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Judith Butler’s central mission in her essay, “Performativity, Precarity, and Sexual Politics” is centered around bridging a link between gender performativity and the precarity that results from unconventional means of gender expression. In this essay, Butler emphasizes the influence of politics on these terms and how they relate to one another, making a clear distinction of the greater political forces that reinforce the precarious nature of non-conforming individuals. The concept of precarity of life is further complicated by Julia Serano in her essay titled “Skirt Chaser”, and Jack Halberstam in his text, “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity Without Men”;both texts that introduce non-traditional notions of femininity and masculinity on both ends of the spectrum.
At the core of the issue performance, sexual politics, and sociopolitical violence lies a baseless tie between sex and gender. Within this essay, using the three aforementioned texts, we will explore how limits placed upon gender expression have consequently linked gender and biological sex.
Using an additional exhibitory piece, titled “The Body and Gender in Medical Writings” by Cathy McClive which details the historically understood perspective of sex in medical terms, we will gain clarification of why biological sex has historically been understood as binary, and how the concept of gender was developed as a result.
Throughout her essay, Butler uses critical terms like performativity, to describe the ways in which different genders manifest themselves –implying that gender is an enactment by nature, and it is our politics that mistakenly accept gender performances and roles as veridical.
In relation to performativity, Butler also incorporates the term ‘translation’ as a way of explaining the way that we create understandings between one another through performativity. Another key term that appears in this text is ‘precarity’, a term Butler uses as a means of emphasizing the poor conditions of the lives of those who fall victim to the rules of gender and sexual politics. She ultimately connects these words by demonstrating their unified effect on the lives of people who suffer from politics that restrict and mislabel non-conforming people. On page 10, Butler states that one of the keys is
“[translating] into the dominant language, not to ratify its power, but to expose and resist its daily violence, and to find the language through which to lay claim to rights to which one is not yet entitled.”
This is a direct example of performativity, because translating in itself requires some form of enactment. As a result, Butler reveals the potential positive effects of performativity — it can allow one to pinpoint weaknesses of dominant political thought and eventually induce some form of change.
This translation, however, can be grounds for erasure within transgender and otherwise non-conforming communities. The need to translate the experiences of transgender women into the dominant language has resulted in harmful media archetypes and a lack of range in representation (Serano 3). Likewise, the referencing of female masculinity as tomboyism treats what is truly a normal and natural progression in gender expression as an interruption to development (Halberstam 3). Given the clear effect of performativity on people’s perceptions and definitions of gender, is it safe to say performativity will ultimately determine the livability of one’s life? If so, how has this performance become necessary, and or expected? In order to truly challenge the burden of gender performativity, the supposed ties between sex and gender must be broken down further.
Much of gender performance is based on the assumption that men and women have inherent biological differences that dictate lived experience. These rigid boundaries: two sexes, two genders, and two roles, have helped to create an underclass of people with female genitalia as well as people who refuse to perform according to their assigned gender. This fixation upon the supposed link between sex and gender has several implications that increase the precarity of these groups. In McClive’s “The Body and Gender in Medical Writings” illuminates an interesting shift in the historic understanding of how the body is defined. Thomas Laqueur, a well-renowned American historian who published a book on the human body, initially believed in a one sex model, where there was just one human body with either a penis or an inverted penis, therefore indicating two genders that correspond with either the penis or the inverted penis. However, the “two sex model” was developed some time after the initial one sex model due to some key differences noted in the female body. These distinctions had to do with lactation and menstruation, creating a clear premise for a sex other than that of the male. With that being said, it was necessary to develop ways in which these two sexes could be told apart (McClive 5). Consequently,these ideas of “man and woman” due to the need to characterize these differences in sex. In spite of that, this historic understanding of the body indicates that the categorization of the male and female body is not a new concept, but rather one that has been strengthened with time This explanation of the relationship between sex and gender, however, leaves plenty of room for discussion. Primarily, the one sex theory reinforces modern understandings of gender roles by defining the feminine body in relation to the male body. Secondly, Laqueur failing to include lived experiences in his findings, suggested that the literature evidences discourse surrounding the sexed body rather than what it meant to embody either masculinity or femininity in past societies (McClive 3). In fact, the idea of understanding the reproductive system which led to women being relabeled is better characterized as a form of translation rather than scientific theory. By this thread, when women do not perform said maternal role whether by choice or inability, the fabricated ties between sex and gender challenge said woman’s womanhood. performative “failure”,such as this,is seen as an interruption to a woman’s role, much like tomboyism.
As stated by Butler, “The theory of gender performativity presupposes that norms are acting on us before we have a chance to act at all, and that when we do act, we recapitulate the
norms that act upon us, perhaps in new or unexpected ways, but still in relation to norms that precede us and exceed us. In other words, norms act on us, work upon us, and this kind of ‘being worked on’ makes its way into our own action” (Butler 20). This presumption is in direct contrast to Laqueur’s one sex two gender notion as the latter attempts to establish that there were no differing enactments of masculinity and femininity.
The push for this enactment is seen perhaps most intensely around the translation of gender conforming people. There is an overwhelming assumption that all transitions are male-female and that stereotypical femininity is the goal (Serano 12). This mistranslated understanding of transgender expression — that being a transgender woman is a male who also strives to express themselves as feminine, is based on an assumption that transgender women in particular wish to deceive others regarding their sex. Transgender women are deemed illegitimate based on this claim, as masculinity is one of the highest forms of social legitimacy, and to reject it in favor of performing femininity, is to step far out of socially constructed boundaries (Halberstam 1). If a male expresses himself as a man, meaning he fits the socially constructed constraints of manliness, then his identity is legitimate and deemed completely livable. Likewise, notions that males possess the more desirable sex allow tomboyism to briefly go on as a natural desire for the freedom of masculinity (Halberstam 3).
To reject your assigned sex entirely, however, is to put yourself at great risk for social repercussion. This is perhaps best illustrated by the “bathroom issue”. In his essay, Jack Halberstam states that telling someone that they’re in the wrong bathroom says two things: first, their gender is at odds with their sex, which is being labeled as unconventional or just flat out wrong, and second, that single gender bathrooms are only meant for those who are socially correct or legitimate, meaning their sex and gender align (Halberstam 354). This directly links with Butler’s idea of precarity, as those who do not fit the societal “norm” are made to seem like a threat, and therefore are treated apprehensively. Butler states that this mistreatment of non-conforming people is the very issue that the nation state is trying to erase through social and political institutions (2) such as this very bathroom problem.
Ultimately, the patriarchy rests on the notion that sex and gender are inextricably linked. If genitals do not denote gender expression, then they do not denote a hierarchy. Without gender roles, young women would not spend adolescence being remodeled into compliant models of femininity, nor would young men be taught that masculinity was their only form of legitimacy. These tools of control are essential to maintaining social order, and are the greatest tools in this generation to creating barriers to a liveable life for those who exist outside of these margins.
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