Judith Butler, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Feminism


I watched the first episode of RuPaul’s drag race (it’s on Netflix if somehow this cultural phenomenon has passed you by), one of his aphorisms is “you’re born naked…the rest is drag” and this never fails to make me think of Judith Butler, so what follows is an account of gender performativity and how it may be used to understand contemporary feminist politics?

In recent years there has been a move away from ‘traditional’ materialist feminisms towards a more poststructuralist account that allows opportunity for debate surrounding potential problems that each approach has. This essay focuses on the differences to demonstrate that this move away from traditional approaches, and accepting gender performativity as a way to combat gender inequalities, is a positive development for feminist politics. However it is contentious, and there is the case that feminist action requires the categories that poststructuralists find it difficult to accommodate, which opens questions that ask if it is too far removed from the real world politics. I consider the strong appeal to Butler’s case of gender performativity comes from the fact that we do not have to claim that there is one fixed gender we can think beyond the fixed masculine/feminine gender binary. Still, there is the worry that feminist politics now has in fact very little connection to politics other than in a symbolic sense, the worry is that if we truly embrace Butler it means that her politics of subversion is the most we can hope for, and for some this is not effective in achieving the goals of feminism.

Gender Trouble shows how a poststructuralist outlook can help us to understand contemporary feminism. Poststructuralist thought encapsulates how language is used to create and maintain power relations. Language helps comprehension and construction of the world, and is constructed by those in power, and on the feminist account those in power are men. This relates to and can be useful to feminist discourse because if language reflects the world we live in, and that it is unstable and contestable, then poststructuralism assists feminism as it makes the case that there is no real basis for the lesser position that women hold. Once we reveal that language is untenable, we have fertile ground for revolution in language usage, and therefore a shift in power. Poststructuralist thought can be problematic for ‘traditional’ feminism, and by traditional, I am referring to material feminisms such as Marxist or Liberal because poststructuralists put the category ‘women’ in jeopardy, which is sometimes considered intrinsic to feminist politics. In Gender Trouble, Butler critiques the notion of the category ‘women’ with empirical arguments to show the difficulties with one definition, but also arguing that any identity categories are exclusionary as they are normative (Butler, 1994, p50). Normativity relates to any attempt to ask the question who counts as a ‘woman’. It is a discussion Simone de Beauvoir engages in when she asks, “What is a woman?” (Beauvoir, 1949, p 13) and like Butler, Beauvoir is not satisfied with the answers. Butler argues that because the instances of women vary so much, we are not able and nor should we attempt to define them as a unified group. Following from the difficulty in presenting one definition, Butler argues “the very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms.” (Butler, 1990, p1) From this instability we are eligible for “radical re-thinking of the categories of identity” (Butler, 1990, p11) which brings us to a discussion of gender performativity.

Gender identities come into fruition through a “regulated process of repetition” (Butler, 1990, p145), therefore gender identity is not the expression of our internal essence, and rather the gendered person is the product of a performance. Performance in the sense that you bring gender into existence by performing an illocutionary act, for example that act of saying or doing something, such as “I do” in the right conditions also means you’re married (Austin, 1962). These acts are then repeated and this repetitive element is what makes gender unstable, because the gender ‘man’ or ‘woman’ can be repeated in different ways from one individual to another, but also within an individual on a daily basis. The benefit, for advocates of Butler, is that we can change gender ourselves by subverting gender norms in our own way. From this outline we can see that gender performativity certainly fits with feminism and feminist approaches that are reluctant to accept fixed categories and want fluidity of gender. It is difficult to deny this influence, and as Martha Nussbaum notes, Butler is one of the defining figures of “what feminism is now” (Nussbaum, 1999, p2).

