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13 March 2024

Judith Butler and the fear of gender

In the 1990s a new philosophy helped open up alternative ways of being. Nobody predicted it would lead to war.

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

In the mid-1990s a university colleague would begin feminist theory classes by showing two recent TV adverts on VHS tape. The first was for Levi Jeans and featured a strikingly beautiful jeans-clad trans woman in the back seat of a yellow cab being subjected to the creepy teeth-licking gaze of her driver. In case the viewer did not get the “joke”, at the end of the ride she pulls out an electric shaver and trims her chin. “Levi’s – Made for Men” the final frame quipped. The second ad was for Clairol’s “natural” hair dye, and showed a young woman dying her hair while lip-synching, with increasing abandon, to Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”, until she spots her male partner watching her. “Steven!” she cries.

The point was to demonstrate that sex and gender were separate things. The taxi driver was ogling at a performance he mistook for the “real” thing, while the “real thing” worked herself into feeling like a “natural woman” by means of artificial dye. Once the meanings of gender were understood to be mobile like this, the possibilities for interpretation – and for ways of being – proliferated. What is to stop us imagining that the young woman with the chestnut hair is so overcome with natural woman-ness, my colleague used to tease, that she not only feels like a woman, but is singing to a woman that she would also like to feel? (“Steven!”) The set reading for that week’s class was Judith Butler’s groundbreaking 1990 book Gender Trouble. For the next 30 years, the Berkeley professor’s work would be required reading for humanities students in the UK and the US.

The arrival of gender theory into university classrooms did not herald a new progressive dawn. In the UK, memories of Section 28 – the legislation banning the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools – regular attacks on abortion rights and the always present hum of misogyny and homophobia made sure of that. Still, there was a loosening and a sense of possibilities opening up. Straight boys would try to get into the London gay nightclub Heaven by wearing eyeliner and tagging along with their queer friends.

Nobody then, and certainly not, I imagine, Judith Butler, could have imagined today’s gender wars. In our joyless, ungenerous, unironic times, gender theory has become an ideological and at times literal battlefield.

The battle is global. Following the example of his predecessor, in 2015 the current Pope denounced adherents of “gender ideology” as “contemporary Herodians”. Vladimir Putin has described “Gayology” as a terrible Western invention and a threat to Russian national security. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (until 2022), Argentina’s Javier Milei, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni – name your authoritarian and he or she will have strong views about other people’s bodies and what they are allowed to do with them. From Nairobi to Florida, evangelicals tell parents their children are being groomed by perverts and gender radicals. In February this year, Rishi Sunak taunted Keir Starmer on his record on trans people’s rights. Minutes earlier, he had been told (incorrectly as it turned out) that Esther Ghey, the mother of the murdered trans teenager, Brianna Ghey, was in the Gallery. It was as though the world of real people, with broken bodies and broken hearts, did not exist. In this debate, it can often seem like that.

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During gender theory’s journey from scruffy lecture theatres to cosmic threat, Butler, its most recognised proponent, has kept a prudent distance from social media. This has not stopped them from being heckled, trolled and physically threatened. Nor has it prevented Butler from adopting public positions on difficult, controversial issues –  most recently, for example, on the war in Gaza. This book, including previously published essays starting from 2017 (the same year an effigy of Butler was burnt outside the conference centre they were speaking at in Brazil), is their response to the demonisation and politicisation of gender theory.

To chart the emergence of “gender ideology” is to get a stark lesson in just how topsy-turvy our world has become. We’re told that danger lurks behind every gender-neutral door. Yet evidence shows it is trans people, and especially trans women of colour, who are most subject to violent crime. Decried as totalitarian, gender theory has been ascribed a power that will surprise many trans youths and pregnant women denied medical care. In the fog of this war, the baggy and inelegant word “gender” is understood, variously, as a theory, practice and an ideology, which concerns bodies, sex and its assignment and choice. Butler, who has said they “never felt at home” with being assigned female at birth, once taught that attempts to fix gender invariably cause trouble. Now it seems that “gender” itself is the trouble.

