Gender Performance: The TransAdvocate interviews Judith Butler

This is incredibly important. This interview taught me that my understanding of Butler’s works and concepts were warped by those who weaponized them against me and #girlslikeus. She sets the record straight and takes on the transphobia and immoral damage committed by TERFs, including Brennan, Bindel, Jeffreys and Raymond.

JB: I agree completely that nothing is more important for transgender people than to have access to excellent health care in trans-affirmative environments, to have the legal and institutional freedom to pursue their own lives as they wish, and to have their freedom and desire affirmed by the rest of the world. This will happen only when transphobia is overcome at the level of individual attitudes and prejudices and in larger institutions of education, law, health care, and kinship.


I could quote from this article all day. Read it!

[On Raymond and Jeffreys] If she makes use of social construction as a theory to support her view, she very badly  misunderstands its terms.  In her view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct.  But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions  – or norms – that help to form us.  We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones.  For instance, gender assignment is a “construction” and yet many genderqueer and trans people refuse those assignments in part or in full.  That refusal opens the way for a more radical form of self-determination, one that happens in solidarity with others who are undergoing a similar struggle.

One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself “constructed” and, therefore, not real.  And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality.  I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory.

Go read it. 

Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all. That this reassurance is so easily displaced by anxiety, that culture so readily punishes or marginalizes those who fail to perform the illusion of gender essentialism should be sign enough that on some level there is social knowledge that the truth or falsity of gender is only socially compelled and in no sense ontologically necessitated.
—  Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” (528)

It upsets me how often I hear women say that a male actor who plays a woman (e.g. Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto) or a male model who poses as a woman (e.g. Andrej Pejić) “looks better as a woman than actual women” or “makes a better woman than most women”. Usually this is followed by some kind of a self-deprecating comment. Of course they make “better women” because the idea of a good woman is a male fantasy that has nothing to do with female women.

This happened in my graduate class and I want you all to know that you do have a voice and you do have an input on your education. Just because something has been published does not mean that it is accurate. 


After last night’s class, I feel it is necessary to address a large oversight that I did not feel comfortable confronting during my peers’ presentation. My issue is not with the presenting group as I know they were instructed to use the assigned textbook to assist with their presentation. Rather, my issue lies with the text itself. In chapter one (page 29) of Julia T. Wood’s Gendered Lives, the textbooks states:

“Cross-dresser, or transvestites, enjoy wearing clothing of the other sex. A transvestite may wear just one or two articles of clothing associated with the other sex or may dress completely, from underwear to outerwear and accessories, in the other sex’s clothing. Some cross-dressers wear the other sex’s clothes to express gender identities inconsistent with their sex. Some find the novelty of cross-dressing fun or pleasurable; some find it sexually arousing to wear clothes generally worn by the other sex. The great majority of cross-dressers are biological, heterosexual males (Docter & Prince, 1997).”

To be honest, I was appalled to hear the group present this and even more horrified to see it had been printed in a 2015 edition of a graduate textbook. As you may or may not be aware, the terms “transvestite” and “cross-dresser” have gathered strongly negative connotations and therefore paint those who do not conform to gender constructs or roles in a similarly negative, disruptive, or abnormal light. In its very essence, the terms and descriptions offered in the assigned text are discriminatory towards all individuals who do subscribe to societal constructions of gender and/or self-expression. Not only does the text promote unhealthy views of gender, identity, and sexuality, it is misleadingly inaccurate. Rather than describing transvestism as being solely sexual in its motivation, the textbook leads its readers to believe that a woman wearing a men’s shirt would then become a transvestite or a cross-dresser. Furthermore, it makes light of and “others" individuals who go beyond the women’s section or men’s section to express themselves as though this is pathological this includes individuals across the gender spectrum rather than the binary addressed in the text.

Currently working in the fashion world as an online blogger who dedicates my time promoting all forms of gender expression and battling the skewed perception of individuals who dare to blur the boundaries of menswear and womenswear, I am dumbfounded. It is hard for me to believe that in higher education students are being taught to view gender non-conformity self-expression as being synonymous with a sexual pleasure and labeled under negatively viewed labels such a “cross-dressers” or “transvestites”.

Sitting in that classroom as a female wearing a dress shirt and tie and being told that my clothing choices now make me something other than I am was not only disturbing but troubling. I worried for the other students who have sat in my place who have been told that they are now transvestites or cross-dressers. I feared for the people my fellow students would judge and categorize because of a gross generalization of research that was published 18 years ago. I fear for the students who internalize messages such as this and learn self-hatred rather than acceptance.

