Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999
María Luisa Femenías
revisited: Butler and the „gender“ question
The emergence of North American post-modern Sex
Theory in the 90’s destabilises the category of the sexual difference. The
sexual theorising impact results - in Judith Butler words - in a renewed
interest on questions of sex and gender ontology and fundamentalism. Some new
writers challenge the stability of binarian sex / gender categories from
transgender-identified perspectives. Sex
/ gender categories are becoming, they say, more fluid and less able to be
sustained on essential and monolithically based sexual differences in terms of
binarian sexes. The distinction between hetero and homosexuality develops a
strong current of feminist critique of normative sexuality, focussing on
alternative readings of sex / gender accounts (Schutte, 40).
Discursive differences are being examined creating new philosophical questions about the matter of bodies and the materialisation of sexualities, where Judith Butler is perhaps one of the most influential radical philosophers (Butler, 1-3). Her insights of gender essentialism as a tendency to be suspected firstly, makes her to identify -wrongly as we will try to show- Beauvoir as one of the first feminists to use that category and ascribes her an essentialist condition in debt with Sartre’s ontology. So, while arguing that gender is a cultural / discursive configuration of the body she ascribes to Beauvoir the concept of „gender“ as a „natural kind“, and in so doing she reaches some crucial and controversial conclusions ignoring Beauvoir’s contributions to dismantling the lure of normative sexuality in heterosexual relations. A dismantling from the prevailing normative constructs of sex and gender –as Ofelia Schutte explains – is necessary to the construction of any feminist social and political order (Butler, 1986).
Simone de Beauvoir’s Le decième
sexe is perhaps the most influential work of feminist theory in the
Twentieth Century, and in the United States inspired at least radicals like
Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millet as well as liberals like Betty Friedan or
socialists like Juliet Mitchell. Beauvoir based her understanding of the situation
of women on descriptions of women’s own
experience, confirming the priority of the concrete and experiential over
the abstract and the ahistorical. She locates her ethical enquiry within the
context of specific historical relationships, given man’s historical
definition of women as Other, and so doing criticising traditional Philosophy,
Religion, Psychoanalysis and even Marxism.
She opens her analysis of normative constructions of
heterosexuality with the goal of reinforcing the wide range of non-normative
gender and sexual options available to feminist women, because there is an
assumed identification or overlap between heterosexuality and normativity
ignoring that normative sexuality [is]
a type or form of sexual activity that is
marked by a coincidence between socially privileged sexual acts and privileged
gender constructs (Schutte, 41-42). Any heterosexual woman can break
normative gender stereotypes by succeeding economically, being non emotional
dependent, or refusing to be a mother. When Simone de Beauvoir poses her most
famous question qu’est-ce qu’une
femme? (Beauvoir: 1976,13) she
puts the categories of woman and man
on the stand. And from the morals of the Existential framework she answers that one
is not born, but rather becomes a woman because tout sujet se pose concrètement à travers des projets comme une
transcendance; il n’accomplit sa liberté que par son perpétuel dépassement
vers d’autres libertés“ (Beauvoir, 31)
So, to be is to become to being, but the drama of
woman is the conflict among the essential reivindications she has the rights to,
as any other subject, and the monde oú
les hommes lui imposent de s’assumer contre l’ Autre: on prétend la figer
en objet, et la vouer á l’immanence puisque sa transcendance sera perpétuellement
transcendée par une autre conscience essentielle et souveraine (Beauvoir,
31). Woman’s drama consists of the paradox between her rights and
reivindications as a subject (the nominalistic universal subject that
Enlightenment proposes and Beauvoir is thinking of) and her facticity where she
is constituted as inessential (Beauvoir, 31). Moreover, like today European
Sexual Difference theorists do, Beauvoir states the obvious and focuses at first
on the difference between masculine and feminine normative subject positions:
sex is not only a biological fact and does not denote only a chronological
episode in human History. This also concerns with women reproductive functions.
