Judith Butler believed we were all performing gender. Photo: Getty
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Caroline Criado-Perez on Judith Butler: What's a phallus got to do with it?

In the late 80s, a new theorist emerged on the scene. She was called Judith Butler, and she was to revolutionise gender theory so fundamentally, that to write a paper on gender in the 21st century that does not at least reference Butler, is to almost place yourself outside of theoretical intelligibility.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once claimed that “woman does not exist”. Women, or as Lacan therefore puts it in his lecture “On Feminine Sexuality” , “Woman”, might be forgiven for double-taking at this outlandish claim, but don't worry. This is only a symbolic claim, it only applies to which gender can have meaning in language, Lacan assures us, before going on to affirm that, “women's sexual organ is of no interest”. Hmmm.

Man, on the other hand, well. Man is different. “A man is nothing but signifier”, Lacan proclaims. He is the originator of all meaning. Taking inspiration from Freud's famous “penis-envy” theory, Lacan tells us that it is the “phallus” that is the signifier. (NB: the phallus, not the penis: we're still in the realm of the symbolic which despite its odd obsession with sexual organs is in no way related to the realm of the physical. Keep up, people.) And the phallus, despite being only symbolic and not related to actual sex, is intrinsically male. As a result, a woman cannot signify. She is without meaning. Symbolically.

As you might imagine, feminists have had some problem with this theory. In reaction against Freud's colonialist designation of female sexuality as the “dark continent for psychology”, (that is unknowable, hence Lacan's “Woman”), Hélène Cixous, one of the leading proponents of the theory of écriture féminine, which proposed that women should write outside of the shackles of male-defined meaning, had this to say:

The Dark Continent is neither dark nor unexplorable - it is still unexplored only because we've been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable. And because [men] want to make us believe that what interests us is the white [male] continent...

Her point was simple. Freud positioned men as eternal subject, their viewpoint as the viewpoint, when he claimed that “[t]hroughout history, people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”, going on to clarify that “people” in fact meant “men”, since for “those of you who are women this will not apply: you are your selves the problem”. Cixous turned this blinkered contention on its head. Women are people too, she radically pointed out, and therefore are not intrinsically unknowable. We are not born as pure mystery. Rather, it is because psychology has been written by men, from a male perspective that has no interest in considering whether or not there may be an alternative, female worldview, a view of the world informed by occupying a position at the bottom of the social order, that women have been portrayed as essentialised and unknowable Other. It is because of this failure of imagination that woman has been positioned in the psychological literature as destined never to be a subject, never able to signify in and of herself. Only able to have meaning in so far as she is not the one true signifier: the mighty male phallus.

Cixous radically said that it didn't have to be that way. After all, she points out, white ink is only unreadable if it is written on a white page. So why are we unquestionably putting up a structure, a page, that renders our voices silent, our ink invisible?

Cixous was joined in her radical rejection of a male-defined access to meaning by Luce Irigary, and the French school soon gained currency in Anglo-American theoretical circles. But then, in the late 80s, a new theorist emerged on the scene. She was called Judith Butler, and she was to revolutionise gender theory so fundamentally, that to write a paper on gender in the 21st century that does not at least reference Butler, is to almost place yourself outside of theoretical intelligibility.

Butler is perhaps most famous for her theory of gender performativity, that is, the idea that gender is brought into being by repeated performances of a particular gender role. Gender performativity has entered into theoretical lore, and I have my problems with how it has been deployed to, ironically, position gender as somehow innate. In this essay, however, I would like to focus on Butler's related theory of intelligibility, since I think it throws light on how a theory that you might think would destabilise oppressive gender norms, has actually been used to shore them up.

In Gender Trouble, perhaps her most famous work, Butler criticises ‘received grammar’, as incapable of contesting gender, since ‘gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms’, warning that ‘the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself.’ This sounds a bit like Cixous. Let's challenge those patriarchal structures that render our voices unintelligible. Let's stop blindly accepting the white page offered to us.

On first reading this, I couldn't help excitedly thinking of my feminist awakening while reading Deborah Cameron's Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Cameron referenced a study showing that when women hear “man” or “he” referring to mankind rather than specifically the male of the species, they nevertheless think of a man. This was despite the arguments from grammar purists that grammar is merely abstract, with no link to the reality of social gender (remind you of anyone whose name begins with an L?). It was a shock to me; I had never noticed it, but I realised this was exactly what I did, and that it had led to “lawyer”, “doctor”, “politician”, so often accompanied by the grammatically correct, default genderless “he”, also appearing in my head as a man. My whole mental world was peopled by powerful, successful men – no wonder I felt inadequate.

