Dylan’s comment on the Hero Worship post (below) questioned whether Butler’s theory works on the ground. This post is my attempt to make sense of the thoughts the book brought up for me and to think about the ways in which what I found there does and does not “work” in my life.
The idea that seemed to me to unify all of Gender Trouble is that nothing exists prior to or outside of language and culture. Sexuality is not a raw, natural substance merely conditioned by culture; the very category of sex is produced by culture. The discourse (or law? I’m not entirely clear on the technical distinction) of compulsory reproductive heterosexuality produces not only heterosexuality but also the rebellions to that law: the discourse itself produces both hetero & homosexuality. (This coming out of Foucault’s view that there is no resistance outside of power relations.) Butler finds hope not in getting away from culturally produced sexualities, or in a return to some original state of freedom (she denies that such a thing ever existed) but instead in the continual failure of the law to produce only or just what it’s aiming at. Those failures open the possibility of using the available culturally intelligible tools of gender performance to live in ways that denaturalize what the law wants to make seems entirely natural: namely, the perfect coherence of sex, gender, and identity.
I love this concept of cultural intelligibility. I used a linguistic analogy the other night talking about it with T. She was expressing frustration at being unable to define masculinity or femininity. Of course it’s impossible, just like it’s impossible to define, fully and accurately, the grammatical rules for one’s own native language. (Hence the stupidity of computer grammar checkers—it’s just that hard to write a sufficient set of rules.) But that doesn’t mean that we don’t speak, fluently, perfectly even, for it is in the very act of speaking that we define and redefine the language. So I can’t give a list of axioms by which to define masculinity, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t speak gender just fine. Masculinity and femininity are culturally intelligible; my new short hair speaks a different gender than my old long hair did, and the people around me understand in their different ways, even if neither they nor I could define exactly why.
The other reason I love the concept of cultural intelligibility is that it explains to me at last the enormous need for role models, examples, context. It is simply too much to ask a human being to dream it all up alone. Butler argues compellingly that all gender performance is parodic & imitative & aspirational; so I have a right to perform the elements of masculinity that I want, I’m allowed to use the culturally intelligible components of gender (stiff collars, swagger) and not be any less or more authentic than anyone else. And my need for a context is not weakness but simply the way cultural intelligibility works. Sinclair and others are literally creating a grammar and a vocabulary for female and feminist masculinities—and that work is important. It is the work of opening up possibilities, giving them life in language and enabling them to emerge as culturally intelligible practices. Our gendered gestures have meaning because we ourselves recognize them, but also because others do, too, whether they say that’s what I want, or yes, that’s how I feel, too. It is in that exchange of performance and recognition that gender is defined and redefined.
But here’s where the hymn of praise ends, and I have to admit that Gender Trouble didn’t provide a completely compelling answer. How does culture go about producing the variety of conformists and rebels that it does? In other words, why me? I’m willing to concede that my sense of an internally coherent identity is itself produced by culture, however deeply I feel it, and that the division between inside and outside and the investment in a unified, stable psychological subject are not natural but are as constructed as all the rest of it. So I’m not going to argue that my having always felt different is proof that I really do have an innate gender identity prior to any cultural interaction. But still: why did I feel that way? What does it mean that all the klutzy ineptitude of my childhood makes so much more sense when it’s interpreted as the result of trying to conform to the ‘wrong’ gender identity? (My mom trying to teach me to slow dance, and collapsing into gales of laughter at the way I moved my hips—all wrong—and kept trying to lead—even worse—comes to mind.) What was it in me that meant that, despite an enormous amount of effort, the culture around me failed so utterly to produce the straight woman it wanted?