Beauvoir seems to consider women’s reproductive function as the main obstacle
to their realising the radical freedom Existentialists believe humans have to
determine themselves as their own essence, so it seems she understands
motherhood as an obstacle to have a share in the human mitsein.
No woman can evidently forget what she is as „Il
est clair qu’aucune femme en peut prétendre sans mauvaise foi se situer
par-delà son sexe „(Beauvoir, 13) because the body is important as the locus
of concrete „lived experiences“, the body is not le
corps-object décrit par les savants /.../ mais le corps vécu par le sujet, for
women (like men) are subjects in situation
(Beauvoir, 78). So far of Beauvoir’s
pivotal elements. Let us examine Butler’s discussion.
Rosi Braidotti describes the North American reception of
poststructuralist Theories of Sexual Difference in terms of a „Transatlantic
Disconnection“, which l rewrite now in terms of „Butler disconnection“, as
she basically misinterpreted the main contributions in Beauvoir’s Le
decième sexe. By discussing the ideas of Beauvoir, a theory of gender was
mistakenly endorsed by Butler which does not give enough support to her
oversimplified reading. Unfortunately, such a reading has been uncritically
assumed by many North American (post)feminist (post)structuralist thinkers.
This means that l do not share her critiques though l recognise the sharp
implications of her analysis.
According to Butler, Beauvoir’s contribution in Le
deuxième sexe appeals, at least,
to 1) a voluntarist theory of gender, 2) a Cartesian (dualistic) view of the
self (moi), identified with
Descartes’ cogito and with
Sartre’s „being-for-itself“ (être-pour-soi),
3) an ontological hang over, 4) an abstract universal subject, 5) a
biological essentialism. Butler’s misinterpretation is basically directed by
her claim that Beauvoir has a Theory of gender. Even though Beauvoir’s latter experience
of the contemporary women movement in the ‘70’s changed her perspective on
the sex / gender question, she never understood gender as Butler does when she
endorses her concept of „gender“ to be the
most distinguished contribution of
Simone de Beauvoir (Butler, 1986, 1990).
Judith Butler seems to start her reading of Beauvoir
with the assumption that Le deuxième sexe
is based on a thesis about the sex / gender relation, but not from the
Existentialist Ethics and a non Husserlian Phenomenological description of the
place women have in society due to their sexual difference.
Butler’s strategy reminds strongly of her own comments about the
foundationalist fictions that support the notion of subject, and although
she criticises Beauvoir’s conceptualisation of „women“ and the
representationist theory that supports her political theory of the body, she
suggests that in one is not born a woman, but
rather, becomes one, is where gender is „constructed“ in a strong
voluntaristic way (Butler, 1990, 3; 1986, 36). So, being a woman is a
voluntaristic cultural construction and „woman“ only designates a
variety of modes in which the facts acquire cultural meaning or intelligibility,
as a process of gender self-construction, where „women“ is that
what we finally become.
Though, how can a certain sex become a certain gender?
asks Butler. According to her reading of Beauvoir, nothing can designate a „female“
as the fixed and self-identical set of cultural presumptions that „women“
fulfil (Butler, 1986, p. 37). So Butler strongly suggests that Beauvoir’s
„to be a woman“ is a cultural interpretation of „to be a female“, where
the female body is the arbitrary locus of „women“ as gender.
So Butler considers that to become a „woman“ is a process
of constructing ourselves /.../ is a purpositive and apropiative set of acts,
the acquisition of a skill, a „project“ to use Sartrean terms, to assume
certain corporal style and significance (Butler, 1986, 36).
