Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mini-Analysis of Gender Troubles

In this article, the author Judith Butler first presents the ideas of gender construction that have been formulated by Simone de Beauvoir. She then presents her own interpretation of Monique Wittig’s gender and sex analyses that are responses to de Beauvoir’s ideas of gender construction.

De Beauvoir’s perception of gender states that it is something that is acquired because of the social conditioning brought about by society. She argues that for an individual who does not fall into the category of either boy or girl, they are automatically dehumanized because they do not fit the standard binary of gender. A “ sexed” individual is someone who is born with analytical attributes of the human body, this sex however is not something that causes the gender since the gender is a mentality constructed by society. Monique Wittig responds to de Beauvoir’s analysis by reusing one of Beauvoir’s ideas and by presenting her own additional claim. The first claim states that sex is neither invariant nor natural, but it is a political category that is used to keep social norms under the control of heterosexuality which also lets the institution of heterosexuality unfairly determine what is natural. Wittig also argues that there is no difference between sex and gender in the sense that sex is also gendered. Her second claim which is her own is that a lesbian is not a woman. When first reading this, I admit that I was a bit thrown off but waited to read further before I jumped to any conclusions. Wittig argues that woman is simply a label that has been created to oppose the binary label of a man. Therefore, because the lesbian is refusing heterosexuality, she also has no sex because she is essentially trying to fight off the binary norms of gender and sex. The same way that gender is something that both Wittig and de Beauvoir believe is constructed by society, Wittig argues that sex is also fabricated by society in order to make the female sex subordinate. The only time that something is “sexed” is when it is in reference to the individual female persona. When referring to the female sex, there is no other sex such as the male sex that exists. The male sex is something that is universalized. Beavoir calls this the circle of immanence.

Wittig discusses power of language and how it can oppress through repeated acts that eventually become political institutions. There is an imbalance in language where a general group of people are referred to by the masculine pronoun and the individual speaker by the feminine pronoun. Wittig argues that there is no need for gendered pronouns in any language; it is simply a way of giving leverage to one class of people over another to help destroy identities in favor of heterosexual institutions.


  1. Thanks Femi for getting us started. I really appreciate the way you explained Wittig's arguments. What I'm unsure about is what Butler thinks about De Beavoir's and Wittig's arguments. Seems she has a critique of some of what they are saying. What do you think about Butler's take on Wittig's use of "lesbian" as its own universal term?

  2. I am very intrigued by Wittig's argument that the definition of the female identity only exists in relation to the male, her counterpart in heteronormativity. I wonder if Wittig would go as far as to apply this same argument to other forms of systemic oppression and power imbalances. For example, would Wittig agree that a person of color who, in all aspects of life, only interacted with other people of color - only going to places of worship with people of color, setting up residency in colored neighborhoods, creating accounts at banks owned and operated by people of color, working in institutions facilitated by people of color, ect. - would no longer be a person of color? Would it make a difference if the same hypothetical situation was applied to one specific race - for example, if Hispanic people only interacted with Hispanic people, would they no longer be Hispanic? Following from Wittig's argument, people of color's subordination only exists in relation to the domination of white people. Any thoughts?

  3. Alexa, it is interesting that you mention the idea of a person of color no longer being a person of color because of their isolation from other groups of people. With the argument that Wittig suggests, she would probably agree that they would not identify as being of color. The need for distinction comes about when you have different groups that interact with each other. When in a group of people that are racially homogenous, it would not be necessary to label them as people of color because their color is not the variable that causes conflict within the group. It would most likely be caused by gender, sexuality,class or other factors that cause problems because of their difference. However, if there were interactions with a different race of people, because race is another added factor, it would be the more dominant factor that affects interactions. This is loosely related to the Women's Movement and how problems were addressed for unrepresented minorities. Initially, the Women's Movements did not include the issues of lesbians or women of color. In order for concerns of subroups to be addressed, there is always a need for specific labeling. It is necessary when there are ideas or people that differ within a group.