Friday, September 11, 2015

Julia Serano on Judith Butler

Note added in 2021: In the years subsequent to this essay being published, Judith Butler has come out as nonbinary and now uses they/them pronouns. 

For starters, my apologies about the eponymous blog-post title—I simply wanted this piece to be readily “findable” for people who do web searches using both our names.

Over the years, I have read and heard numerous reactions to my first two books—Whipping Girl and Excluded—that presume that I have negative or antagonistic views of gender theorist Judith Butler. This is not actually the case. Others have presumed that some of my work is a “misreading” of her theories, when in actuality I have never directly critiqued Butler’s work (only misinterpretations of her work). So to set the record straight, I have penned this blog-post, which will admittedly only be of interest to a small subset of readers.

Let me say from the start, I am by no means a “Butler scholar.” She is an influential figure in feminism and queer theory, especially back when I was first becoming aware of, and interested in, these fields in the early ’00s. I have read a few of her books (specifically Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter, and Undoing Gender) as well as numerous other essays she has written, interviews she has given, and reviews of her work authored by other people. Her writings are thoughtful and provocative, and have challenged me to think about gender in new and different ways.

Occasionally, Butler has made claims that I have taken issue with, or that overlook or downplay certain matters that I feel are important. (But I could say the same about most other feminist/gender/queer theorists that I have read, and they would likely say the same about me!) For instance, Butler (like most feminist theorists) tends to relegate gender entirely to the realm of the social. In my writings (especially Excluded, Chapter 13), I have discussed in great detail why ignoring or denying any possible biological influence on gender is shortsighted and potentially detrimental (as I explain here).

Perhaps as a result of this social-only approach, Butler made a few claims in her first two books (Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter) that appeared to invisiblize transsexual perspectives and lived experiences. While I have never directly critiqued this aspect of Butler’s work, in Whipping Girl I do reference Viviane Namaste’s book Invisible Lives and Jay Prosser’s book Second Skins, both of which discuss this tendency with regards to Butler’s first two books, as well as with feminist and queer theory more generally. To be clear, while I think that Namaste and Prosser both make important points, the shortcomings they describe in Butler’s work do not appear to have arisen out of any sort of anti-transsexual attitude or agenda. Indeed, in Butler’s subsequent writings (e.g., her book Undoing Gender) and interviews (e.g., this recent interview with Cristan Williams), she has made it clear that she considers transsexual identities and experiences to be legitimate, and is concerned with the real-life tangible obstacles and issues that trans people face.

While I have no strong objections to Butler’s work, I have been on a mission to destroy two memes that are often (incorrectly) associated with her—namely, the notions that “all gender is drag” and “all gender is performance.” In Whipping Girl (Chapter 19), this is how I framed this matter:

While [queer theory and post-structuralist] feminism differs from [identity-politics-focused/cultural] feminism in many ways, it shares its predecessor’s tendency to artificialize gender expression. This is often accomplished via gender performativity, a concept developed by Judith Butler to describe the way in which built-in expectations about maleness and femaleness, straightness and queerness, are constantly imposed on all of us. Butler uses the term “performativity” to highlight how feminine and masculine norms must constantly be cited. She uses the example of the child who becomes “girled” by others at birth: She is given a female name, referred to with female pronouns, given girl toys, and will, throughout her life, have her “girlness” cited by others in society. Butler argues that this sort of reiteration “produces” gender, making it appear “natural.” However, many other [queer theorists and post-structuralist] feminists have interpreted Butler’s writings to mean that one’s gender is merely a “performance.” According to this latter view, if gender itself is merely a “performance,” then one can challenge sexism by simply “performing” one’s gender in ways that call the binary gender system into question; the most often cited example of this is a drag queen whose “performance” supposedly reveals the way in which femaleness and femininity are merely a “performance.”

So in other words, Butler’s theory of gender performativity—which most certainly has merit, even if it is does not explain all aspects of gender—is completely different from the notion that “all gender is performance”—which is not only inaccurate and trite, but also at odds with what Butler actually claimed.

