Judith Butler on gender, reaction and resistance    

Ian Parker reviews Judith Butler’s latest most accessible book

Judith Butler book cover for Who's Afraid of Gender
Judith Butler book cover for Who’s Afraid of Gender

Judith Butler, the Berkeley-based US-American academic philosopher who is often hailed as one of the key theoretical resources for queer and “third wave” feminist politics, is not usually an easy read. Butler, declared non-binary under gender self-identification legislation in California, is known for troubling the assumption that our underlying biological sex, whether we are male or female, is then layered with “gender” as a set of social attributes.

Butler argued, instead, that even the apparently material bodily bedrock of “sex” is itself an assignation of gender identity which is then repeated through a “performative” adoption of, or refusal of, that identity. They have been demonised and threatened by conservatives and the far right for advocating gender theory, or so-called “gender ideology”. Now they respond with a passionately and carefully argued book for a wider audience, Who’s Afraid of Gender.

Fascism and internal enemies

The right’s obsession with “gender ideology” is, Butler points out, a multifaceted attack on many different forms of self-determination, which range from feminist arguments around a woman’s right to determine what happens to her body, to choose abortion or not, to trans affirmation of a life that breaks from imposed gender binaries. In this, the many different arguments and activities of the LGBTQIA+ movement are figured by the right as an existential threat to “normal” family structures, and, when it comes down to it, the nation state.

Butler makes no bones about this. What we are seeing around the world are far-right movements that target “gender ideology” to condense and channel anxiety and fuel desire for things to remain the same, or to return to what they once were – an impossible fantasy – against one single named enemy. This is not simply an academic argument, but cashes out in violence, in what Butler refers to as an “escalating exhilaration that feeds fascist frenzy.”

It is the nation state that anchors this attack on “gender ideology” more than any other identifiable phenomenon, for it is subversion of the nation that is seen as threatening “natural reproduction.” Butler shows how the “fascist frenzy” that is set in train by the attacks on gender ideology are necessarily and intimately linked to racism. The external enemy onto which rage is vented is also, as it always is in fascism, an internal enemy, a “foreign element that threatens the community from within.”

Ideology and identity

In this attack on “gender” that becomes an inflammatory keyword that riles the right, there is a peculiar mixture of incoherence and viciousness, a potent cocktail that mobilises ideological fantasies of the family and the nation state, whichever nation state that is, whether it is that of Vladimir Putin railing against the “Gayropa” threat to Russia from the West or that of Donald Trump.

One of the chapters deals in detail with Trump’s attempt toward the end of his term of office to reduce “sex discrimination” to biological difference, difference as determined by a binary opposition that many people, in fact, do not and cannot live in accordance with. Trump tasked the judiciary to strip away what he saw as the superfluous stuff of “gender,” and instead insisted that there should be a focus on two things; “genitals” and “plain speaking.”

It didn’t work out as Trump wished, for the judiciary had to work their way through a series of logical arguments that precisely parallel the critical apparatus of “gender theory” that Butler has spent their life teaching in their own classes. Sex discrimination legislation, the judges realised when they thought about it, was not based on the identification of “genitals” or “plain speaking” about those bits and bobs between our legs. It was based on the attribution of gender difference as if it was a sex difference, and then discrimination on that basis.

When a woman is discriminated against at work, for instance, it is because the employer takes her to be a woman and treats her differently on that account; likewise, when a trans woman is discriminated against, it is because the employer treats her as significantly different from others.

This legal wrangle draws attention to the contradictory nature of both gender and sex, neither of which are resolvable into a simple binary and cannot be simply mapped onto each other. Here also is one of the paradoxes of “identity.” The most potent forms of “identity politics” are often to be found among those, whether on the right or unfortunately amongst some on the left, who seek to treat sex as the basis of what they take to be real identity, the identity that counts for them.

TERFS in the UK

Butler devotes a chapter to one of the places in the world where the attack on so-called “gender ideology” has been so fierce, the UK, and on those characterised in the book as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS).” This is a controversial labelling of those who like to present themselves as “gender critical,” but it is important to be clear about the difference between what “ideology” and “critical” means to those of us on the left, and what it means to those who are either already on the right, fuelled by religious zeal, or who are twisting the terms “ideology” and “critical” into weapons against trans people.

Butler points out that the “gender critical” activists who call themselves “radical feminists,” and who cite figures like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon as their predecessors, are rewriting history. For all of their faults, Dworkin and MacKinnon were radical feminists who were trans-inclusive; it is an irony of history that the TERFS are, Butler writes, “in a position of woeful complicity with the key aims of new fascism.”

There is, in this movement that has gained a hold among some ex-feminists in the UK, a betrayal of “feminism as a politics of alliance,” and the danger that we “scatter into our own identitarian corners clutching one agenda at the expense of others.” Much as the TERFS, and those on the religious right, try to define what the “sex” is that they take as the basic underlying binary that must define all worthwhile identity, they cannot escape the fact that what we assume or claim to be “gender” goes all the way down into what we experience of our bodies; as Butler puts it, “If sex is framed within cultural norms, then it is already gender.”

Racism in the mix

Butler notices the elements of the antisemitic rhetoric of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and of Giorgia Meloni in Italy as they declare that gender ideology must be defeated in order to protect the state against inside enemies and outsiders, against the likes of George Soros and Goldman Sachs (two enemies named as working behind the scenes to subvert the nation).

The language that the right uses, for instance, would be called out very quickly if it was used by those on the left, and accusations that the genocide of the Jews was being minimised would very quickly and efficiently be used to silence critics; detailed argumentation and detailed footnoting in the book shows us, for instance, the way that Pope Francis likens the activists of “gender ideology” to the “Hitler Youth,” and terms like “abortion holocaust” are routinely used.

There is also a detailed discussion of the way that heterosexism intersects with racism in the history of colonialism. The book is impressive in how, despite Butler’s modest warning that such a book cannot claim to be completely global in focus, it discusses a range of national contexts. Colonialism, in fact, sets the basis for legislation around the world, and more than this, Butler notes, “Black bodies were the experimental field from which white gender norms were crafted.”

Phantasms of fascism

The book smartly deploys, without being reductive, some psychoanalytic ideas to get to grips with the hold of toxic nationalist and heterosexist ideology on people in times of crisis. Butler explains how the “phantasm” of gender involves the work of “condensation” in which a number of contradictory ideas are pressed together, and “displacement” in which the sense of threat and destruction is turned against a named enemy, here against the signifier “gender.”

Our understanding of what it is to be a gendered or sexed subject is grounded in social relations, and when we speak of such things we always speak from our own standpoint, our own position, whether that is individual or collective. Better that it is collective, and better that it is a position that constructs an alliance of the oppressed instead of dividing us from each other. Butler notices the way that the word “gender” itself has different meanings and resonances in different languages, not existing as a term in some languages at all, and looks to “translation” as the basis for an internationalist and intersectional alliance.

Here, the academic feminist Butler has, it seems, turned left, and there is acknowledgement of the limits of the “performative” theory of gender that they were once known for; acknowledgement that the performative account is, perhaps, “questionable in several ways, especially in the light of trans and materialist criticisms.” There is also acknowledgement of the close link now between the argument being made in the book and Marxism; “For Marx, the social relations that help to organize material reality configure not only the knowable world in a certain way but also our ways of knowing.”

This very interesting and useful book should be a resource for discussions among revolutionary Marxists who are in active solidarity with our trans comrades working alongside the feminist politics that inspire us to understand and change the world and who we are in it. It should also change “our ways of knowing” what we could be.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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