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Judith Butler: Understanding queer theory

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Judith Butler

Judith Butler: Understanding queer theory

Judith Butler is a gender queer theory superstar in the academe, with her work influencing political philosophy and ethics, as well as feminist, queer, and literary theory.

This can be seen in how Butler can be interviewed by websites on significant queer questions of the day like on why men use violence against trans women.

Judith Butler: A history of learning

Born on February 24, 1956, Butler came from a family of Hungarian-Jewish and Russian-Jewish descent whose family on the maternal grandmother’s side perished during the Holocaust.

As punishment in her Hebrew school for being “too talkative,” she was forced to attend ethics class at the age of 14. However, she didn’t regard it as punishment, being excited to learn.

She went to Bennington College and then Yale University where she took up philosophy. She received a BA in 1978 and then a PhD in 1984.

Speaking on her going to Bennington, she said that “it seemed to be a place where, as a young queer kid, I would be okay in 1974.”

She also said that though her parents weren’t wholly comfortable about her being gay, they were accepting such that her father was happy when she came home with a Jewish girlfriend.

After an academic year at Heidelberg University as a Fulbright scholar, she taught Wesleyan University, George Washington University, John Hopkins University, and then University of California, Berkeley.

Judith Butler’s famous work

Butler is most famous for her theory on gender performativity, which was solidified in her book, Gender Trouble, published in 1990.

The idea of gender performativity is that gender isn’t something what people are but something what people continually do.

In her theory, Butler’s argument was that feminism pushed for the assertion that ‘women’ were a group with common characteristics and interests.

Unfortunately, this assertion performed “an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations” and reinforced the binary view of gender relations, i.e. there are only women and men.

As such, Butler said, feminism closed down the option of letting a person form and choose their individual identity.

This, of course, fits perfectly in today’s definition of gender fluidity.

Jack Halberstam, a gender-studies professor at Columbia, said that if it weren’t for Butler’s work, “you wouldn’t have the version of genderqueer-ness that we now have.”

“She made it clear that the body is not a stable foundation for gender expression,” Halberstam added.

Reactions to Judith Butler

Butler and her work would have probably been centered in the academia if not for mainstream media like the New York Times.

In 1998, the broadsheet explained the rise of queer theory and cited Butler (though it had mentioned her before as one of the examples of superstar professors months before).

Meanwhile, philosopher and liberal feminist Martha Nussbaum targeted Butler’s version of feminism, saying the latter ignored “material suffering of women who are hungry, illiterate, violated, beaten.”

Instead, Nussbaum said, Butler focused “narcissistically on personal self-presentation,” and described her work as “hip quietism”

Currently, Butler lives in Berkeley with Wendy Brown, her partner, and their son.

For a better idea of Judith Butler’s gender performativity, why not check out this explanation with cats?

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