What is Gender Performativity?

The theory of gender performativity was introduced by feminist philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 text Gender Trouble. For Butler, gender is what you do, not who you are. Rather than viewing gender as something natural or internal, Butler roots gender in outward signs and actions. These performative acts do not express an “innate” gender but actually create gender itself; the performance of gender produces the identity it claims to reveal.

Gender is performed not through a singular act but through ritualized repetition. This repetition gives gender its illusion of stability; the repeated performance of gender in accordance with social norms (men ought to speak like this, women ought to dress like this) reproduces and reinscribes those norms, making them seem legitimate and fixed.

We are compelled to repeatedly perform gender in certain ways because societal structures reward those who perform gender “correctly” (according to a strict binary) and punish those who do not. Think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989): Ariel and Erik conform to normative gender expectations, and they are rewarded with a happy ending; on the other hand, Ursula—with her deep voice, short hair, plus-sized body, and makeup inspired by the drag queen Divine—is villainized and defeated.

Performing gender “correctly” gives us a designated role in society and allows us to be recognized as a full, “real” subject. Our conscious and unconscious awareness of gender constraints means we are always performing gender to an audience, even an imagined one. 

Gender’s performativity thus produces gender while concealing its own creation. As Butler writes in Gender Trouble, 

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler [PDF]

 

 

“Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.”

 

 

 

What are Butler’s arguments in Gender Trouble?

Twentieth-century feminists—like feminists today—faced a difficult task in building a political movement around “woman” as a category. Often, women seem more disparate than united. The experience of “womanhood” varies greatly based on other identities like race, nationality, and sexuality; lesbian feminists and Black feminists especially felt that the “woman” defended by twentieth-century feminism was not representative of their experiences or interests. Even women who call themselves feminists have different, even opposing, ideas about what “justice” for women looks like. 

How stable or useful is “woman” as a category? Butler begins Gender Trouble with this question, but it leads her to interrogate the concept of gender itself. Throughout the twentieth century, feminists troubled ideas of biological determinism, or the belief that differences between men and women were biologically inherent. Instead, some feminists proposed that sex (understood as the biological body) was different from gender (the cultural expectations and meanings of that sexed body). This sex/gender division aimed to emphasize that the differences between men and women largely resulted not from biology but from societal structures that could be changed, that gender was a “construct.” As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” 

In Gender Trouble, Butler pushes these ideas further. If gender is distinct from sex, then it needn’t follow a sex-based binary: “man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.” Gender could be constructed in a multitude of ways.

How, then, is gender constructed? Who or what is constructing it? For Butler, there is no original constructor of gender, no innate or “real” gender that seeks expression. Instead, gender is created entirely through performance. As Butler argues, 

 

“If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act 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 identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.”

 

Butler cites drag as an example of gender performativity. In drag shows, men perform an exaggerated form of femininity. As an imitation and parody of gender, drag calls attention to the performativity of gender in all contexts: “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.” Drag parodies the idea of an “original” or “normal” gender. The “original” itself is a failed copy of an “ideal” gender that no one can embody.

Although the repetition of gender constrains us, it also contains the key to resisting gender norms. Because gender is repeated and performed, not stable or innate, there is the possibility of variation, the ability to perform differently. As Butler writes, “The task is not whether to repeat, but how to repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, throughout a radical proliferation of gender, displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself.” 

This begs the question: what would it look like to perform gender outside of binary categories?

 

How do Bodies That Matter and Undoing Gender develop on Gender Trouble?

Though Gender Trouble focuses on gender, Butler also questions the validity of sex as a “natural” category, noting that even biological sex is already gendered. She returns to sex in Bodies That Matter and aims to reconcile the theory of performativity with the material body. Butler argues that sex is “not a simple fact or static condition of the body” but instead, like gender, “part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs” through performative acts. The body appears through and is altered by norms regarding sex, gender, and sexuality.

In gendered and heterosexist cultures, the body must be sexed in order to be culturally intelligible. Take, for example, the practice of performing surgery on infants and children born “intersex” or with indeterminate or combined sexual anatomy. These surgeries seek to force bodies into binary and gendered categories. 

Binary sex, like gender, is reinforced through performative acts. In Bodies That Matter, Butler clarifies that performativity is both bodily and linguistic; she draws upon J.L. Austin’s concept of “performative utterances” or “speech acts,” instances in which speech does not merely say something but also does something—for example, saying “I do” in a wedding or pronouncing two people “man and wife.” 

As Austin writes in How to Do Things With Words, “In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it. […] When I say, before the registrar or altar, &c, ‘I do’, I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it.”

