Today to continue our series on feminists we will briefly look at the life and work of Judith Butler, a philosopher, gender theorist, and major influence in the field of feminism today.
Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has taught since 1993. She is perhaps best known for her works Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex," where she challenges the sex/gender distinction and develops her theory of gender performativity.[ Indeed, Butler's conception of gender performativity has shaped the scholarship of an entire generation in feminist and queer studies. Butler has also been outspoken on many contemporary political issues. She has been active in lesbian and gay rights, and, more recently, she has engaged with the question of Palestine/Israel. She is a vocal critic of Israeli politics and has repeatedly emphasized that Israel does not represent all Jews.
Judith Butler is of Hungarian and Russian descent; her grandmother perished in the Holocaust.
Rather than seeing gender identity as an innate function Judith Butler sees gender identity as a performance. We act out our roles as male and female based on gender performance of the others. Rather than being born with this identity we learn it from our role models.
Her seminal work “Gender Trouble” sold over 100,000 copies, she critics the work of Freud, Simone de Beauvoir and other with respect to their theories on gender issues. She argues that we adapt to the roles that society sees as acceptable and so it becomes a performance much like an actor in a theater.
Judith Butler does not see sex and gender linked in the way that society upholds. She criticized feminists for defining women and limiting them in a way that is related to sex and gender. This definition of male and female does not allow for other possibilities in gender identity. The flexibility she is referring to allows for the understanding of what is called “Queer Theory”.
On the issue of censorship Judith Butler argues that censorship is a construct of government and state and bringing the topic to light in this way only adds to the interest in pornographic censorship or hate speech; thus, defeating the purpose to subdue it in the first place. In other words if you make something a taboo more and more people will want to talk about it.
Judith Butler spoke out against the feminists who divide women on sexual orientation stating that this attitude only serves to further divide women based on sex and therefore is exclusive not inclusive for a broad female identity.
Criticism of her work
Darin Barney of McGill University writes that: "Butler's work on gender, sex, sexuality, queerness, feminism, bodies, political speech and ethics has changed the way scholars all over the world think, talk and write about identity, subjectivity, power and politics. It has also changed the lives of countless people whose bodies, genders, sexualities and desires have made them subject to violence, exclusion and oppression."
However other scholars have criticized Judith Butler to reducing gender issue down to language and thus limiting the scope.
Judith Butler and political activism
As expected, Judith Butler began by lobbying for feminist and gay issues which was at the time called Queer issues. She continues with these issues and also is involved with anti-war issues as well.
In 2012 Judith Butler received the Adorno Award but was criticized for being a Hezbollah and Hamas supporter. Judith Butler stated she herself was against receiving this award but she was not a supporter of these anti-semitic groups nor was she anti-semitic herself. She was brought up in the Jewish tradition and was taught to speak out on the issues she felt needed addressing. She maintains that her attackers only hear what they want to hear and not the full story behind any of her concerns and issues.