In “Performance Piece” (written in 2007, and which later became Chapter 11 of Excluded), I deliver a harsh critique of these then-popular slogans “all gender is drag” and “all gender is performance,” and go onto show how they are often used to undermine the identities and perspectives of transsexuals, as well as other gender and sexual minorities. Even though I do not cite Butler at all in the text, I added the following clarifying information in the first endnote to that chapter:

The notion that “all gender is performance” or “all gender is drag” is frequently attributed to Judith Butler, and specifically to her book Gender Trouble (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999). However, on numerous occasions, Butler has argued that these catch phrases are gross misinterpretations of what she was actually trying to say (see Gender Trouble, xxii–xxiv; Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 125–126; “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler,” Radical Philosophy, Vol. 67, Summer 1994, 32–39; see also Sara Salih, Judith Butler (London: Routledge, 2002), 62–71.

Despite adding this information, some people have nevertheless viewed this chapter as an indictment or misreading of Butler’s theory of gender performativity, even though (if you actually read the endnotes) it most clearly is not.

Finally, the impression that my writings exist in opposition to Butler’s also likely stems from “On the Outside Looking In”—a spoken word piece that I wrote in 2005 for a National Queer Arts Festival show called Transforming Community, and which subsequently became Chapter 2 of Excluded. The piece describes my experience at Camp Trans in 2003, and in it I excerpt a poem that Carolyn Connelly performed at that event—it was an awesome and moving rant in which she called out all sorts of LGBTQ folks for misunderstanding or invalidating her identity and experiences as a trans dyke. Here is that passage:

Fuck the lesbians who think I’m straight, I can’t be femme/I’m not a girl/Fuck the gay men who out me at Pride every fucking year/Call me fabulous/Tell me to work it/And they’re really girls too/Fuck the transsexual women who think I’m too butch /Cause of my short spiked hair/Cause I drink beer or I’m a dyke . . . Fuck the genderqueer bois and grrrls/Who think they speak for me/Or dis me cause I support the gender binary . . . Fuck Post Modernism/Fuck Gender Studies/Fuck Judith Butler/Fuck theory that isn’t by and for and speaks to real people . . .

I included that last stanza in the excerpt because it really resonated with me at the time. There is a long history of feminist and queer folks citing academic theories of various sorts in order to undermine transsexuals, and trans women in particular (as I chronicle in both my books)—sadly, this includes misattributions and misinterpretations of Butler. While I cannot speak on Connelly’s behalf, it seemed to me that the singling out of Butler in this passage was not an indictment of her work per se (as she was never anti-transsexual or anti-trans woman, unlike many other notable feminist theorists of the time), but rather because her work (and misinterpretations thereof) were ubiquitous and frequently cited during that time period (the early ’00s) and in those settings. Back then and there, “Judith Butler” (like “Post Modernism” or “Gender Studies”) was often invoked in these instances, not in reference to a specific person or theory, but rather as some abstract authority that could be wielded as justification for invalidating another person.

Over ten years ago when I was writing “On the Outside Looking In,” I was basically just a local slam poet whose trans dyke identity was often dismissed by people in my community who would (incorrectly) cite Butler’s work—that is what I was reacting to at the time, and why I included that excerpt in my piece. Nowadays, as an author of two books that are taken seriously in certain academic settings, I can see how people might misinterpret that passage as “one gender theorist calling out another gender theorist,” which was most certainly not how it was intended. The piece explicitly begins with the date “August 2003,” which I hoped would alert readers to the fact that this was “me” speaking over a decade ago in a very different environment, and not the “me” right now in this place and time. Perhaps I should have clarified this with an endnote, but as we have already established, some people do not read the endnotes . . .

Given the subject of this post, I would be remiss if I did not share the following anecdote. In 2005, before the show Transforming Community took place, we (the cast) work-shopped our pieces with one another. After my initial reading of “On the Outside Looking In,” one of the cast members expressed their concern about the line “Fuck Judith Butler” in the aforementioned excerpt. They imagined how horrified they would feel if they went to a show and someone said a similar thing about them from the stage. I responded that the quote is not intended to convey animosity toward Butler personally, but rather frustration over how trans identities were often invisibilized or invalidated via citations of academic authorities. Plus, I added, it’s not like Judith Butler is actually going to come to our show! All of us laughed.

Then in the fall of 2005, we were asked to do a reprise of the show at the San Francisco Public Library. All the cast members (including me) performed our pieces. At the end of each Transforming Community show, we always did a Q&A with the audience. So after the last piece, as I started to get up from my seat for the Q&A, I heard a voice say, “I enjoyed your piece.” I said, “Thank you,” as I looked up. The person looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t quite place the face. Until she said, “And by the way, I’m Judith Butler.” And she smiled. It was a sincere smile, not a snarky I-got-you smile. Then she walked away before I could say anything else.

