goes to show that although biology helps in assigning gender roles in society, it is flawed to believe that sex and gender are one in the same and the latter is a fact.

Although the biological construct is critiqued by Butler and others, it stills remains an important theory on the discourse of gender construct. The biological construct of gender has a lot to do with the historical definition of woman and womanhood, and the historical definition given to the body of women and their assigned roles in society. However, Butler dismisses this approach by emphasizing that gender cannot be tied to "material bodily facts" but rather should be seen as a social construct, one that is opened to change "because there is neither an essence that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without these acts, there would be no gender at all." Some may then ask what acts identify with what gender and how are these acts learned? Others may ask if there is a distinction between sex and gender. Where does that leave those who are born intersexed and whose gender identity is different from that assigned at birth?

On the discourse of gender not being a fact, transgenderism continues to play an important role, in providing literature on real life experiences of those that are gender non-conforming. This further opens up the discussion surrounding gender as a rigid heterosexualized institution and makes room for modern day thinking, facilitating discussions surrounding the limited views and ideologies of gender as only a biological construct. Although transgenderism is not a new phenomenon, more literature and research has been making its way into media spaces and academia as these individuals are often recognized by radicals as gender non- conforming, therefore challenging the historical and religious concept of gender. However, religious fundamentalists and some theorists hold opposing views of this (third gender) and maintain traditional messages of gender; that it is determined by the biological sex of an individual and is a fact despite Butler's point of view. In Caribbean societies such as Jamaica and Trinidad, those who are gender non-conforming are ridiculed and subjected to verbal abuse on a daily basis. These individuals are called "inbetweeny" "fish" "Man Royal" and categorized as being on the "border line." Due to this political, heterosexualised notion of gender, those that are gender non- conforming are often seen as homosexual and are referred to as a "gay man" or "butch lesbian." In societies such as these gender remains a fact to the majority of the population who have a patriarchal, heterosexualised idea of gender identity and expressions which is limited to being male and masculine and female and feminine.


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Gender is not a fact. A critical assessment of of Judith Butler's view
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Dexx Rose (Author), 2015, Gender is not a fact. A critical assessment of of Judith Butler's view, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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