Her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, an influential theoretical text of the 1990s, is a founding document of queer theory and a key statement of performative accounts of cultural meaning. Her work distils forty years of French theory, from pioneer feminist Simone De Beauvoir to Julia Kristeva, and from Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, to explore how gendered identity is socially produced through repetitions of ordinary daily activities. Her goal is to uncover the assumptions that restrict the meaning of gender to received notions of masculinity and feminity. In opening up the field of possibility for gender, she aims for a feminism that avoids exclusionary gender norms in its portrayal of acceptable identities.
Gender Trouble made her a celebrity especially in gay and lesbian subcultures. Key for her is that nothing is natural, not even sexual identity. Feminists have sometimes distinguished between sex as the anatomical difference between male and female bodies and gender as the meanings attached to those bodily differences in various cultures. Butler argues that even anatomical differences can be experienced only through the categories and expectations set out by the culture’s signifying order. Anatomical differences are linked to expectations about sexual desire, specifically to society’s compulsory heterosexuality (a term that she borrows from Adrienne Rich), which posits that there are two sexes and that desire runs from one sex to the other. Our understanding of sexuality is ill-equipped to recognize bodies that confound the strict binary division between male and female, or desires that cross, combine, or otherwise fail to conform to a fairly narrow understanding of sex as genital intercourse between two people, one “naturally” female, the other “naturally” male.
Following Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, she stresses that modern culture sees sexuality as a fundamental constituent of identity. Our sex and our sexual desires and activities are indices of who we are. Butler hopes to reveal that the seemingly natural is actually socially constructed and, thus, contingent. The established and conventional connections between anatomy and desire, and between sexual activities and identity, are not inevitable; they have been different and they are open to revision or, to resignification. The meanings and categories by which we understand and live our daily existence can be altered. Such alteration is not easy. Those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power are written into our very psyches as well as into the dominant institutions of political and social life. She follows the accounts of subject formation found in Foucault and Lacan. For Foucault, discourse (the articulated categories of thought) orders knowledge along lines that produce subjects open to power’s control. Such power works at the level of daily routine. For Lacan, individuals achieve an identity, a recognized place in the social order, by passing into the Law (the culture’s signifying order), at the cost of creating the unconscious and establishing a permanent split, an alienation of self from desire, within the subject. To Foucault’s account of power’s micro-physics and Lacan’s description of subject formation, Butler adds Derrida’s understanding of performative speech acts. She believes the performative offers her a model of action within theories that often seem to allow subjects no room for resistance to power.
Derrida develops his notion of the performative in an essay on J.L. Austin. Austin sees the meaning of language as grounded in the way that words refer to already existing objects. But Austin realized that some utterances are creative: they make something come to existence, rather than referring to something that already exists. Anyone who makes a promise, or a judge who sentences someone to prison, creates a fact (the promise, the sentence) through the act of speaking. Such speech acts are performative. Austin finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between performative from referential speech acts. Derrida picks up in this difficulty and adds the concepts of citation and repetition to the analysis. Every speech act succeeds in meaning anything at all only by virtue of its citing previous uses of the term it now employs. Language works because the speakers of that language have a prior knowledge of its terms and usages (both syntactic and semantic). Every new speech act is a repetition, using old words and structures in this new instance. There are limits on novelty. An utterance that departs too far from received understandings will be incomprehensible. But exact repetition does not occur very often either; we are using the old words in new contexts. Each separate use of a word twists it in this or that direction in relation to a variety of pressures: the context, the audience, conscious or unconscious purposes. Each speech act has a performative dimension; instead of repeating or referring to pre-existing meanings in its citation of a previously used word, it alters, if always within limits, the meaning of that word. Languages are reproduced, are kept alive and functioning, through acts of use that constantly change the language. Most changes are involuntary by-products of use, but some may be conscious, such as contemporary efforts to abandon “man” as the generic word referring to all human beings.