I sent her an email after the fact letting her know (as I have detailed here) that I appreciated her work, and that my beef was with how other people misused her words and theories in order to invalidate others. She sent me a nice reply in which she mentioned (and I’m paraphrasing here) that she had learned to separate “Judith Butler”—the entity that people discussed and deliberated (sometimes using profanity from a library stage!)—from the flesh and blood person that she experienced herself to be.

That last bit always stuck with me, as it is something that I have had to learn myself in the years since Whipping Girl was published. These days, I sometimes come across people who accidentally (and sometimes purposefully) misinterpret what I was trying to say, or who will use my work in ways that I never intended. And I have certainly read and overheard my fair share of ‘Fuck Julia Serano’s. In any case, the only thing I can do is try to articulate my thoughts and intentions better in the future, and whenever possible, clarify my positions in my subsequent writings. Hopefully, this piece has done the latter with regards to this particular matter.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. Thanks so much for writing this. I hope it reaches a wider audience than you anticipate. Even with my very slight acquaintance with your and Butler's work, I found this post really informative. You both come across as having integrity, too.

  2. It doesn't surprise me that people misinterpret Judith Butler's work. I tried to read _Gender_Trouble_ and got lost before the end of the first paragraph. It is _not_ light reading! At least, not for me. (Maybe it is for other people.)

    Anyway, I saw an interesting explanation of the word "performance," as Judith Butler was using it, in Will's post "Let's talk about Gender Baby" on SkepChick (URL = It made a lot of sense, to me, at least:

    (begin quote)
    ... A performative speech act is an utterance that does what it says, versus a constative utterance, which is descriptive....

    So, for example, “I’m sorry” is a performative utterance because saying it actually does the act of apologizing. It is not a simple descriptive statement. You can disagree that I actually mean it, or you can reject it, but regardless of those things I have still apologized. On the other hand, if I say “the dog is brown,” that is a descriptive statement and is subject to true/false verification—me saying that does not make the dog brown.

    Butler’s argument was that gender is performative in this sense. Gender is something that we do, an action or set of actions that continuously (re)enact, (re)inscribe, (re)produce, resist, reference, etc., the social meanings we attribute to bodies, behaviors, and ideas, rather than something that we are or have deep down inside of us.
    (end quote)

    BTW, many thanks for _Whipping Girl_ . It put into words a lot of things I've been thinking and feeling, some for most of my life, some only since I started viewing myself as trans (2 years ago.) And it's a lot more readable than _Gender_Trouble_.

    1. First, thanks for the kind words about Whipping Girl!

      And yes, that is the proper reading of performance/performativity in Butler's work. People who focus on "all gender is drag/performance" fail to note that (in addition to speech acts) Butler also talks a lot about interpellation - that is, when society "hails" us as something (e.g., as a "girl" in the example above), and how we are constantly compelled to respond as such. So it's not merely that we, as individuals, are "performing" maleness and femaleness, but rather it's kind of like a big social dance (my language, not Butler's) where we are all constantly interpellating other people while responding to interpellations ourselves. And all of these constant citations create the impression that gender is simply "real" and "natural."

      At least that's my understanding/interpretation of Butler. And I definitely agree with all this - this is a huge aspect of how gender works. But I feel that there is more to gender than *just* this (as I have tried to articulate in my writings).

  3. Namaste-

    Thanks Julia. I appreciate your honest attempts at evolving out loud. Your work is refreshing in that you seem to be doing your best to articulate your experiences from the heart. Keep up the fine work--all we can do in life is find out what it means to go deeper in our own individual truths, and watching this unfold in your work makes each publication expansive and interesting.

    -Be Well and Take Care!

  4. it does take a tremendous discourse to clarify support, criticism, (dis)agreement with another, and students like us may become a bit lost. Thank you for the poop on you and J.Butler.
    Apropos make plain the details: where does Blanchard state or suggest that FEF are specific to trans?

    1. Thanks!

      regarding Blanchard, in all of his past writings on the subject, he never once even considers or raises the possibility that cisgender women might also (to some degree) experience FEFs. Presumably this is why he never used cisgender female controls in any of his research studies - because he did not think it was even possible.

      So while he never states that FEFs are trans-specific, he clearly assumed they were.