Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination"

Judith Butler's ideas about gender very influential to my understanding of gender and queerness.  In Butler's 1990 piece "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," she dissects a number of issues surrounding queerness, identity, and performativity.  I read this piece as part of The Judith Butler Reader, which was edited by Sara Salih and Butler.  The essay originally appeared in Inside Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, edited by Diana Fuss and published by Routledge in 1991.  She begins the essay by discussing her reservations on writing for a Lesbian and Gay anthology because she has problems with identifying as a Lesbian theorist (Butler, 2004, 120-121).  She thinks that identity categories are regulatory institutions, even when people claim them.  According to Butler, homosexual identity categories cannot be stable and if they became stable they would stop being appealing to her because she is attracted by their instability.  She says,
      I'm permanently troubled by identity categories, consider them , as sites of necessary trouble.  In fact, if the category were to offer no trouble, it could cease to be interesting to me: it is precisely the pleasure produced by the instability of those categories which sustains the various erotic practices that make me a candidate for the category to begin with.  To install myself within the terms of an identity category purports to describe; and this might be true for any identity category which seeks to control the very eroticism that it claims to describe and authorize, much less "liberate." (Butler, 2004, 121)
This is very provocative statement, particularly in the face of mainstream homosexual discourses that rely heavily on proclaiming oneself to be part of an identity category such as Gay or Lesbian.  By criticizing the idea of stable categories as regulatory features, Butler is opening the door for current discourses of queerness and fluidity of sexuality.   She also describes the problems with the discourse of "coming out."  She says that the process of coming out as homosexual does not free people from the constraints of the "closet" (Butler, 2004, 122).  Being out in society simply puts different constraints on people's behavior. A person may be freer to act in a way that matches their inner self, but one will also now be judged by the stereotypes of that identity.  It can also put people in very real physical danger as well as open to other types of discrimination and violence.  She goes even farther to say that the idea of being out is necessary to create and maintain the concept of the closet.  Butler writes,
"Conventionally, one comes out of the closet (and yet, how often is it the case that we are "outed" when we are young and without resources?); so we are out of the closet, but into what? what new unbounded spatiality? the room, the den, the attic, the basement, the house, the bar, the university, some new enclosure whose door, like Kafka's door, produces the expectation of a fresh air and a light of illumination that never arrives?  Curiously, it is the figure of the closet that produces this expectation, and which guarantees its dissatisfaction.  For being "out" always depends to soem extent on being "in"; it gains its meaning only within that polarity.  Hence, being "out" must produce the closet again and again in order to maintain itself as "out."(Butler, 2004, 122-123).
For this project, the idea of coming out as a problematic concept or a regulatory action is particularly important.  I want to explore the idea that people may use internet as a way of coming out or proclaiming identity that they may not be comfortable proclaiming in physical spaces.  It may also be a way of being more explicit about sexuality and identity than may be visible in regular spaces because feminine identity and presentation are rarely questioned or seen as queer in people who are perceived as being biologically female.   Coming out has traditionally a very important political act for LGBT people.  It is not usually seen as being potentially negative or as a way of reproducing problematic institutions and binaries.

Perhaps the most important part of this essay for my project are Butler's ideas about the drag and performing gender and appropriation.  Butler says that homophobic discourses and compulsory heterosexuality posit homosexuality as an appropriation and copy of heterosexuality (Butler, 2004, 127).  She says that drag is not the act of putting on the trappings and clothing of another gender but the way that all genders are repurposed and reenacted (Butler, 2004, 127-128).  She writes,
"Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation ad approximation.  If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself."  (Butler, 2004, 127).
This is a fascinating approach to the idea of performing gender.  Drag is usually thought of as the way that a person of one gender uses the mannerism, appearance, clothing, and aesthetics of another gender.  People perform drag by coping the a different gender than their own.  Butler challenges this notion.  She says that everyone is appropriating and coping gender whenever they are performing gender.  Because gender is enacted in this coping, the action is actually creating the very thing that is copied.  Because this performance is an action of creation rather than appropriation even though people are enacted their preconceived ideas about gender, whether the gender they are enacted is their assigned gender or not.  Butler goes on to say that we only think heterosexuality is the original that homosexuality is coping because it is compulsory and so is endlessly recreated (Butler, 2004, 128).  Butler also says that for homosexuality must exist and be seen as a copy for heterosexuality to be seen as the original (Butler, 2004, 128).  Furthermore, she says that homosexuality is not a copy of heterosexuality but rather heterosexuality is a copy of itself (Butler, 2004, 129).  It has to copy and reiterate itself because it is always in danger of being questioned and being made not compulsory.  It is through playing with gender and heterosexuality that it can be further questioned and shown as constructed (Butler, 2004, 129-130).  She also says that
"sexuality is never fully 'expressed' in a performance or practice; there will be passive and butchy femmes, femmy and aggressive butches, and both of those, and more, will turn out to describe more or less anatomically stable 'males' and 'females.' There are no direct expressive or causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice fantasy and sexuality.  None of those terms captures or determines the rest.  Part of what constitutes sexuality is precisely that which does not appear and that which, to some degree, can never appear.  This is perhaps the most fundamental reason why sexuality is to some degree always closeted, especially to the one who would express it through self-disclosure."(Butler, 2004, 131).  
This is important because people try to make so many connections between sexuality and performance of different ideas about gender.  People think that a person's clothing, appearance, or mannerisms are always effective markers of their sexual desires or actions.   People can use these things to express ideas about their sexuality, but they can never completely express all the components of their sexuality.  Queerness is more than something that some one puts on or the way they walk; it is a very part of their being, desires, fantasies, relationships, and construction of the self and the other.  These ideas will be very important to my project because I want to talk about how people can use clothing and appearance on their blogs to express their sexuality and gender.  To effectively discuss this, I also have to be able to talk about how far that expression can go and what it can and cannot convey.

Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in The Judith Butler Reader, edited by Sara Salih and Judith Butler. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004): 119-137.


  1. you need a proofreader. it's too bad to spoil this essay w/ mistakes.

    1. As a writing teacher (and writer myself), I'd rather read an essay with profound ideas and a few grammar mistakes than one with summaries and unoriginal thought, but edited perfectly.

      I'm appalled that the only two comments here are on grammar (and I myself am a grammar nerd). The mistakes were minimal and did not affect my reading at all.

      Thank you, Katie, for this great piece. It really helped me solidify my understanding of Butler's essay. I felt like I kind of understood it, but after reading this post, I have a much better grasp. <3