When a priest pronounces a couple married, the words change the status of the couple; when a doctor declares “it’s a girl,” the speech act inscribes gender onto the infant. This “girl” will never be able to perfectly perform an idealized normative gender. However, she is, as Butler writes,

Bodies That Matter by Judith Butler [PDF]

 


“compelled to ‘cite’ the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject. Femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment. Indeed, there is no ‘one’ who takes on a gender norm. On the contrary, this citation of the gender norm is necessary in order to qualify as a ‘one,’ to become viable as a ‘one,’ where subject formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms.”

 

 

 

The speech act, like other performative actions, both gains its power through and can be undermined by repetition. Butler discusses how the term “queer” has changed over time, shifting from a derogatory slur to a reclaimed identity. The word retains its history, but each time it is repeated differently, it acquires new meaning.

In Undoing Gender, Butler further explores how the linked processes of sexing and gendering are required to be a viable “subject.” She discusses the double bind of losing one’s self when performing a compelled gender but losing one’s legibility when performing gender outside of cultural norms:

Undoing Gender by Judith Butler [PDF]

 

 

“If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the ‘human’ expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life, and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?” 

 

 

 

 

Responding to the “New Gender Politics” of the early 2000s, Undoing Gender addresses the tensions between feminist, queer, and trans theories and theorists and aims to account for transsexual, transgender, and intersex experiences. Butler argues that feminism must ally itself with other movements “since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins antihomophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” She embraces questions which disturb the feminist movement, asserting that continual questioning is itself a feminist act. 

Through her various works, Butler theorizes and deconstructs “the heterosexual matrix,” which links cultural norms of sex, gender, and sexuality. In Media, Gender and Identity, David Gauntlett neatly presents and analyzes Butler’s argument via helpful tables. Culture compels us to take sex as a biological given, which then dictates a given gender and sexual desires:

As Gauntlett writes, “Butler’s overall argument is that we should not accept that any of these follow from each other—we should shatter the imagined connections.” Sex, gender, and desire need not conform to binary structures; the matrix would need to be replaced with something like this:

 

Gender Performativity in Mulan: A Case Study

Gender norms affect all aspects of our lives, sometimes in ways we do not fully realize; we are surrounded by examples of gender performativity. One piece of popular media that engages with these ideas is Disney’s Mulan (1998), an animated movie about a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the army and ultimately saves China. There are several instances of “cross dressing” in Mulan which, like the example of drag in Butler’s works, highlight the performativity of gender. 

Even before Mulan dresses as a man, we see her performing gender. The opening number, “Honor to Us All,” introduces us to the expectations of gender performance Mulan faces. The women sing of how girls should be “calm” and “obedient,” thin and dainty, while they dress Mulan and paint her face with makeup in preparation for a meeting with the Matchmaker. The “heterosexual matrix” is on full display: young women must perform an idealized form of femininity in order to attract men and secure good marriages. 

Mulan shows how gender norms are regulated and enforced by various societal institutions, including the family and the state. Gender performativity is presented as an obligation to one’s nation. As the women sing, “We all must serve our Emperor / Who guards us from the Huns / A man by bearing arms / A girl by bearing sons.” Failing to perform one’s gender “correctly” means dishonoring one’s country and one’s family; in the face of this punishment, women are compelled to perform a certain kind of femininity.

However, attaining this gendered ideal—becoming, as the lyrics say, a “perfect, perfect porcelain doll”—is impossible. Mulan cannot meet these exacting standards. Wiping off the mask of performed femininity represented by her makeup, she sings, “I will never pass for the perfect bride or the perfect daughter. / Can it be I’m not meant to play this part?” In singing about playing a part, Mulan explicitly identifies gender as performative.

Mulan must perform gender differently in order to “pass” as a man in the army. She dresses in “men’s” clothes, speaks in a lower register, and walks differently. Her comedic attempts to appear “manly” show the absurdity in our expectations of gendered behavior. 

Eventually, Mulan’s body “reveals” her “true” gender. When the general Li Shang sees that Mulan has breasts, he assumes, as a result of societally ingrained beliefs, that she must be a woman. Mulan is punished for her gender nonconformity; she must leave the army, as the role of soldier has been designated for men. Her “failure” to perform her gender “correctly” calls the whole gendered system into question. Mulan has become a model soldier, proving that she can perform the masculine ideal described in the song “Make a Man Out of You” as well as—and in some cases better than—the “real” men she fights alongside.

Mulan and her fellow soldiers later use expectations of gender performativity to their advantage. In order to fool the villain’s guards, the soldiers dress as women and act in an exaggeratedly feminine way. The guards buy into the performance and assume these “women” are not a threat. Though this instance of drag relies on the performativity of gender, it is not necessarily subversive; as Butler clarifies in Bodies That Matter, not all parodies challenge gender or heterosexist norms. Without the context of the result of the film, this scene would not subvert gendered assumptions; it could suggest that the disguised soldiers are a threat only because they are, in “reality,” men.