Butler takes „to become“ as „purposefully assumed or embodied“ and makes
use of Sartrean categories to support the striking claim that endorses Beauvoir
a voluntaristic account of gender as a self-reflexive process to become our
genders, previously determined by the very system of representational politics
that Beauvoir’s feminism takes itself to be combating, in its struggle for
woman’s emancipation. At least with regard to the first issue, Butler reads
the „Sartrean Project“ in terms of the Performative, and so in a consciously
voluntaristic way. So woman submission designates her true vocation of male
dominance. But this does not seem to be the best standpoint to judge
This is to say that, in the one hand, sex is taken to
be natural, biological and bodily in ways that are not politically or culturally
circumscribed, and that (sex) fully imposes its effects on the normative
construct of women while marks her subordination. On the other hand, Butler
points out that Beauvoir misses the performative
point; sex is constituted by way of exclusionary claims that may be more or less
invisible to those of us who are caught up in the socially varied discourse
which itself is not immune to the heterosexual, racial, and class prejudices
that help to structure and maintain the status quo (Butler, 1990, 4; Jaggar & Young, 265).
„Becoming“ a gender has to be understood to be both a choice and an
acculturation process. It seems to Butler that Beauvoir formulates „gender“
ambiguously because she misses the performative point. In other words,
Butler’s own construction of gender as performative and citational provides
Beauvoir with an „ambiguous discursive trend“ she in fact lacked. This
system unilaterally imposed to Beauvoir also engages Butler in the claim that we
need to understand the term „woman“ as
the site of permanent openness and resignifiability ignoring that Beauvoir
can both acknowledge the weight of social construction and the autonomy of the
self, because women are subjects „in situation“, a category she posed (not
Sartre) to explain the particular position human beings –specially women-
have. Beauvoir is certainly an existencialist but her position is not simply
that of Sartre. She is not a Sartrean epigon. One can be interested –as Butler
does- in Sartre’s influence on her philosophy but, on the contrary, her
philosophical differences from Sartre’s can be richly explored (Simon, 1999,
41 ff; Kruks, 1992, 92; López-Pardina, 1994, 107 ff).
This means that Butler understands that „gender“ also entails a
critique of „woman“ as possessing any „essential“ or unitary meaning.
She suggests in Gender Trouble
that there is a parallel to be drawn between the way we think of sex, and
the tendency to naturalise, or posit a foundational and unchanging biological
grounds to the fictional or discursive category of women. The idea of women as
unitary is a fiction in the service of the very oppressive regime that Feminism
seeks to overthrow. This is to say –in Butler’s own words- that the belief
that „women“ does have some common meaning serves to coerce individuals into
a behaviour aimed to exhibit such a meaning. In other words, the idea of „women“
as unitary operates as a policing force which generates and legitimises certain
practices, and experiences and delegitimates others. Moreover, the idea of „woman“
as a unitary situated human being in opposition to „man“ works to sustain
the status quo by supporting the norm of heterosexuality. The idea of
„woman“ and „man“ as possessing a unitary meaning in opposition
to each other supports the idea of sexual desire as the „attraction of
opposites“, where Butler understands heterosexuality and normativity as
synonyms. Butler considers that there is no sexed body prior to its construction
by phallocentric signification. So any feminist project which assumes such
unitary meanings therefore ends up reproducing both the very sexist and
heterosexist social order it aims to eliminate, as Beauvoir does (Jaggar &
Young,1998, 293). So Butler blames Beauvoir to cut in her analysis of gender and
to assume a fixed ontological status of woman and the body. As we can see, she
criticises Beauvoir’s work as heterosexist, masculinist and Sartrean.
This means to ignore at least that Beauvoir challenged the normative
elements that delimit the senses of woman (mainly the heterosexual canon but
also the lesbian one). When Beauvoir uses the category of femme
indépendant suggests that she draws a distinction between woman as „the
Other“ (the normative description of women, as placed in a position of
subordination to man) and woman as an agent in pursuit of freedom (Simon, 115;
Beauvoir, 597). Beauvoir’s rejection of normative feminity and sexuality plus
her ascription to an Existential Philosophy prevents from any assumption of a
fixed ontological status of woman and opens into a revolutionary feminist
potential. It is true that Existential Philosophy carries a recognisable
masculine-centred focus on existence but at the same time nourishes a spirit of
rebellion against constraints on one’s freedom and this spirit is
extraordinarily helpful for feminists (Schutte,47 ff.).