Butler goes even further in Undoing Gender, writing that “[t]here are advantages to remaining less than intelligible, if intelligibility is understood as that which is produced as a consequence of recognition according to prevailing social norms”. So far, so exciting. Like the French theorists of écriture féminine, who proposed a specifically feminine form of writing, one that expressed the female perspective, Butler says that we don't have to accept male-defined meaning. And if that renders us unintelligible – unable to signify – who cares? We understand ourselves – you can make the effort to get beyond your own myopic perspective.

But having identified this problem of male-defined meaning, Butler goes on to prescribe a rather surprising solution. In Bodies That Matter, Butler says that Lacan has no right to assume ownership over the phallus, and thereby determine its meaning. Instead, she says, we must disrupt, we must queer, his misogynistic claiming of meaning for the male, by insisting on the “transferability of the phallus”. And so, like a genderqueer rabbit out of a hat, the “lesbian phallus” is born. This disrupting birth is, Butler assures us, “compatible with the Lacanian scheme”.

I can see where Butler is coming from with this, but I can't help but feel that it's slightly . . . unambitious. Why, we might ask, is it so important that we cohere with the Lacanian scheme at all? What happened to the radical notion of saying, actually, Freud, no, “people” have not “knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”, men have, because they never thought it worth just asking us. We are not “[our]selves the problem”, Freud, the problem is a male-defined and male-constructed schema, that conceives of humanity, sex and gender purely from the perspective of the male sex class, as if the perspective from the bottom simply doesn't exist. I don't want to reappropriate the phallus; I would rather make like Irigaray and pledge allegiance to the “void”, that “gaping emptiness heavier than any matter”. I don't see why I have to accept this schema as so fixed that all I can do is “queer” it; I would rather demolish it.

The immediate argument against that, and one that Butler herself might propose, is that calling for a rejection rather than a reappropriation of the phallus is to essentialise gender roles. Of the French feminists, Butler wrote that their “model of culture” was not that far from the patriarchal one, in that it assumed the “constancy of sexual difference”. What she wanted, was a “femininity” of “multiple possibilities”. This is a cry that has been taken up by a whole army of third-wave feminists, and it is extremely attractive. You do not have to be the fainting, incompetent, violable victim that your culture tells you you are. Just reject it and say you can be as good as any man, you can be as meaningful as any man. You have as much access to this signifying phallus as he does, and what's more, you're de-heterosexing it. Take that, patriarchy.

The problem with this, on the surface, attractive solution, is that it confuses the personal with the public. Just because I personally believe, or even know, that I am a strong, independent woman, who has intellect, who deserves an education, a public voice, who doesn't deserve to be raped, who doesn't deserve to be killed, that personal knowledge doesn't change a global order that says the exact opposite. And this matters, because we are not just dealing with theoretical abstracts here, but a global order in which one out of three women suffer from violence at the hands of men, 85,000 women a year are raped in the UK alone, and two a week die at the hands of their partners. This is not to say Butler does not acknowledge this – of course she does, and she works outside of the academy to combat it. But her theoretical work does not seem to account for the reality of the world in which women operate, and it is a world that does conceive of sex difference as fixed. The fact that most feminists accept that this is a culturally rather than a biologically ordained phenomenon, does not make it any less real for the women who are denied an education, denied a say in the global order, who are raped, who are killed.

Accepting that and constructing a feminist theory that takes account of this reality, is not the same as saying that this reality is fixed. It's saying, this is our reality in the here and now and we have to acknowledge that in order to solve it. Pretending reality is what we would like it to be is not going to change anything. At best, it's going to make one woman feel more powerful. But it will do nothing for women as a class. And feminism worth its salt can't be about making individual women feel better about themselves – feminism cannot be reduced to individual therapy. What feminism needs to be about is altering a social structure that positions women at the very bottom. That is what will enable femininity to signify “multiple possibilities”. To paraphrase the brilliant Audre Lorde, queering the master's tools just isn't going to cut it.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.