Butler proposes that we understand sex and gender as citational repetitions. Cultural discourses converge in a prevailing (although never fully homogeneous or monolithic) understanding of what boy and girl, man and woman signify. Individual actions then cite these meanings, playing off them in various ways. Power functions through these meanings. The little boy learns that his crying is not masculine; he must grown into his masculinity by imitating the behaviour designated as male to the point that such behaviour becomes second nature. The little girl learns that some ways of acting make her a tomboy, and she is encouraged to dress the part of femininity. We feel our way into these roles, establishing (under the watchful eyes of powerful social forces) the way we will occupy them. Given our prevailing categories, we experience this process as discovering our identity. Butler believes identity is a trap, a hardening into rigid, binarized categories of much more fluid and heterogeneous possibilities. She calls for actions that will resignify our received meanings, actions that will lead to a proliferation of the constitutive categories into which all selves are now constrained to fit. The costs of identity’s straitjacket are high, both for those who fit the categories comfortably and those who don’t. Deviants (such as homosexual, bisexual, hermaphrodites, or other less recognizable non-identities) are inevitable, although her reasons for this claim are not completely clear. For her, discursive power is never fully effective. It cannot create all individuals in its preferred image, in part because any social field is traversed by various discourses, none of which ever achieves full domination. Compulsory heterosexuality cannot erase all non-heterosexual desires or acts. But the price paid by those labelled deviant for such desires and acts, in internalized guilt and external sanctions, is exorbitant. On the side of normality, heterosexual identity can be achieved only through the exclusion or disavowal of all non-heterosexual desires. Socially, this disavowal is expressed through homophobia and other discourses of abjection (Kristeva’s famous term) that single out deviants as worthy targets of aggression and punishment.
Butler calls for a loosening of the categories, a relaxation of our fixation on identity. Power uses identity to understand us, and normative identity calls for a homogeneity too difficult to live. A change of this type is therapeutic –agreeing with Freud’s goal of moderating the strictures of conventional morality and its excessive internal voice, the superego. But Butler believes that feminism has been hurt by its attempt to find an identity that would designate something common to everyone in the movement. She calls for a coalitional politics that avoids the fights over purity (of identity, of doctrine, of commitment) that tear apart movements dependent on complete agreement among members over long periods of time. Butler’s work grows out of feminism but she is against any identity politics that sees political groupings and beliefs as grounded in a shared identity, whether ethnic, racial, sexual, national, or economic. All forms of identity politics are prone to aggressions used to enforce rigid consistencies.
An initial step to loosen the hold of identity is to make evident identity’s construction is not inevitable. Identity is not something planted in us to be discovered, but something that is performatively produced by acts that effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. At the end of Gender Trouble, she advocates parody in general and drag performances in particular because such subversive performances destabilize the naturalized categories of identity and desire. Queer theory makes its appearance. Such theory is interested in any and all acts, images, and ideas that trouble, violate, cross, mix, or otherwise confound established boundaries between male and female, normal and abnormal, self and other. The goal is to create more space for and recognition of the various actions performed daily in a social landscape blinded and hostile to variety. But the broader goal is a general troubling, an attempted unfixing, of the links between acts, categories, representations, desires, and identities. The main objections to Butler’s position echo the objections often made to post-structuralist work. Key questions focus on agency, power, and ethics, but a difficult style and specialized terminology guarantee a small audience for work that aims to have political consequences. Within ongoing debates over the details, however, a new interest in violations of received categories and the performative reproduction and transformation of culture attest to Butler’s impact on literary studies.

Gender Trouble. Preface(1990)
A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple points of origin. Female is no longer a stable notion, its meaning as troubled as women. Both terms have troubled significations as relational terms. The aim of this inquiry is gender and the relational analysis it suggests.
If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no pre-existing identity by which an cat or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performatives possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.
Genealogical critique: refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, the authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view, it rather investigates the political interests in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact effect of institutions, practices, discourses, with multiple points of origin.

Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger suggests that the contours of the body establish specific codes of cultural coherence and naturalize taboos, for Butler this is a point of departure to understanding how social taboos maintain the boundaries of the body as such. The boundaries of the body become the limits of the socially hegemonic. Inner and outer make sense only with reference to a mediating boundary that strives for stability. Gender can neither be true nor false, neither real nor apparent.

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LEITCH, VINCENT B., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 2001.
BALDICK, CHRIS. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
CASHMORE, ELLIS. Ed. Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. London: Routledge, 1996.