Judith Butler and the Deconstruction of Gender

What image comes to mind when we verbalise the concept of gender? Judith Butler (2007) destroys, in her famous work “Gender in Dispute”, the argument that delegitimises dissidence and minorities; referring to sexual practices and constructed identities. 

Is the dissolution of binaries so monstrous and terrible? Is it impossible to contemplate?

Judith Butler, a Life Dedicated to the Struggle Against Heteronormativity 

Judith Butler is a philosophical doctor and one of the most potent thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries. From her first academic steps at the University of California in Berkeley, Butler stood out for her activism on questions of gender, sexual politics, human rights, and anti-war politics. 

She actively participated in various organisations of human rights like the Centre for Constitutional Rights of New York and the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. Moreover, she was awarded the Andrew Mellon Prize for her academic achievements in the area of humanities; the Adorno Prize (2012) for her contributions to philosophical feminism and morals; and the Brudner Prize from the University of Yale for her contributions to studies on gays and lesbians. 

An activist and a lesbian, Butler was visible for numerous writings that have transformed binary thinking and heteronormativity establishing her, simultaneously, as the author of queer theory thanks to her work Gender in Dispute (2007). Supporting her argument with other philosophical colleagues like Simone De Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, Jacqueline Rose, and Jane Gallop, among others, she sought to expose the constructed differences in sexuality, through marked approaches.  


Gender in Dispute was first published in 1990, at a time following the sexual revolution of the 70s and when the idea of sexual freedom was no longer a secret. 

In this essay, Butler confronts critical theory and structuralism, writing of little-known genders that exist within bodies and remain hidden, understanding the difficulty of a society molded by cis-heteronormative cultural practices. This work allows one to understand gender as a social construct as being questioned and debated alongside sex as separate but related concepts. 

The construction of gender originates from culture and a semantic covering of concepts and meanings. Gender as we understand it in reality goes hand in hand with identity and self-perception: the feeling of each person, but unrelated to nature. 

This ‘feeling’ should also be understood in cultural terms: experiences, where one could or not be modified by their surroundings, eras, and other influences upon a person that is represented with labels, sometimes diverging from the binary. 

In this sense we can say that gender is a combination of ideas about the sexual differences that attribute feminine or masculine characteristics to each sex, be that activities, customs, or forms of living. Sexual differences, recreated in the representational binary order, contribute ideologically to the core of a person; as much feminine as masculine. 

However, gender not only marks people, but also the perception of everything else: social, politics, religion, psychic, and daily life. Here is where we see a society previously influenced and planned, with a structure in place and (almost) accepted. 

According to Judith Butler (2007), it could be understood that gender is not to culture what it is to nature; gender also is the discursive/cultural medium through which ‘sexual nature’ or ‘natural sex’ is formed and established as ‘prediscursive’ before culture. This is to say that before everything, gendered duality is now found in the origins of our sexuality. Therefore, to speak of gender is to inquire into the cultural construction of sexualities. 

Placing one’s attention on social works like the piece by Kate Millet ‘The Personal is Political’, the effort of Butler in explaining the uncountable possibilities of construction and reassignment of that which makes up the culture of society. To be a queer person: to be silenced and presumed to be a danger to life until very recently, today is a topic of political agenda. 

As much as understanding the popularity of the Ballroom events in cities like New York, Berlin, and Buenos Aires, it is also necessary to celebrate the victories of dissidents against the law of Gender Identity and Trans Labour Quota. The public stood stunned before this exposure to society and it is important to note that although they were no longer hidden, those bodies, fighting against traditional gender norms, had always been there.

In her writing, Judith Butler cites De Beauvoir praising her famous phrase ‘one is not born a woman, but becomes one’ speaking of a certain process; a ‘converting into’. This becoming something distinct has firstly a visual indicator, the body: ‘(…) the [body] is a mere instrument or medium with which one communicates externally along with cultural meanings. But the [body] is a work in progress like there are multiple [bodies] that conform to the landscape for the topics of gender.’ (Butler 2007, 58). 

According to cultural theorist Nelly Richards (2009), theoretical feminism has been known to demonstrate that every original body is a body already defined by sexual differences and the same act of having to correspond, realistically, with the definitions and classifications that the dualistic order of gender places upon them. 

The form in which each subject conceives and practices gender relations is mediated by a system of representations that articulate the subjectivity behind social practices and cultural form. (Richards, 2009:77). 

In concordance with Judith Butler, Richards establishes the reality of that dualistic man-woman installed within society, something even harder to deconstruct. Hence, that deconstruction is perceived as a necessity today. The non-binary vanguard, the queer and trans movements, need and should occupy spaces and principle places. 

Although hate and violence follow whoever decides to live their life as they please, there are the stories of these collectives and dissidents that should be expressed and vindicated. In this sense, this writer firmly believes that this struggle also incorporates feminisms, because if the struggle is for all women, it is for all genders.