I could not in good conscience return to a classroom where these ideas are being taught without first expressing my deepest concern for the responsibility to hold each other accountable and to question negative portrayals of self-expression.

In the future, I would greatly encourage the use of an alternative textbook or an intentional discussion of the shortcomings and potential misinterpretations of the text and its applications.

Thank you for your time,

Ashleigh Bingham

Advertising’s ritualistic display of the female body to communicate powerlessness is also accomplished when women stand with what Goffman labels “the bashful knee-bend.” He calls these “canting” postures - meaning the body is tilted – positions that take the body away from being upright and perpendicular and places people off - center. In fact, as with the other submissive positions, “the bashful knee-bend” projects a sense of the woman as ungrounded, less than fully prepared to react quickly and firmly to her surroundings. As Goffman writes: “Once again, one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”

This posture is ubiquitous across our media landscape, so much so that it seems to define a core aspect of femininity. And once again, the posture has also been sexualized in the process, reinforcing yet again the notion that female sexuality is equated with submission and deference.

Variations of this canting posture include the crossed leg position, which has the same effect of putting women into a defenseless posture, again presupposing that there is no danger in the surroundings. Similarly, women are posed holding their feet, or the heel of a shoe, once more leaving them off-balance, teetering, ungrounded, and precarious – as they stand on one leg, vulnerable and defenseless. And then there is the head cant, the head repeatedly leaning to one side, as women – rather than holding their heads up high, upright, and firm – are posed again and again with their heads in tilted and awkward positions, bent and angled – once again, off-balance and de-centered.

An extension of this has the torso of the body itself being twisted and bent away from the vertical. Goffman argues that all of these head and body canting configurations leave women in a position where they seem utterly defenseless and, in this way, can be read as both an expression and acceptance of subordination, of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement.

The coy over-the-shoulder look, where the head is twisted to the side or sometimes behind, is also an extension of this body and head canting posture. At the same time, the pose is sexually suggestive, positioning women as the willing recipients of the look coming from someone else.

While the most unnatural, and sometimes even grotesquely contorted, poses struck by female models may make us wonder what is going on in the minds of the creative directors and photographers who position them in these ways, it is perhaps more revealing that, for the most part, we go about our business and don’t even notice these images as being especially strange. It is only when we see them adopted by unusual people – men – that we notice how normal looking are the conventions that link being a woman with powerlessness and submission.

And in perhaps its most extreme expression, the head is lifted upwards, exposing the neck in a vulnerable manner, calling to mind the positions that animals, like dogs, take up when signaling their submission to other aggressive creatures. Outside of the animal kingdom, in the actual human world women inhabit, it clearly signifies that the woman has surrendered her agency within the social world – and accepted her helplessness.

And if there is any doubt that such images carry meaning, consider that the reverse is the very picture of masculine power – the face down and the eyes trained upward from below, suggesting an animal stalking its prey. Once again, the key here is that none of this is biologically determined or predestined. This is simply a story that the culture tells us about how femininity and, by extension, masculinity are to be performed.


- Professor Sut Jhally informing of symbolic interactionism’s relevance to the kinesic construction of gender ritualizing male dominance and female subordination through media advertising in the documentary The Codes of Gender (2009).,(via gynocraticgrrl)

Watch on

Judith Butler explains ‘gender performativity’, a term that refers to the ways in which gender norms are established, policed and resisted. While her academic writing is dense, Butler has a wonderful and engaging way of talking. Below is the transcript.

Question: What does it mean that gender is performative?

Judith Butler: It’s one thing to say that gender is performed and that is a little different from saying gender is performative.  When we say gender is performed we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role or we’re acting in some way and that our acting or our role playing is crucial to the gender that we are and the gender that we present to the world.  To say that gender is performative is a little different because for something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.

I was walking down the street in Berkeley when I first arrived several years ago and a young woman who was I think in high school leaned out of her window and she yelled, “Are you a lesbian?”, and she was looking to harass me or maybe she was just freaked out or she thought I looked like I probably was one or wanted to know and I thought to myself well I could feel harassed or stigmatized, but instead I just turned around and I said yes I am and that really shocked her.

We act as if that being of a man or that being of a women is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us, but actually it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.  I know it’s controversial, but that’s my claim.

Question: How should this notion of gender performativity change the way we look at gender?

Judith Butler: Think about how difficult it is for sissy boys or how difficult it is for tomboys to function socially without being bullied or without being teased or without sometimes suffering threats of violence or without their parents intervening to say maybe you need a psychiatrist or why can’t you be normal. So there are institutional powers like psychiatric normalization and there are informal kinds of practices like bullying which try to keep us in our gendered place.

