Bachner on Butler's "Gender Trouble"

The glaring tones of pink and violet on the cover, accompanied by bold letters that spell out the book’s title, frame a quaint image, a reproduction of an old photograph marred by a tear that runs from top to bottom. In the photograph, two children look toward the camera. Both are garbed in ruffled pinafore dresses. But whereas the slightly taller of the two looks like a girl, the other’s hairstyle and features would probably make the beholder identify him/her (?) as a boy.

And so Gender Trouble begins. Or at least for a reader who, like me, used the 1990 edition of the reflections by American philosopher Judith Butler on what makes and breaks the adscription of gender and sexual identity. Somewhat intrigued by the title and the photograph (although put off by the overall aesthetic effect of the book cover), I ventured into reading the book itself—after all, it was one of the texts assigned for an seminar on recent developments in critical theory in the Comparative Literature program during my MA studies at Munich University. Even though a German translation had come out the year after the book’s publication in English (translated as Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, toning down the “trouble” of the original to “unease”), we read Gender Trouble in the English original in our seminar in the late 1990s. Theoretical texts had formed an integral (and increasingly important) part of my intellectual formation—other courses and my own reading had brought me into contact with texts by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze from my first semester in college onward—and yet, at first I had real trouble with Butler’s book. Even to a native speaker of German (with its notoriously long sentences and complex syntax) the work’s abstract, noun-heavy style and convoluted syntax seemed to make for an unnecessarily dense text and a difficult reading experience—until the message of Gender Trouble hit me with all its conceptual force.

And all of a sudden, sentences such as “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its result” made sense. In fact, the thoughts in Butler’s book were not only theoretically revolutionary but became profoundly personal. The insight that identity is not fixed but performative, that identity is not an essence or being, but rather a doing regulated by social scripts came at a time when I was grappling with my own sexual orientation and it proved profoundly liberating. It meant that I did not have to buy into heterosexual standards, nor emulate the most visible models of same-sex lifestyle. It also lifted the pressure of social and class expectations as I was preparing for a career in academia. What Butler theorized with and against feminist and psychoanalytical thinkers, the film The Matrix (by the then Wachowski Brothers—one of them has since transitioned from Larry to Lara) exemplified in its scifi mode as it was playing in cinemas all over Germany in 1999: namely that you couldn’t (and shouldn’t) trust what appeared solidly real and that your own perception contributed to and could thus potentially challenge existing norms.

Apart from triggering a personal epiphany, Gender Trouble also profoundly transformed my understanding of theoretical thinking. It taught me that philosophical thought—seemingly only the stuff of rarefied armchair or classroom conversations in the academic ivory tower— could have a profound political impact, an impact that starts with one’s own perception and performance of the self and develops its power in interactions with others and with the world at large. This entails a different view of what theory can be and do—not simply an abstract set of thoughts, but rather a crucial way of critically rethinking the grounds of our self and of reality.

Now that I have become a teacher myself, this pivotal experience motivates me to teach theoretical and philosophical texts as styles and ways of thinking that make us smarter, since they make our thoughts more flexible, capacious, and critical, as well as as a basis for self-understanding and for engaging with the world that surrounds us. More than twenty-five years after Butler’s Gender Trouble was first published, some students have a similarly transformative experience upon first contact with the text’s ideas. Others find Butler’s ideas no longer groundbreaking since they take the insights Butler provides for granted. And this in itself testifies to the enduring power of a work that proposed a theory of gender, but has effectively changed the ways we think now.

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 Andrea Bachner