In colloquial language, a standard piece of advice to people who have fallen on hard times or find themselves in a moral dilemma is to “be true to yourself”. But what does this actually imply? One interpretation would see some kind of core to every individual, which is the cause of all acts by that subject. Although this may be the way we address others and ourselves in our everyday life, such a view is known as essentialism, which is generally conceived as highly problematic due to its ahistorical account of human subjectivity. Judith Butler, founder of so-called queer-theory, would interpret the “be true to yourself” statement differently. Ready-made subjects don’t enter the world from nowhere, the subject is created through its action: indeed, “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed’”, rather “the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” . The subject is performative: through acts, gestures and desires, through the way we do what we do, the gendered body is created. Constrained by the imperative for coherence, the subject is constituted as a gendered congruent being: the feminine act matches the woman that desires the man. By means of repetition such a norm is imposed with natural necessity – a necessity that makes us talk of gendered subjects in essentialist terms. Only by perpetual repetitions of a certain way of ‘doing gender’ can we understand the coherently gendered subject as an ‘I’. The inverted commas are there to remind us of the contingency of this subject constitution. Acts that, as a logical starting point, could have been different are reiterated until they reach a point of naturalization. The structuring of initially contingent practices congeal in the subject, the ‘I’, meaning not that this constitution is right or wrong, good or bad, but that it is contingent – a reification which makes it possible to manoeuvre in the world of seemingly ready-made subjects.The above analysis is, to be sure, misleading. It hints at a pre-subject temporality, or non-temporality, where an individual out of the blue starts acting and thus creates her or his own genderedness. The double meaning of “subject” conveys not only a subject of action (a performative) but also that of being subjected, i.e. always already acting as a gendered being, always already filling out a category: “woman”, “heterosexual”, etc. Only through acting appropriately are we rendered intelligible as gendered subjects, only through conforming to gender norms, universals, are we, as Butler would put it, understood as ‘bodies that matter’.

Where, then, does that leave the possibility to criticise gender norms that regulate bodies, gestures and acts? How can we create a performative that is critical of gender norms, if this performative is itself conditioned by the very norms that it wants to object to? How do we separate between those performative acts that reiterate (hetero)sexism and those who subvert it? How do we account for the fact that for centuries, women have been physically and emotionally close to men but have still been facing oppression? The same counts for ‘people of colour’. It seems that the mere presence and visibility doesn’t by itself create a critical performative.

This question seems to be a returning problem for Butler. Several times throughout her seminal works Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), she reintroduces this question to see if her accumulated conceptual work opens ways to approach it. For example, from one point of view, the drag (cross-dresser), by radicalizing gender norms and transferring them on to the “wrong” subject, creates a parody of these reified norms, and these are revealed in their contingency. But how do we make sure that this “mockery” of norms doesn’t turn back upon the performing subject? As Butler notes, “parody by itself is not subversive” , indeed, performatives risk being assimilated and eventually supportive of the (hetero)sexist hegemony. The hegemony may gain power from its denaturalization if the parody re-idealizes (hetero)sexist norms without calling them into question .

Given the difficulty of defining the critical moment of the performative, we must instead turn to the very definition of performativity to clarify its means and implications, thus conveying an understanding of its possibility. A definitive part is its ability to draw on and cover over its own constitution, i.e. the fact that there is a certain precedence to the ‘doing’ of gender . This precedence, firstly, makes us able to account for the heterogeneity of society, that the situatedness in the same world can create different subjects, and secondly, it becomes clear how subjects constantly fail to live up to the (hetero)sexist ideal – an expression of conformity and homogeneity. Hence, the subject faces the impossibility of a full recognition, in other words a general and fundamental inability to act the way that is expected, indicating an incompleteness of subject-formation, which manifests itself in shame, control and punishment .

As a perpetually unfitting body, this moment constitutes a spark of resistance. Against the universal norm, which founds itself by abjection of unintelligible bodies, fully or partly marginalized subjects may claim those very same universals by which they have been marginalized. In order to avoid assimilation, it is, however, critical that this invocation is performed as a marginalized subject. Only as such is the utterance established as what Butler in Sovereign Performatives in the Contemporary Scene of Utterance calls a “performative contradiction”: an act that undercuts what one tries to say. This mismatch of ‘utterer’ and ‘uttered’ exposes the contradictory character of contingent formulation of the universal (a universal can by definition not have an ‘outside’). Suddenly, the performative contradiction is a meaningful one. Marginalized identities will by confession and reappropration of sexual norms be able to create performatives that will scream into the structuralized face of the (hetero)sexist hegemony: “Yes, I am a woman!”, “Yes, I am black!”, “Yes, I am queer!”


Butler, J., Gender Trouble – Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
Routledge, London: 1990

Butler, J., Bodies that Matter – On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”
Routledge, London: 1993

Butler, J., “Sovereign Performatives in the Contemporary Scene of Utterance”
In: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 2
The University of Chicago Press: 1997

Leave a Comment