I think there is a real question for me about how such gender norms get established and policed and what the best way is to disrupt them and to overcome the police function. It’s my view that gender is culturally formed, but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom and that it is most important to resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender different, who are nonconforming in their gender presentation. 

Recorded January 13, 2011
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd

Via Big Think.

In North American culture, space is a signifier of power, and individuals who have command over greater amounts of space and territory are often considered to have great power. Women and lower-status persons of both sexes are afforded and expected to take up less space than males and higher-status persons. In addition, people in subordinate positions cannot control others from entering the space available to them.

The boss can enter the worker’s space, lean on the employee’s desk, or tower over the subordinate. Only with the supervisor’s invitation can the subordinate enter into the supervisor’s space. In public and in private, in the workplace and in the streets, women constantly experience space encroachment.

Gender-differentiated proxemic patterns appear even in childhood when young boys are encouraged and permitted to play outdoors while play for young girls is more frequently centered within the home (Graebner, 1982; Harper and Sanders, 1985; Thorne, 1993; Valentine, 1997).

Learned behavior patterns inform beliefs about entitlement to space and affect how individuals interpret the use of space - especially when expected spatial norms are violated. In the animal kingdom and among human beings, subordinates yield space to dominants.

Frank Willis (1966) performed studies in which he measured the initial distance set by an approaching person. He established that both sexes approach women more closely than they do men. In a review of many such research studies on nonverbal sex differences in interpersonal distance, Judith Hall (1984) also found that females are approached more closely than are males. When women’s space is intruded upon, they are apt to acquiesce to the intrusion - just as they frequently acquiesce to interruptions.

Jeanette Silveira’s research (1972) indicated that when men and women walked toward each other on the sidewalk, the woman moved out of the man’s way in twelve out of nineteen cases.

Knapp and Hall (1997) speculate that acquiescing or ceding space to males may be linked, in part, to associating male behavior with the potential for threatening aggression. They further hypothesize that acquiescence to “invasions” of personal space may be attributed to societal norms for maintaining “appropriate” distance; “people expect men to keep larger distances, and when they do not, it may be disturbing” (p. 168). Yet, as we have seen, societal norms and expectations serve dominant interests.

Women are encouraged to sit and move in ways that intensify the lesser amount of space available to them. For example, women when involved in a dyadic or small-group communication interaction may sit poised on the edge of a chair, eagerly leaning forward rather than “taking up” space. “Feminine” clothes also contribute to a nonverbal image of female weakness and reconfigure the bodies that wear them. Tight skirts and tight slacks restrict movement. High heels force women to take small steps.

In the late 1800s economist Thorstein Veblen (1899) asserted that “the high heel, the skirt, the impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer’s comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women’s apparel, are so many items of evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man.” Veblen noted that middle-class women were not just restricted in their movements, they, and their relative powerlessness, were literally “on display” (p. 126 - 127).

In the United States, contemporary women are still socialized to take up less space than men. They are taught to sit with their legs together and elbows to their sides and to walk with smaller steps. Contemporary women’s fashion, such as tight clothing, short skirts, and high heels, discourages women who wear it from sitting and moving expansively, as do men. While seated, men spread their legs and put their arms on the armrests of chairs. They walk with longer strides. We know that these stereotypical ways of moving are not anatomically based, because men in Asia, for example, sit with their legs as closed together and cross their legs as do Western women.


Borisoff, Deborah (New York University) & Merrill, Lisa (Hofstra University). “The Power To Communicate: Gender Differences as Barriers - Third Edition.” Waveland Press, Inc; Prospect Heights, Illinois, 1998, (p. 52 - 54)

And sex/gender-differentiated promexic patterns that involve males/men being intrusive towards females/women is still a present-day problem. As well as the cultural pattern of socializing/conditioning females to conform to feminine gender performativity which makes women have non-spatially expansive kinesics and is further enabled/reinforced through restrictive, impractical, clothing designs. (via gynocraticgrrl)

Happy birthday to Judith Butler!

Philosopher Judith Butler has been influential across many disciplines, and sociology is no stranger to her works.  She first drew widespread attention with her book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler questioned the supposed naturalness of both the male/female sex binary and the differences between men and women. Not natural at all, she argued, gender is performed.  Butler has written over a dozen books and is a great scholar to be able to quote at parties if you want to impress upon others that you know your shit.

Image found at The New School Free Press, via A Serving of Sociology.


“So, here we have encoded into masculinity and femininity power-inequality.”

[Context: Sociology and Women’s Studies professor Gail Dines discussing the hierarchical and dichotomous power-dynamic embedded in the construction of masculine versus feminine sexuality and perceptions of men versus women when both internalize and perform for the straight male gaze].

- Gail Dines: Pornland Conference [Part 1]


Beautiful Boys by Naoko Wowsugi

I invited young straight men to my studio for a makeover. At the end, I show the boys their reflections of feminine alter egos and vulnerability in a mirror.

cissexual juxtaposition and the politics of revelation

[source removed]:

sometimes i just want to get a fake orange spray tan and bleach my hair blonde and wear hollister and a&f and american eagle and uggs exclusively and wear frosted lipglosses and make ducklips faces and care about jersey shore and gossip girl. because apparently “nice” dudes hate when girls that because it’s “fake”, it’s “slutty”, it’s overdone/tasteless/”dumb” but fuck you. everything is fake. all persona is persona including what you’ve been conditioned to perceive as a “neutral”/”inoffensive” appearance.

because i don’t want your “respect”, and i certainly don’t need your advice on how to “respect” a body. i don’t need your fake concern about skin cancer and burns on my scalp when my body doesn’t even feel like mine sometimes. when breast cancer becomes selling sex to teenage boys who wouldn’t tell you about the lump in your breast they felt while they were feeling you up. your concern for my body will always be mediocre until it is mine to create/destroy/create, and even then it wouldn’t even matter because you do not inhabit this flesh, or these organs, or this mucus/snot/bile/blood/spit/fluid/fluid/fluid. so stop trying to crawl into my bed of skin, asshole. stop trying to own my ugliness. you can’t have it. too bad, so sad.

i don’t want you to wait before i leave the room to talk about how gross i am. i want my skin to be greasy and leave big orange stains on every man who touches me and who i choose to touch. i want my hair to make you puke. i want my clothes to remind you of how capitalism lives in tube tops and booty shorts just as well as it does in jeans and a t-shirt or whatever the fuck makes you feel like the girl you wanna fuck is real “authentic”, real “down-to-earth” or whatever. i want to remind you that every picture is posed. no expression can be pure when you can see the camera and the camera can see you. i want you to know that i spent three goddamn hours straightening my hair and putting on my eyeliner over and over again and removing it over and over again so there’s light grey rings under my eyes and when i reapplied my lipgloss for the 20th time tonight in the backseat of my best friend’s car it hit a pothole so it’s smudging against my lipliner and i’m still not “sexy” to your pretentious jonh lennon art school ass. my labor is MINE, and it’s ugly because god loves ugly. i wasn’t put on this earth to give you a hard on. i want to scream and drink and grind to shitty club music because i want to scare the living shit out of you. i want you to go home and post a facebook update about how “our generation is doomed” and get twenty likes from all your pretentious john lennon art school friends and all your fedora-wearing self-entitled pasty sarcastic bros and all your edgewatch xvx police officers and all your “nice guy” indie rock microbrew date rapists who all secretly wish they could make a man want to remove himself from this earth just by getting a spraytan.

i don’t want you to want to fuck me, BRO. i want you to have to look at me. i want to be the bright orange flesh you don’t want to fuck but you also can’t ignore. i want you to be very, very scared of what is going to come out of my mouth. i want you to cringe at the sound of my voice because it is both too feminine and too loud. your disgust makes me even louder, even more powerful. and it’s so funny to me, so funny to me, because you know and i know we are both just pretending we aren’t aware that deep down you so badly wish you could be a monster, too.

It’s been a while since I first read this. The original author has taken their tumblr down, so I’ve removed the reference to their name in case they don’t want to be associated with this post. I’ll restore the reference on request.

So anyway I wanted to talk to fellow trans women about this. I love this post. But I’m interested in how and whether it works because it works off cissexuality. The obvious fakeness that the writer’s going for; does it only work because it’s juxtaposed with a flesh that’s originally invested with some kind of metaphysical “authenticity”, and work because of that contradiction?

Because I’m thinking of what would happen if a trans woman did that. Would it still be a revelation, interesting, that our presentation is “fake”? Or would everyone just nod and go, “Well, sure. I always thought as much.” Or not even that!

And it’s got me thinking about the whole drag-as-unmasking-performativity thing (which by the way Judith Butler has made very clear is a misreading, albeit one she pretty much invited via her play on “performance”) and whether, in fact, everyone already knows at some level this shit is fake. Or, as Eve Sedgwick (I spelled it right this time ;)) puts it, “Where are all these supposed modern liberal subjects?”.

