Who’s afraid of gender? by Judith Butler review – gender theorist goes mainstream | Company books

FFor the purposes of this review, I read a book by Judith Butler. This may seem trite, but it already sets me apart from almost everyone who has an opinion on the American philosopher.

It’s not really a joke to say that their last book could have been called Who’s Afraid of Judith Butler, because a lot of people are; all the fears and all the fantasies poured into the idea of ​​“genre”, explored by this new work, are also poured into its author. Butler’s work has been defined as diabolicaland the professor as a kind of she-devil – or rather they-demons – a convenient vessel for current anxieties about the stability of sex.

When I was in my 20s and an undergraduate women’s studies major, Butler’s 1990 book, Gender Trouble, was relatively new and already a huge success. In it, they used classical radical feminism, psychology, and poststructuralist philosophy in the analysis of gender and sexuality. But even though they were a rock star in academic circles, Butler wasn’t exactly mainstream. Known for expounding the theory of gender performativity, they were also infamous for their extremely long sentences, dense prose, and postmodern style that people either really love or really hate. Their ideas are now much more widely debated, at least in part because of a backlash against increasing the rights and visibility of trans and gender diverse people.

This seems like the kind of impact and level of public engagement that most academics can only dream of, but when theory enters popular discourse, it is often damaged along the journey. It arrives late, very modified, devoid of nuances, simplified, poorly applied and misunderstood. This is particularly the case with gender performativity, continually misrepresented as “performance” in order to accuse Butler of declaring that sex does not matter and that gender is just a costume. drag that we choose to put on and take off. Rather, they argue that it is performative insofar as it comprises the stylized repetition of acts whose performance gives rise to the genre. And it’s not really voluntary, but obligatory – and controlled by society. More than 30 years after Gender Trouble, Butler still has to explain that they never said gender didn’t matter, as they still do here: “What if, in fact, no one had said that sex wasn’t real, although some people wonder what its reality consists of? Butler is frustrated and angry; or as frustrated and angry as famous philosophy professors are. I know this because it is the most accessible of their books so far, an intervention aimed at a wide audience.

Unless you’ve avoided covering social issues for the past decade, you may have a working knowledge of the so-called “gender wars”, which are particularly vicious here in the UK (and seen globally as an embarrassing example of sexual violence). and gender conservatism). Butler explains that “gender” has become a fantasy, representing multiple human fears and anxieties regarding sexuality, bodily attributes, sex, and relationships. These concerns have been stoked and manipulated by right-wingers in positions of religious and secular power to more effectively project harm. they are complicit with women and minorities.

Butler offers various examples. In 2015, Pope Francis compared gender theory to nuclear weapons, saying it was a destructive force that refused to recognize the order of creation. Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni has warned that gender ideology will strip everyone of their sexual identity. Vladimir Putin calls Europe a “Gayropa,” saying gender is a Western construct that will destroy the concepts of mother and father.

This should rightly seem bizarre; asserting trans rights is not comparable to nuclear annihilation. LGBTQ+ History Month is not about erasing mothers and fathers. However, anti-gender movements erase my rights; and they literally erase lesbian, gay and trans parents, in some cases. In Italy, currently, lesbian mothers are removed from their children’s birth certificates and denied legal responsibility for their children. Who will defend these women? Butler points out that what is happening is an inversion. Right-wing forces appropriate and harm the rights of some women, children, and families, justifying their actions by claiming that they prevent harm to others. And there is of course a horrible irony in the fact that the Catholic Church is contributing to the disenfranchisement of LGBTQ+ people and their families under the guise of protecting children, when the Catholic Church itself is responsible for decades sexual abuse of children.

This is “moralistic sadism” and the only response, says Butler, is to form an axis of resistance; “Bringing together targeted movements more effectively than we are targeted.” People who may not be friends, who may not agree, need to work together, because sooner or later they are all at risk of being victims of the same persecution – all women, all minorities, all those who are in the minority. Solidarity is not home, Butler reminds us, using a well-known phrase coined by feminist Bernice Johnson Reagon. It doesn’t have to be comfortable.

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Because Butler is a human rights activist, as well as a theorist, the urgent point conveyed by this book is the same as in all of his work: why do so many people seem happy to cede their power to forces more and more authoritarian? And why are they so sure that this power will never be used against them?

Finn McKay is a lecturer in sociology at the University of the West of England. Who’s afraid of gender? by Judith Butler is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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