Who’s Afraid of Gender?
By Judith Butler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $30

More than any other living academic, Judith Butler has seen her ideas seep out into the real world—in particular, a version of one of them. Butler’s big idea was that gender is a series of culturally meaningful performances ungrounded in any underlying “true” identity. Taking things a step further, Butler contended that sex itself is culturally constructed. In her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a staple of humanities seminars the world over, she wrote: “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.” 

As Butler acknowledges, these ideas have gone on to shape not only the cultural consensus, but public policy. She has herself adopted a “nonbinary” identity under California’s self-identification policy, stating in a recent interview: “I thought, why not occupy the shelter I built?”—although adding that she is “still a little suspicious of categories.” The anti-essentialism of Gender Trouble might seem to be at odds with insisting on an innate, internally felt “gender identity,” the basis of most arguments for self-identification laws, but at no point has the eminent theorist used her influence to push back against this idea.

On the contrary, Butler’s new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, takes herself to task for her earlier “performative theory … that clearly now seems questionable in several ways, especially in light of trans and materialist criticisms.” In other words, she backed down when certain men (let’s be honest) demanded not the play of signifiers but the wholesale state-backed take-over of womanhood. After all, as she says, the question “what is a woman” has been asked in so many ways “that at some point we simply accept that this category is an open one.”

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