Butler is also critical of Philosophy’s tendency to
miss the body or, worse, to write against it. Drawing on Lacan and Foucault, she
attempts to theorise the materiality of the body and the ways in which bodies
are materialised as sexed in the light of a critique of heterosexism. In
other word, „sex“ is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialised
through time. It is not a simple fact or static
condition of a body but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize „sex“
and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms; this
means that there is no reference to a pure
body (Butler, 1990, 80). Her Beauvoir nor Merleau-Ponty would deny this
statement. But Butler wishes to go beyond the conventional limits of
constructionist theories to consider how
such constraints not only produce the domain of intelligible bodies, but produce
as well a domain of unthinkable, abject, unliveable bodies (Butler, 1990,
80). From her hyperconstructivist point of view, she pretends to show that sex
is the regulatory norm which qualifies a body for life within the domain of
cultural intelligibility (Butler, 1993,2). Gender identity -Butler argues- is a
performance not determined by a fixed biological nature, but it is not a
performance at will; the conventions by which we are named „girl“,
„boy“, „queer“, „gay“ are constituted in language. So Butler goes on
to use the resources of Speech Act Theory and Reference Theory to understand how
the linguistic mechanisms that produce normal and abnormal bodies, normal and
queer subjects, might be cooptable or interruptible to produce new sexual /
social identities (Jaggar & Young,1998,155). Butler’s concept of
performativity is useful here (but it is not Beauvoir’s). She focuses on
genders’ performance analysing in detail the cultural production of gender
transgression specially in terms of hetero/homosexuality. But, might
performativity (in the sense of literal performance, whether or not to do with
gender) itself also influence the way the body works its interiority? (Jaggar & Young, 200).
Butler’s suggestion –as we have already seen- that we „choose“ or
„build up“ our genders moves to perplexity as it implies an ontological
puzzle: a res cogitans, prior to the
gender constructed, is needed as a pre-generized locus
to build up a gender. This means that Beauvoir would have considered -according
to Butler’s reading- that a kind of self-constituent agent is needed previous
to the gendered body. This is what Butler identifies as Cartesian
Ghosts in the Sartrean Bodies and Beauvoir’s
becoming a gender seems both an extension and a concretization of the Sartrian
Butler, by the way, explores themes in Sartre’s
Philosophy that had influenced on Beauvoir’s (or so she says) but she is not
interested in her influence on him, probably believing in Beauvoir’s statement
that she does not consider herself a Philosopher(Simon, 1989, 13). But her
perspective in Le decième sexe and
Sartre’s perspective in L’ être et le
néant are not the same. He writes an essai
d’ontologie phénoménologique where Beauvoir places her critique more on
a moral plane, as a human activity.
So, Butler reads Beauvoir as if in transposing
the identification of corporal existence and becoming onto the sense of sex and
gender, she appropriates the ontological necessity of paradox where the
tension move from natural to acculturated body (Butler, 1986, 39). Butler
concludes that Beauvoir’s thesis is tautological for the ego
lives prior to discourse and consciousness comes before an apart from the
body. This is why Butler considers that she could not avoid a dualistic
conception of the human being. So understanding Beauvoir’s Philosophy, Butler
can claim that we do not become our
genders from a place prior to culture or embodied life, but essentially within
their terms. And Beauvoir surely would have agreed with her as she never
believed in human nature as a
predetermined site but in human reality,
a Heideggerian term, meaning man’s presence in the world.
On the other hand, Butler recognised the importance of Merleau-Ponty
strength in Beauvoir’s conception of the body, particularly in its sexual
aspect, as above all a historical and a cultural modality of existence. Both of
them consider sexuality as coextensive with existence and not as an isolated
sphere of drives, or natural givens. However, the account Merleau-Ponty gives of
the body in its sexual being is actually an account of the heterosexual male
body and while he claims to talk of concrete „lived experiences“,
paradoxically, he refers only to male-bodies experiences. Again, Butler
considers that this is a biased heritage, as Merleau-Ponty opposes „male“ to
„female“ as discrete units. Biology rests a bound, biological essentialism
is not put into question; the body is
understood in the sense of „limit“ or „essence“ [not as] a
field of interpretative possibilities, the locus of a dialectical process of
interpreting anew a historical set of interpretations which have become
imprinted in the flesh (Butler, 1986, 45).