 Gender performativity has many implications, one of the most radical being for agency. Barvosa-Carter suggests gender performativity’s effect on agency means we have to accept a “particular mode of political practice” contra to “traditional feminist politics” (Barvosa-Carter, 2005, p176). There is disagreement as to whether this new approach is a positive or negative one. A theory of performativity means that identity cannot exist prior to the language that creates the signification of gender identity. It is this which makes waves for our traditional concepts of human agency, agency is traditionally understood as a human being’s ability to act upon their own projects and this requires a pre-discursive concept of the self which serves to prevent individuals from being totally subsumed by the system in which we are wedded to and which identities spring from. Butler rejects this construction of agency – she holds that no element of the self can come before our language and performativity of gender. This is not to say that she rejects any notion of agency, rather that agency is only to be found within the process of signification that constructs the self, meaning, that this can be constructed but not socially determined. To unpack this: the self broadly, and gender identity specifically, is assembled within the repetition of gender norms, and agency is found “within the possibility of a variation on that repetition” (Butler, 1990, p145). Therefore Butler’s agency is a capacity to do more just repeat gender norms but to also construct them. I consider a discussion of agency to be integral to this essay because what degree of agency we have directly relates to how one can engage in political action.

We are now in the position to discuss how gender performativity relates to and helps us understand contemporary feminist politics. Barvosa-Carter acknowledges it has the benefit of taking feminist politics away from essentialism (Barvosa-Carter, 2005, p177), and in avoiding this we can embrace accounts of intersectionality. Intersectionality here means the different ways in which minority groups suffer discrimination and how they overlap, it is important to note that these overlaps are deeply connected, meaning feminist action needs to be aware that people are not just oppressed for being ‘a woman’ there are other interlocking factors. To help with this, we need a feminist theory to be flexible and inclusive, therefore a poststructuralist account is a useful one, as there is no need, or even possibility to hold up one ‘gender’ as the only one. However for some the lack of the category ‘women’ presents difficulties, as such Butler’s embracing of poststructuralist thinking and how it relates to feminist politics is not resolutely accepted. She is a divisive figure and some acrimony stems from the implications for political practice. On Butler’s account what political action should do is subvert the norms that constrain our actions whilst being aware that it is these same constraints that constitute and allow for our material identities, and Butler proposes ‘gender trouble’ as the way to challenge them, her main metaphor for this is drag. The metaphor works by showing us that the act of dressing up as the opposite sex subverts gender norms and this subversion combats the “categories that seek to keep gender in its place” (Butler, 1990, p148). In addition it shows the “radical contingency between sex and gender” (Zivi, 2008, p160) in that one does not necessitate the other, this shows errors in equating anatomical sex with gender identity, and it reveals to us the “illusions of identity” (Butler, 1990, p148). Is ‘drag’ and more broadly gender subversion the only type of feminist action? It seems hard to see how drag could combat the gender pay gap for example. An example of ‘gender trouble’ in popular culture could be illustrated with Lady Gaga – and her performance as her male alter ego: Jo Caldrone (NME). This demonstrates Lady Gaga is someone who is prepared to subvert traditional gender roles, again, is this really an achievable aim for the majority of people. According to Zivi it is “unfortunate” that the practices of subversion that Butler calls for are not in our lexicon of “traditional politics” (Zivi, 2008, p160). Thus, Lady Gaga is potentially doing great things for feminism, but audiences do not recognise it as such.

The upshot of this is that we should strive to act in such a way to dislodge the leading social norms via altering the gender performance with the aim to redraw those norms. Parody is one of the main ways Butler suggests this is achieved. An initial reaction is how do acts of subversion really help the feminist cause? Further, Butler’s account is contra to the established feminist agenda when she rejects that feminism should act as a political movement. Butler’s reasoning stems from the idea that a condition of a political movement is that it should be united and share a common goal, but this is problematic on Butler’s account, for if there is no single woman, it is not possible to have a single feminism. It is difficult because when feminism acts as a party, it assumes to be representing ‘women’ as a “stable subject”, which “opens [feminism] to charges of gross misrepresentation.” (Butler, 1990, p5) This reveals that perhaps contemporary feminism is asking too much, there is a call to be anti-exclusionary and embrace the well-established tradition of the difficulty in defining woman and at the same time there is a need to have a base for political feminist action – yet this is not readily achievable with an account of gender performativity.

