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16 September 2021

The symbolic politics of Judith Butler are all very well, but sometimes reality interjects

Events at the Wi Spa in Los Angeles reveal what can happen when academic gender theorising is imposed on real life.

By Louise Perry

The philosopher Judith Butler is infamously difficult to understand. Among Butler’s long list of academic awards, one stands out as rather less enviable: first prize in a 1998 bad-writing contest run by the journal Philosophy and Literature (I would quote the offending sentence, but doing so would use up most of my word count).

However, Butler – who identifies as non-binary and prefers “they” pronouns – tends to be clearer when speaking, meaning that an interview they gave for the Guardian last week was, for the most part, easy enough to follow, and therefore widely read. The interviewer – US-based historian Jules Gleeson – asked Butler not only about their academic work, but also about some live political issues, including a recent incident in Los Angeles that brings Butlerian ideas smack bang into collision with the real world.  

Interviews with Butler tend to make a splash because of their prominent role in the academic discipline known as gender theory, which continues to have influence outside of the academy. Butler’s most famous idea is that gender roles are the product not of nature but of custom. This was not an entirely new claim in 1990 when their most influential book, Gender Trouble, was published, since academic feminism had long been focused on the ways in which ideals of femininity and masculinity vary across time and place.  

But Butler went further, arguing not only that gendered social roles are produced by culture, but that biological roles are too. They reconceptualised the whole thing – the categories “male” and “female”, and everything that comes with them – as a confection of the human imagination, though admittedly not one that we can just shrug off, since while the system may be a social artifice, it is also deeply embedded in both our minds and our societies.  

So, in practical terms, Butler’s suggestion is that we make fun of gender, thumbing our noses at the conventions to reveal just how false they really are. I see no real harm in this, but I’ve always found it revealing that the earnest students who take Butler at their word tend to be far more interested in playing with feminine products like lipstick than with taking on feminine work like doing the dishes. But then dressing up is fun, and when you’re unencumbered by dependents or serious responsibilities, it’s just about possible to kid yourself that it’s also important.  

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Butlerian notions of parody and play are only plausible in a society that can partially transcend the limits of the body through technology, most importantly the modern contraception that cuts the link between sex and reproduction, and the modern machines that replace the strength of the male body. And yet, even in the 21st-century Western world, it’s not always possible to maintain Butler’s idea of gender as thrillingly slippery, since the meaty inconveniences we call “bodies” have a way of announcing themselves whether we want them to or not.  

One such announcement came soon after Butler’s Guardian interview was published. One of the questions had referred to events that took place at the Wi Spa in Los Angeles, a Korean-style spa that maintains sex-segregated facilities. In June, a video of a woman complaining to staff at the spa went viral. In the video, the woman alleges that a “man with a penis” has exposed himself in the women’s section of the spa; the staff respond that the individual described is in fact transgender and, in line with Californian law, has a right to choose her preferred facilities.  

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The video provoked pandemonium and, over two days in July, clashes between far-left and far-right protestors resulted in two stabbings and several attacks on journalists. Meanwhile, the left-leaning outlet Slate suggested that the alleged exposure had been a hoax.  

During their Guardian interview, Gleeson asked Butler to comment on the “alliance” between some gender-critical feminists and far-right campaigns, citing the protests around the Wi Spa controversy – in particular, the neo-fascist group the Proud Boys, which joined the rallies – as an example. Butler accepted the premise, suggesting that “trans-exclusionary feminists [‘Terfs’]” had allied with the right, forming “one of the dominant strains of fascism in our time”.

When this question and answer were cut from the interview following publication, there was speculation online that the edit had been a result of complaints from said Terfs, but a spokesperson for the newspaper later confirmed that the edit had in fact been due to new information emerging about the Wi Spa furore – specifically, that the “man with a penis” is a male-bodied registered sex offender, who has now been charged with indecent exposure in relation to the incident.

Oops, it’s those male and female bodies again, as inconvenient as ever. You can try your best not to notice the differences between them – not least the fact that 98 per cent of sex offenders belong to just one sex – but sometimes reality interrupts, and Butler’s brand of feminism is left dumbfounded.  

Despite the repeated insistence by some trans activists that incidents such as that at the Wi Spa don’t happen, they do, and for quite obvious reasons: sex offenders are wont to take advantage of laws that allow them access to potential victims. Moreover, while flashing in a fancy spa may not seem serious, housing male sex offenders in prisons reserved for women – as has happened in several countrieswith predictably grim results – is very serious indeed, at least for the female prisoners who must pay the price.  

In a famous 1999 essay, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum took aim at Butler’s privileging of the abstract and “virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women”. Two decades on, Butler is still preoccupied with symbolic politics. Sometimes, though, reality interjects.

[See also: Why do the eco-warriors pushing nappy taxes hate women so much?]

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This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play