The thesis I’m feeling my way towards is that femininity satisfies compulsory heterosexuality precisely because it’s “fake”, in the sense that we didn’t woke up like this (no sideswipe at Beyoncé intended here - I know and like what she’s doing). I’m sketching the shape of a sadistic aesthetic which enjoys that a woman:

a) has had to work to change her appearance and possibly subjectivity

b) isn’t allowed to speak about this and has to act as if it’s “natural”

To me, this aesthetic explains a lot of how beauty misogyny works, including beauty transmisogyny. And if so, this suggests there is a very deep problem with the politics of revelation around femininity. What if they know, have always known, deep-down if not explicitly, that it’s drag? What if that’s not the problem?

“What generally passes for nature in the bourgeois context of delusion is merely the scar tissue of mutilation.”

Theodor Adorno, Minimal Moralia

Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character. Whatever any portion of human species now are, or seem to be, such, it is supposed, they have a natural tendency to be: even when the most elementary knowledge of the circumstances in which they have been placed, clearly points out the cause that made them what they are.

—  John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Woman, 1869

Goffman starts his analysis of gender display with something seemingly simple and trivial – the way that hands are represented in advertising as male or female. He argues that female hands have a different relationship to reality than male ones. Female hands are shown not as assertive or controlling of their environment but as letting the environment control them. So, for example, when women are shown holding something, it often looks as though it is just resting there – not being held in a strong manner. Female hands are shown just tracing the outlines of an object, or cradling it – rather than carrying it and being in control of it – or they are presented as just using the ends of the fingers to hold objects, delicately and lightly, rather than using the whole hand. When this feminine touch is applied to other people – men – it is also light, soft, and caressing.

In contrast, the masculine touch is powerful and assertive, presenting a different relationship to the world. Instead of tentative, the male touch is utilitarian, controlling, and bold. Male hands are shown as manipulating their environment, molding it to their desires. And when applied to others, the touch is commanding and firm.

Sometimes you can see the difference in one image, where masculinity is about power and strength, and femininity is superficial and weak. Goffman further argues that the soft feminine touch can be extended into what he calls self-touching, which conveys a sense of the body as being a delicate and precious thing. In fact, women are constantly shown touching themselves – and there really is no part of the body that is off-limits. Whether it is the shoulder that is being utilized, or the face being touched in this soft and caressing manner, or the neck – symbolically connected with vulnerability and openness – there seems to be no end to how women will touch themselves in the world of commercial realism.

Women are also shown in a kind of breathless posture – though the world around them is too much for them to cope with – or holding themselves protectively, as if the body is a delicate thing that needs support. These are undoubtedly conventionalized positions of passivity and acquiescence to whatever else may exist in the immediate social situation.


- Professor Sut Jhally informing of symbolic interactionism’s relevance to the construction of gender through media advertising in the documentary The Codes of Gender (2009).
I'm a woman who models men's clothes. But this isn't about gender

Casey Legler: My responsibility is to kids who might feel shame –€“ might be ostracised from society – just for being different

“There is a historical tradition you should know about and it is certainly not about gender. It is about being fierce.”

There is a sense in which I disagree. 

You can’t divorce yourself from context. Self-expression is communication – communication in fashion means a visual language– and all language, at the moment, is encoded by gender.

But I love the sentiment behind this. So in sum, PREACH.


Captain Shakespeare, we learn, is a very learned man and not a person who particularly cares to abide by gender norms. He likes lace and frills and sometimes he dances the can-can alone in his room and sometimes he cross-dresses. The whole thing is played for laughs, but it’s a little sadder once you realize that Captain Shakespeare lives in utter fear of his crew finding out that he’s not authentically masculine in the way they want him to be.

It turns out, however, that he needn’t have worried. When his crew finds out about their Captain’s predilections, we actually discover that they’ve known all along, and have been covering for him. So that’s all well and good, and we discover that Captain Shakespeare’s performance of masculinity has been unnecessary, right?

Well, not really, actually. Because even though we now know that the crew both is aware of and doesn’t care about their Captain’s more feminine traits, they still insist that he perform masculinity in front of them. Not verbally, of course, but by subtle encouragement of his more masculine traits. In other words, the message of that plotline seems to be that it’s all well and good to understand that gender is really just a performance and there’s nothing behind it, as long as we all agree to keep performing it.

from Gender Performance in ‘Stardust’ on Kiss My Wonder Woman