That said, there are favourable readings of Butler’s approach to political action, there is the suggestion that subversion is a useful addition to the already well-established feminist arsenal. Some view it as a very innovative and radical approach, which allows for the ordinary and everyday acts of signification to actually make inroads to change. As Barvosa-Carter notes, the claim that serious action and the potential for change “lies within an individual’s reach” is an appealing one (ibid p180). Protest need not be heavy handed and serious at all times, it can be sardonic and still achieve things. It makes revolution seem very achievable, that said is it really compatible with the aims that we associate with feminist politics? It does not seem very compelling to say that acts of subversion can help to combat the real world evils that women face in the real world. It seems that at this point it is possible to see the disconnection between theory and real life framed in the introduction to this essay. Critiques of Butler commonly revolve around the idea that drag or parody is not able to address serious concerns, and “reduces political activity to superficialities” (Zivi, 2008, p160). However dismantling the assumption that there is a wide chasm between “the theatrical and the political” which the objection relies on, can provide a defence for Butler. The defence goes back to Butler’s conception of agency, which challenges the traditional political definition. She holds we are subjects produced through language, and thus a supposed ‘performance’ of subversion actually is subversion it is does change gender roles in real terms. A second objection to Butler’s gender performativity is its high level of attention directed towards the individual. Butler questions the applicability of feminist collective action; it seems difficult to immediately see how the individual can shape the broad issues of concern for women across the world. In response to this criticism, one simply has to show how subverting gender roles can result in ending inequalities. We need to emphasise that the root of Butler’s argument is that inequality comes from our perception of gender roles, it follows then, if we are successful in deconstructing the societal view of gender roles, then at some point this will result in political change because no longer will there be a fixed view of what gender roles should be. As Butler claims there would be no more “ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old.” (Butler, 1990, p149)

Another significant topic with Butler’s poststructuralist account is how to deal with the category ‘woman’, the approach differs from a more traditional conception of feminist action, Zalewski suggests a category-less feminism is based on the idea that it is an “illusion that there are real, a priori subjects on which to make claims to rights” (Zalewski, 2000, p39) and this ‘illusion’ shows how a commitment to subject-based politics is problematic. I consider this links back to the discussion of agency, as with agency, when we appeal to a category this requires an acceptance that ‘woman’ as a thing in itself does exist prior to signifying language. As a result they question the political effectiveness of insisting that there is some essential ‘woman’ – this is not to deny that categories are important, Butler even argues “political necessity to speak as and for women” (Butler, 1994, p48). Rather Zalewski suggests that a poststructuralist account sees a difference between a natural subject and a category (ibid p40). The category is how ‘women’ are represented, I consider this relates back to Butler’s idea of gender performativity as differing representations of ‘women’ allows for instability and that is what makes for political change. The elements of “undecidability” (ibid) over what it means to be a ‘woman’, means we can eventually re-draw the gender lines, which is how Butler thinks we will get an end to inequality. Therefore not having to rely on the category of ‘woman’ can be considered a very great strength to a feminist theory, firstly because achieving a universal definition of ‘women’ is perhaps impossible, secondly we do not need it to be an issue with feminism if we can show that the ‘truth’ of categories in the first place is a fiction. As such, the poststructuralist account shows us “that the category ‘woman’ is a fiction, and that feminists’ efforts must be directed toward dismantling this fiction” (Alcoff, 1998, p417). More traditional feminist theorists, perhaps thinkers like Dworkin might suggest that, even though there are difficulties with an account of what ‘woman’ means, it is still fundamental to have a clear views about what ‘women’ are and what they demand from feminism. In support of this Gunnarsson argues that, ‘women’ as a category is “indispensible to the feminist project” (Gunnarsson, 2011, p24), for how can one claim rights for a group that does not really exist. Thus, the difficulty is how can we reconcile the apparent need for a category ‘woman’ and poststructuralism. It is this that prompts Alcoff in to saying that feminism needs to find a theory that allows “the gendered subject” but which “does not slide into essentialism” (Alcoff, 1998, p422).