The film conforms to the heterosexual matrix in its treatment of the romance between Shang and Mulan. Though Shang interacts with Mulan as a man for most of the movie, their relationship cannot occur until Mulan has returned to her “proper” gender role; Shang can only be attracted to Mulan once she is “revealed” as a woman, the “proper” object of his desire. 

 

Critiques and Analysis of Butler’s Theories

When Mulan laments her inability to perform gender as her family and culture want her to, she asks, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” This sentiment speaks to some questions which critics of Butler (and Butler herself) have grappled with when addressing gender performativity. If gender is constructed, what produces one’s “internal” or psychological experience of gender, particularly when it is at odds with the gender one is expected to perform? If gender is a performance and a construct, does that mean it is not “real”?

Transphobic thinkers, including trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERFs) or so-called “gender critical feminists,” have misinterpreted Butler’s theories of performativity in order to claim that the experience of gender for trans individuals is not “real” or that they could choose to perform their gender in alignment with their assigned sex. Butler has continuously and publicly argued against these ideas and the transphobic belief that only those born in certain bodies can be certain genders. As she writes in Undoing Gender, regarding trans women, “The very attribution of femininity to female bodies as if it were a natural or necessary property takes place within a normative framework in which the assignment of femininity to femaleness is one mechanism for the production of gender itself.”

Gender performativity has also been criticized for not properly accounting for bodily experience. While some of these arguments are used for transphobic ends or rely on a sexed binary, some trans theorists like Jay Prosser (author of Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality) have argued that gender performativity does not explain the bodily experiences of gender for many in the trans community, such as the feeling of gender dysphoria and the importance of gender affirming surgeries. Butler has acknowledged that her earlier writings do not adequately address trans experiences; in her later works, she discusses how transgender and transsexual experiences are pathologized and regulated through the same systems of power that demand certain gender performances.

Other thinkers, like Rosi Braidotti, have reconsidered sexual difference beyond a fixed sex binary. Finding that Butler’s theories down-play the embodied nature of the subject, Braidotti instead takes the body as her starting point. In Metamorphoses: Toward a Materialist Theory of Becoming (2002) and Posthuman Feminism (2022), Braidotti embraces the material differences of bodies; cautions against a universalizing, “gender-free,” or neutral notion of the body; and argues that bodies take shape through interactions with other bodies. Her redefinition of bodies combines materialism with an awareness of the impact of social forces: 

Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming by Rosi Braidotti [PDF]
“The embodiedness of the subject is a form of body materiality, not of the natural, biological kind. I take the body as the complex interplay of highly constructed social and symbolic forces: it is not an essence, let alone a biological substance, but a play of forces, a surface of intensities, pure simulacra without originals. This ‘intensive’ redefinition of the body resituates it within a complex interplay of social and affective forces. This is also a clear move away from the psychoanalytic idea of the body as a map of semiotic inscriptions and culturally enforced codes. I see it instead as a transformer and a relay point for the flow of energies: a surface of intensities.”   

 

 

In Undoing Gender, Butler responds to Braidotti’s theories and finds that they raise useful questions about the material experiences of gender and desire. She writes, “Sexual difference is not a given, not a premise, not a basis on which to build a feminism; it is not that which we have already encountered and come to know; rather, as a question that prompts a feminist inquiry, it is something that cannot quite be stated, that troubles the grammar of the statement, and that remains, more or less permanently, to interrogate.” For Butler, interrogation is necessary for feminist thinking to thrive.

While challenging any claim to “innate” gender, Butler has clarified that she believes “every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives” (per this interview) regardless of how they internally experience gender.

 

Judith Butler Quotes on Gender Performativity

“Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions — and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction ‘compels’ our belief in its necessity and naturalness.” (Gender Trouble)

“As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.” (Gender Trouble)

“Gender ought not to be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” (Gender Trouble)

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity that they are said to express or reveal.” (Gender Trouble)

“Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.” (Gender Trouble)

“The practice by which gendering occurs, the embodying of norms, is a compulsory practice, a forcible production, but not for that reason fully determining. To the extent that gender is an assignment, it is an assignment which is never quite carried out according to expectation, whose addressee never quite inhabits the ideal s/he is compelled to approximate.” (Bodies That Matter)

“If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not ‘do’ one’s gender alone. One is always “doing” with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary.” (Undoing Gender) 

 

External Resources

 

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2011.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2011.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2004.

Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses. 1st ed. Wiley, 2013.

Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Feminism. 1st ed. Polity Press, 2021.

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Gauntlett, David. Media, Gender and Identity. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2008.

Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Harvard Uni Press, 1975.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 2nd ed. Penguin, 2015.

 

Written by: Paige Allen

Paige Allen (MA)Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.