Butler: Stable Binary Gender

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Critically discuss Butler’s contribution to a new understanding of gender

The binary gender system has been doubted after the rise of feminism in the twentieth century. Especially, arguments about the relationship between sexed body and gender is a core issue in feminism, as for the contemporary feminists, the current and prime task is to question the existing fixed binary system of sex and gender is disputable in the modern era (Donovan, 2003:4). From Butler’s perspective, the aim of gender equality is not only for women but also for those “who are gender different, who are nonconforming in their gender presentation” (Butler, 2011). In this sense, Butler brings her idea of gender as perfomativity, which provides a new way to look at gender identity and therefore influences profoundly on gender practices in various fields. Hence, this essay will begin by considering Butler’s critique of Beauvoir’s idea about gender. Secondly, it will discuss the Butler’s idea of gender as perfomative. Lastly, it will take the androgyny model trend in fashion industry as an example to consider the possibility for subverting the existing stable binary gender frame in related to Butler’s idea toward a new understand of gender identity.

The existing gender binary has been radically questioned by many feminists with arguments on gender practices in various fields. Butler starts from developing her gender theory by critiques of Simone de Beauvoir’s sex/gender formulation, and later she brings out the concept of performative gender (Storey, 2009:160) to reconsider the gender identity. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir says “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Donovan, 2003:5) to indicate that one’s gender is not natural but is acquired. In other words, gender is constructed by the outside environment of which an individual is in rather than inside condition of which an individual is. Beauvoir further separates gender from sex, and asserts that feminine gender is social and cultural that is different from sexed female is physical. Although, on the surface,

Beauvoir makes a clear distinction between natural biological essential sex and social

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cultural constructed gender, it lurks the possibility of gender that is no longer rely on the sexed body to exist (Salih, 2002: 10). Hence, Butler argues that “There is nothing in Beauvoir’s account that guaranties that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female”, the correspondence of sex and gender should be broken (Butler: 1990:8). In this case, it can be possible to have a male body to present both femininity and masculinity, vice versa. This, in some way, librates gender from the dualism toward the pluralism that is gender should be diversity.

On the other hand, from Beauvoir’s notion “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” also implies that there is a compulsory power which drives one to become a woman. Butler attributes it to the social heterosexual system, which therefore is not related to the simply biological environment but is related to the social environment which indeed reflect the institution power that declines and operates individual’s choice of gender (Salih, 2002: 49). This is not only to limit gender forms but also to impede gender practices. Hence, in regard to how to resist the institution power as well as to subvert the heterosexual norms, which become Butler’s the main thinking of gender practices. Butler focus on the word “become” that is from Beauvoir’s notion

“one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” to highly emphasis the becoming process of gender. In this sense, Butler considers that “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly regularly frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a nature sort of being”

(Butler, 1990:33). Gender, for Butler, is a verb which is in a produce-and-preproduce...
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