 I agree with a poststructuralist account that we cannot have a subject ‘woman’ that exists pre-discursively and subscribe to all the arguments for the difficulties in presenting a unified definition. Thus I am pro-Butler’s account of gender performativity. Yet it would be remiss to ignore the objections that revolve around our supposed need for a category that can galvanise political action, however I think Butler can side step these objections if we can present a theory of feminism that can work without the category ‘woman’. Perhaps we can accept Alison Stone’s suggestion. Stone presents women as members of a “distinctive social group” operating within a shared “complex history”, this allows for talk of ‘women’ within feminism, but does not draw up a definition that applies to all which points to something explicit or empirical. Stone’s account of ‘women’ is something like “coalition” which developed over time, and this is ongoing, which should be subject to “political transformation”. Stone proposes how feminism can stimulate action without the need for a definition (Stone, 2004, p136). This compliments Butler’s account of gender being done in different ways but allowing for continuity, in the sense I am still a ‘woman’ even if the history of it has changed. Alternatively we could accept Mikkola’s account of linguistic intuitions; which judges ‘women’ to be whoever who we direct the term at most regularly (Mikkola, 2009). Consequently feminism works to better the situations of those who we commonly give the label ‘women’. This seems to fit well with Butler and the idea of political progress via subversion, as even if you are subverting gender norms one may still be called ‘woman’. Therefore these are theories that hope to further the feminist cause without normative categories. However, these accounts do not really explicate how we can have political change, just that it is possible. Perhaps another solution is to use analytical definitions as this tells us how to have change. We must “revise what we mean for certain theoretical and political purposes” (Haslanger, 2000, p34) definitions such as these embrace their normative and exclusionary aspects. If ‘women’ are defined negatively, for example: ‘a woman is an individual who occupies a subordinated position in society’ it is good to not be a ‘woman’ this definition would mean that the Queen is not a woman for example, but this exclusion is good as it means she is not subordinated. We should aim to exclude everyone in this way. Talking of ‘women’ like this is not giving ‘women’ a fixed identity, as Gunnarsson argues occupying the “position women” is different to an essentialist definition (Gunnarsson, 2011, p33). This relates to the idea of representations poststructuralist talk of, we can pick the most negative representations of ‘women’ and aim to eradicate them. However, analytical definitions are also problematic because it might not be possible to “separate out ‘gender’” (Butler, 1999, p6) it is worrisome to attribute gender to a social position alone because gender is something which is often considered fundamental to our identity. Therefore there still remains significant tension between Butler, categories, and feminism.

The purpose of this essay was to examine gender performativity and how it relates to contemporary feminist politics, I consider that Butler’s account is highly apt for more modern approaches to feminism. The objections that it is not conducive to political action I think miss the nuances of her account of gender roles, and if the argument is extended fully it does seem that a subversion of gender roles will result in real political change. I am reluctant to be too dismissive of the category ‘woman’, and the work to achieve equality between genders should not be stopped because we have come across some theoretical worries within feminism. Even though worries surrounding categories are significant, perhaps the supposed need for them is simply a hangover from materialist feminisms, and once it is accepted that categories are not needed we can have a new radical approach to feminism.


Alcoff, L., 1988, Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: the identity crisis in feminist theory, Signs, 13(3) pp405-436

Austin, J. L., 1962, How to do things with words, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Barvosa-Carter, E., 2005, Strange Tempest: Agency, Poststructuralism, and the Shape of Feminist Politics to Come, in Sönser Breem, M. and Blumenfeld, W. J., ed(s) Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, pp175-191

Beauvoir, de S., 1949, The Second Sex, London: Vintage

Butler, J., 1990, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge

Butler, J., 1994, Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernisms, in Benhabib, S., (ed) Feminist contentions: a philosophical exchange, New York: Routledge, pp35-57

Gunnarsson, L., 2011, A defence of the category ‘women”, Feminist Theory, 12(1) pp23-37

Haslanger, S., 2000, Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do we want them to be?, Noûs, 34(1) pp31-55

Mikkola, M., 2009, Gender Concepts and Intuitions, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 39(4), pp559-583

NME, 2011. Lady Gaga performs as male alter ego Jo Calderone at MTV VMAs

[Online] [08/04/14]. Available from: http://www.nme.com/news/lady-gaga/58907

Nussbaum, M., 1999, The Professor of Parody, The New Republic, Available from: http://perso.uclouvain.be/mylene.botbol/Recherche/GenreBioethique/Nussbaum_NRO.htm

Stone, A., 2004, Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Philosophy, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 1: pp135–153.

Zalewski, M., 2000, Feminism after Postmodernism, theorising through practice, New York: Routledge

Zivi, K., 2008, Rights and the politics of performativity, in Carver, T., and Chambers, S., A., ed(s) Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics, London: Routledge pp157-171


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