Die Heuning Pot Literature Guide
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Judith Butler
Judith Butler
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Judith Butler’s Favorite Buzzwords

All the stuffiest terms, defined for your Shmooping pleasure.

Performativity

This little buzzword is so Butlerian, it's hard to believe it ever existed before I theorized it. Sure, you can find the word itself in dictionaries before I published "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" (1988), but I brought performativity to a whole new level by discussing its relation to linguistics and language itself.

Here's the skinny: all of the little behaviors you enact as a man or a woman existed before you were born. They're constructed by society's expectations of how we're supposed to act. It's not so much that you are living your life as that you are performing your identity.

Gender is a like a script that we run through. And that script exists long before (and long after) the actors have performed it on opening night. Every time a man buys a Ford F150, or a woman squeezes her tired, calloused feet into a pair of Manolos, these folks are serving as players who duplicate gender as reality all over again.

So what are the alternatives to running on this hamster wheel of identity? Well, I recommend transforming the performativity of gender into overt, hyperbolic acts by dressing up in drag. Drag is subversive because it ridicules our everyday imitation of oppressive gender identity and gives the bird to the idea that heterosexuality is the normal, innate, and only path.

Queer Theory

It all began with Gender Trouble, that 1990 chartbuster that set me up with a sweet nest egg to retire on.

Start by forgetting what you know about queer theory. It's not only about homosexuality, got it? Queer theory takes up arms against any idea that identity is preset, so please don't say things like "Women always…" or "That's a man thing" or "Jewish people are so…." because those kinds of remarks get me real steamed up. As I put it so well myself in Gender Trouble, "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; […] identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results" (from Gender Trouble).

If we want to, we can get beyond all that nonsense, by taking part in the "cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities" (from Gender Trouble). So, if you're a man, go grab the mascara. If you're a woman, throw on a tie and a three-piece suit.

Gender Versus Sex

People confuse these two all the time, but it's really quite simple. Sex is what your birth certificate says—which is basically whether you have a penis or a vagina. But that minor detail does not need to determine your every move. Unfortunately, thanks to our tyrannical society, it usually does.

Most people enact the gender that their sex commands sort of like zombies, and then they go around acting like that behavior is biologically set. One visit to a baby shower will prove this fact—did someone say pink and blue? We act like women or men because society says we must—and punishes in really weird ways if we don't obey. OBEY.

Heteronormativity

This ugly multisyllabic word refers to society's favorite distinction: the difference between a "woman" and a "man," and why that matters. If we break this word down, we can see that "hetero" refers to heterosexuality (male-female sexuality) and "normativity" denotes what is normal.

I owe a debt to thinkers such as Gayle Rubin and Adrienne Rich, sure, but I made heteronormativity a household word, sort of. I like to call it the "H-Word" because it's basically an unsavory concept that tyrannizes, marginalizes, and punishes those who don't fall in line.

Zionism and Anti-Zionism

People have trouble accepting that I am a Jewish person who doesn't think that the state of Israel is all sunshine and rainbows. I have been charged with being anti-Semitic and even "self-hating," but the truth is I just hate state violence, plain and simple. And in this case, if you ask me, Israel has committed acts of violence against the Palestinians. I can't let that stand.

My anti-Zionism basically boils down to my belief in a movement called BDS, or boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. But let me make one thing clear: BDS is about justice, equality, and self-determination for Palestinians—not about lobbing bombs. Peace in the Middle East.

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