Is gender a performance, like a stage show?

Author :- Nimisha June 27, 2020, 12:53 p.m.
Is gender a performance, like a stage show?

Are we born with a gender? Or is gender performed? My engagement with Gender Studies in Masters led me to this significant question, posed by renowned theorist, Judith Butler. Her writings are tiring at the best, written to be understood by god-knows-who at the least. However, once you understand her idea, you understand the depth of it.

I've hence attempted to simplify it for most of us clueless beings who might not have heard of this before, because knowing about this can be life-changing for anyone looking to discover and explore their sexuality!

At the time when Judith Butler was commenting on the idea of sex, the sex-gender distinction was very famous - the one that said, sex is something biological, fixed, and located in our anatomy, while gender is fluid, socially constructed, and less stable than sex.

Hence, it differentiates between bodies and behaviours, with not much scope to do anything with or change the body, but a lot of scope to play around with behaviors. Butler has major issues with this position.

Butler suggests that sex is as socially constructed as gender. The idea that anatomy can only accommodate two types is a radically social idea, and medical science combined with cultural settings has produced the need to box babies into either born a man or a woman, and no other category.

If anatomy was really fixed, and by body we really can just be either a man or a woman, what is to be said of intersex babies, with multiple reproductive organs? How do doctors then decide, which organ to remove, and which sex to assign? The doctors decide it based on their own perceptions on what it means to be a man or a woman, and then operate on the body to normalize it into these categories. 

The same medical science has also given us the scope to change ourselves anatomically. For example, there are trans sexuals, who get operated on their genitalia to make their bodies match the way they wish to act in the society. Hence, sex really is not that stable and biological that it was made to seem.

It becomes important for Butler to engage with this idea, because the idea of biological sex, even with a fluid gender seems to indicate the fact that we are all, innately and naturally heterosexuals. She opens up the scope with these ideas to look beyond genitalia to understand gender.

From what I understand of Butler, she means to say that the idea of sex itself is just a construct that has been necessitated to understand the purpose of our genitalia in the society.

My understanding of the fact that I have a vagina, hence I am a woman is itself culturally and socially constructed, to benefit heteronormative patriarchy. And it is in this context that she highlights that gender itself is performative.

When Butler says that we are performing gender, basically we are taking up a role every day. To be our sex is to perform the role outside as an indication of what we are, and what we wish to be. 

When we are performing, we produce a series of effects. We walk, talk, react in a way that affirms us being a man or a woman in the society. Those consolidated series of effects are what translates as the norm in the society, encouraging violence and other means for people who do not choose to enact the desired performance. 

Gender, for Butler, is not really a fact. It is not a full stop situation, where there is a point which remarks us as a man or a woman. These categories are "phenomenons", produced and reproduced over time. Hence, there is really no gender in the beginning - we become gendered and sexed. Gender becomes the meaning assigned to our bodily differences.

Now, when certain "phenomenons" are accepted as agreed upon by the society, those who are not "man enough", or not "a gentle enough woman", face bullying, harassment, and multi-faceted violence. This just does not extend to those who overtly show disregard to the accepted performance.

A discussion in our Gender Studies class about this revealed how all of us have been policed to not deviate from acting out the desired phenomenon. Violence is how gender heteronormativity is ensured and sealed. The gendering of our bodies results to gendering everywhere, according to Butler.

So, deviant kids will be referred to a psychiatrist to behave more "normally". The normal here is the acts necessary to establish one as either a man or a woman in the society. Hence, for Butler, normalising deviant behaviour as treatable by psychiatry, and intervention of medicine and science, becomes one institutional form of regulation, while there are also other, more informal means, like bullying, which ensure that we do not add our own take to the act prescribed.

We aren't really acting then, we are enacting a series laid out for us, with no scope for deviating the script, or throwing it and writing another one altogether. The only way to do so is risking your own life. 

Having said that, Butler also believes that doing gender is a policed act, that it is culturally formed, but also a domain of agency and freedom, and hence it becomes important to resist this policing of bodies, especially bodies that are non-conforming to acceptable roles.

Do you agree with this postulation?