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Queer Theory

Judith Butler

The theorist most prominently associated with analyzing the normative effects of dominant understandings of sex and gender is Judith Butler. Drawing explicitly on Foucault but with an attention to the workings of gender almost entirely absent from his work, Butler argues that gender, like sexuality, is not an essential truth derived from the body's materiality but rather a regulatory fiction: "Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being" (1990, p. 33). Focusing on the discursive production of gender, Butler analyzes what cultural work is secured by the representation of gender as the natural expression of the sexed body, arguing ultimately that the status of heterosexuality as the default setting for sexuality generally depends on the intelligibility of gender:

The notion that there might a "truth" of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms. The heterosexualization of desire requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between "feminine" and "masculine," where these are understood as expressive attributes of "male" and "female." (1990, p. 17)

As a performative effect of reiterative acts, the discursive production of gender naturalizes heterosexuality, insofar as heterosexuality is the proper outcome of normative relations between sex, gender, and sexual desire.

Following Foucault's understanding that there is no utopian outside to power and consequently that resistance is possible only within the same discursive circuits through which power operates, Butler takes up the possibility of gender performativity as a strategy of resistance, citing as examples the parodic repetition of gender norms evident in the "cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities" (1990, p. 137). For Butler, such practices contest the current conditions of cultural intelligibility for sexed-gendered subjects through a demonstration of "the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original" (1990, p. 31). In a later book, Bodies That Matter, Butler is careful to emphasize that performativity is not synonymous with performance. Far from being a playful or voluntarist enterprise, gender performativity is a reiterative process that constitutes the subject as a subject. "In this respect, performativity is the precondition of the subject" (Jagose, p. 86). Drawing attention to "new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms" (1990, p. 145), Butler's work has been taken up, both enthusiastically and critically, in queer theoretical investigations of non-heteronormative subject positions.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningQueer Theory - Origins Of Queer Theory, Aids And Queer Theory, Limits Of Identity, Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin