(Mis)Understanding Gender Performativity

d shul
10 min readJul 2, 2019
Judith Butler is an American philosopher whose work critically (re)examines gender and sexuality.

Judith Butler first developed the theory of performativity in Gender Trouble (1990). Performativity is the view that social constructs and the identities that depend upon them are based in repeated imitations of social norms, and do not exist prior to or independently of repeated imitation of these norms. Performative approaches to identity radically reframe what it means to “be something” (e.g., a man/woman, straight/lesbian, etc.) by showing how identities are effects of repeated behaviors instead of internal qualities that are expressed through behaviors.

Butler discusses performativity in the context of gender. From a performative perspective, gender identity is not an internal essence that is expressed through behavior, but is instead an effect of repeated behaviors that imitate gender norms. For example, “a man” from a performative perspective is someone who repeatedly imitates masculine gender norms. This view contrasts with normative perceptions that gender identity is something that exists prior to and independently of behavior, and that gendered behavior is an expression of a pre-existing gender identity.

For example: if I am a man, then this is typically thought to mean that I am a man “on the inside” first and that because of this I then act like a man “on the outside” as an expression of inner “manness.” In other words, “acting like a guy” is thought to express a pre-existing masculine gender identity that is performed by masculine gender roles. Performativity switches the order of operations by claiming that one first repeatedly performs masculinity by imitating masculine gender norms, and then perceives themselves as a man as a result of their repeated imitation of these norms. Performative identity is thus an effect of repetition and imitation, and is not something that exists prior to or independently of repeated imitation.

What is meant by “imitation?” This makes it seem like gender is not real!

Gender performativity is commonly misunderstood to mean that gender is “just a performance” and is therefore as inconsequential or arbitrary as a performance on stage. This (mis)understanding of gender performativity invalidates the material reality of gender by presuming that gender is not real, or is as flippant as a…

d shul

queer theorist and affect alien