Old political alliances do not align. Gender-critical feminists who argue for the priority of sexual difference have found new allies among conservative thinkers. The belief in immutable sex differences once found its strongest defenders in radical feminism, for whom just as women are women, so too are men invariably men – suspicious, predatory, violent, willing to adopt any guise for a quick bit of penetration (yes all men, even, as Butler points out, those least interested in their penises). Nobody saw Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography as on the conservative side of the culture wars, but then not much of this makes much sense.

For Butler, this is because we are dealing with a set of phantoms. This is not to say that either sex, gender or the entire run of experiences in between do not exist. Of course they do. But the way our most intimate, beautiful, difficult, vulnerable, biological and human experiences are being bundled together and bounced about the public sphere suggests that something else is going on.

Behind the anti-gender discourse there is, Butler writes, a fear of violence and contagion: “Gender” provides a target. With a twist that Freud described as “projection”, it is then the vulnerable who are perceived as threatening and extreme, and not those, for example, withdrawing books from children’s libraries or forcing women to carry pregnancies to full term.

This is moralism, certainly, but with a sadistic charge – hence perhaps the frisson in much debate (“He still doesn’t know what a woman is!” a weirdly excitable Sunak had yelled in an earlier Prime Minister’s Questions on 24 January). Nor is this marginal. Across the globe, Butler claims, fascist passions are being stirred, sometimes consciously, sometimes inadvertently, and frequently among people who are economically and socially vulnerable. Whatever political cause is being served by these passions, it is certainly not freedom.

The claim that authoritarian politics draws energy from our psychosexual passions has a history. In Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell described how totalitarianism works by getting to our most intimate and vulnerable feelings – and turning them against what is most precious about the human condition. “Do it to Julia!” Winston screams as the hungry rats in their cage approach his face, betraying both his lover and the freedom they have risked all for. “Why is freedom so frightening?” Butler asks, and even more pertinently: “How has freedom been made to seem so frightening?”

The problem, as Butler points out, is that we don’t seem to have either the language or the imagination adequate to cope with our present craziness. Is “gender theory” totalitarian (a frequent claim) or are its opponents? I think JK Rowling is wrong on this issue, but I do not think her passions are fascist. In today’s debate, one position cancels the other out, seemingly unstoppably.

This matters because in order to have necessarily difficult debates about the right to bodily autonomy (surely the right that defines a free society) we need to identify what is a real threat to freedoms and what isn’t. Back in January 2017, a male university colleague informed me, patronisingly, that “trans” (sic) was an “existential threat to feminism”, and suggested I needed to wake up quick. Just two days before, the Donald Trump administration had enacted the “Global Gag Rule” – prohibiting foreign NGOs from receiving US health assistance in providing abortion services (even if using their own funds) – and expanded it to include contraception and HIV/Aids treatment and prevention. The all-male photoshoot of Trump signing the executive order in the Oval Office, overseen by a smiling Steve Bannon, left me in no doubt about where the threat lay.

The dedication to Butler’s book reads: “For the young people who still teach me”. Much about the present debate is generational. Those who shout loudest about gender are usually middle-aged and older: 20th-century boys, girls and everyone between, with our inadequate 20th-century words, assumptions, fears and memories of other political and existential battles.

I too have learnt most about today’s gender wars (and my own blind spots) by listening to my students and children. Some are activists, but most are simply curious, thoughtful and frankly puzzled by the passions of their elders. Hardly ideologically indoctrinated – our young people are not idiots – but shamefully deprived of adequate mental and sexual healthcare (those keen to restrict NHS support for trans children should know that there’s a flourishing private sector happy to move in), what they do care about is their friends. Perhaps because few others do, despite all the rhetoric about protecting the vulnerable. My informants tell me that the straight boys are still sneaking into Heaven with make-up help from their mates. Good for them.

Who’s Afraid of Gender?
Judith Butler
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25

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[See also: Carol Gilligan: why I changed my mind on the gender binary]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul