Study Guide

Judith Butler Influences

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Let me give you a little head's up. I am a theorist—not a literary critic. My work goes way beyond specific works of literature and takes a wide-lensed look at culture, language, and human actions. You can go ahead and use my theories of performativity to discuss Daisy and Tom in The Great Gatsby, but don't ask me to be that specific.

Sigmund Freud

Freud's one of those people I always invite to my imaginary dinner party. Sure, he was another white European male, but his ideas have been really motivating to me. He was one of the first people to get down and dirty with this whole "normal" business. Even living in 1920s Vienna, Freud could clearly recognize that society called the shots on normal identity.

So I've taken this idea and put a little lesbian spin on it. Many lesbians signal their lesbianness by acting like men, but then all they are doing is kowtowing to a different but equally annoying normal. Lesbians who present themselves like men, are sometimes even confused with men, an act that itself points out that gender is anything but natural.

Michel Foucault

Michel and I would have partied hard if he hadn't died in 1984. His ideas totally scandalized people, jettisoning them out of complacency and into the realization that power controls our every move.

You should see how dog-eared my copy of Discipline and Punish is. That critical masterpiece really helped me focus my ideas, especially its whole bit about "regulative discourses," "frameworks of intelligibility," and "disciplinary regimes." These are all fancy ways of saying that society and all of its ideas establish who we are, how we behave, and what the rulebook is on sex, gender, and sexuality. As Foucault would say, society disciplines us and, if we don't comply, it punishes us (hence the title of his book).

Jacques Derrida

Jacques has always been my favorite white-maned, overly tanned Continental philosopher. I borrowed his idea of iterability like a neighbor borrows a cup of sugar—all friendly like, and with a promise to return the favor. His notion of iterability helped me home in on my widely popular—and widely detested, for that matter—theory of performativity.

You are probably asking how? (doubtless with a very eager look on your face). Performativity is all about repetition (a.k.a. iterability). It's about recurring behaviors and norms. Much like an automaton, the subject or person cannot control his or her performance, but goes through the various steps of gender, believing that his or her behavior is normal through and through. Now, I don't want to compare this to a Night of the Living Dead situation, but I think you get the point.

Catharine MacKinnon

When you compare me to Catharine MacKinnon, you quickly realize that not all feminists are the same. This feminist scholar/lawyer/activist gets real all up in arms when it comes to pornography. She says it's hate speech. She also asserts that porn is the epitome of evil and is nothing other than unadulterated degradation and terror.

Settle down, chica. I have problems with MacKinnon not just because she's extreme but also because her radical feminist ideas can really reduce sexuality and gender. Plus, she ignores queer theory like an old stuffed animal. She also whistles the same old tune about women as victims.

David Reimer

My book Undoing Gender asks the hard-hitting questions about how to act in the face of gender repression. Can we change who we are? What if life is not livable as a man or a woman? That's right—I'm talking about intersexuality and sex change.

In this book, I look at the case of David Reimer. David was born a "boy," but when doctors botched his circumcision, they took it upon themselves to "reassign" his sex and make him female (ouch, right?). Then, when he grew up, he felt like he was a male and proceeded to live like a man.

Here's what makes me mad: the doctors actually believed that just because they "assigned" him a vagina, he would skip through life like a female. Just another example of the oversimplification of gender. And also really shoddy medical care.

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