This biological dimorphism becomes the significant of the cultural order, as
Lacan posed, though her „perspectivism“ or „situationism“ does not
recover the body as another institutional construction, as Butler’s states it
(48). So it makes perfect sense for Butler that Beauvoir does not challenge the
notion of natural body (sex) and exposes herself to the political uses of
biological discriminations accepting a dyadic gender system. Butler assumes that
Beauvoir also emphasises that the demarcation of anatomical difference does
precede the cultural interpretation of that difference and the normative
assumptions it carries.
But it is worth noting that for Beauvoir The
Data of Biology is subjected to non-natural systems of interpretation, the
body as a natural fact never exists without a human experience, so it cannot be
found „pure“ but situated, as the
locus of cultural interpretations and -like Butler’s- it
is not merely a body but rather a body subject to taboo, to laws, conscious of
him/herself and attains fulfilment (46).
Beauvoir wrote freely that she was completely against the searching of
Woman-identity as a feminist aim. She considered searching Women-identity as
part of men’s mythology, that is as if women were essentially apart. On the
contrary, she finds everybody’s duty to identify themselves as a human being who happens to be a woman, a different situation which
is not the same as men’s situation (Butler, 1989, 19). Beauvoir does not
suggest the possibility of other genders besides „man“ and „woman“, yet
she insists that these are historical constructions and either her bisexual
orientation or her fictions about female sexuality (p.e. Les Mandarins) correspond to her critique of normative feminity (or
any other forms of orthodoxies) as much as her notion of sexual pleasure is
surely an ethics of transgression and an appeal to imagination to
repopulate the future.
On the one hand, Butler’s approach seems fruitful enough to call
attention and her Performative Theory of Gender is interesting and provocative.
But her framework seems not to be the right one for interpreting Beauvoir.
So why does she critique Beauvoir on bases that the French philosopher did not
support? Whichever her motivations
were, Butler seems to work on at least three preconceptions 1) She considers
„sujet“ and „he/man“ are equivalent (S. Bordo’s
thesis) so she takes into consideration both
extensional and intentional strokes; 2) She rejects feminist theories
based on the acceptance of the biological sexual difference (which entail
normativeness, ontological hang over, or so) in order to establish post-feminist
foundations; 3) She thinks that the
body is not a biological data but also
a performative-cultural-discoursive construction.
On the other hand, in Le decième
sexe, Beauvoir ignored gender as an analytical category. Her perspective of
„sex“ (female / male) cannot be conceived as the natural basis for a „gender“
construction and „gender“ should not be viewed as the cultural
interpretations of a pre-given sex -even though her experience of the ‘70’s
movement of women lead her to accept the notion of „gender“ without many of
Butler’s theoretical implications. The body is not a choice, it is the point
of departure which l am; to be present
in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at the same time
a thing in the world and a point of view of the world. Subjectivity and
corporeality are co-extensive. For choices are always made in a certain
situation and starting from the same situation one can choose this or that. So
one can have different choices in a single situation and one can choose to
accept it or escape it.
So, there is a theoretical tension in Le
decième sexe on the question of choice and oppression: women are an
oppressed group but in a way each girl chooses to be the Other so she is in
complicity with her oppression. Beauvoir knows that it is convenient for
bourgeois women this kind of oppression but she appeals all the same to the
possibilities of each human being has to refuse her/his situation.
In brief, as Heinämaa insists bel
et bien, when Beauvoir asks how does one become a woman, she in fact asks how it
is possible that a body, intertwined with the world and other bodies, can both
repeat certain postures, gestures and expressions, and change and modify them
(Heïnamaa, 1997, 32). This is to say,
we need to explore the strange ambiguity of existent bodies. In so doing, Butler
needs an interlocutor, not to read her
works, but to follow her own reflections: Beauvoir remains there richly
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