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Gender Performativity is a term created by feminist philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler characterizes gender as the effect of reiterated acting, one that produces the effect of a static or normal gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person's gender act. This effect produces what we can consider to be 'true gender', a narrative that is sustained by "the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them" [1],. The performative acts with which Butler is discussing she names to be performative and within the larger social, unseen world, they exist within performativity.

The socially constructed aspect of gender performativity is perhaps most obvious in drag performance, which offers the potential for a revision of gender categories in its emphasis on the discursive contingency of each gender performance. Butler believes that drag cannot be regarded as an instance of free play, where "there is a ‘one’ who is prior to gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender decides with deliberation which gender it will be today".[2] Subsequently, drag should not be considered the honest expression of its performer’s intent. Rather, she suggests that what is performed "can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility". [3]

Butler suggests in both "Critically Queer" and "Melancholy Gender"[4], that the child/subject's ability to grieve the loss of the same-sex parent as a viable love object is barred. Following from Freud’s notion of melancholia, such a repudiation results in a heightened identification with the Other that cannot be loved, resulting in gender performances which allegorize and internalize the lost love that the subject is subsequently unable to acknowledge or grieve. Butler explains that "a masculine gender is formed from the refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love; a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the incorporative fantasy by which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but ‘preserved’ through the heightening of feminine identification itself". [5] Curiously, Butler does not appear to problematize Freud's heteronormative assumption that the child necessarily has two parents and/or both a mother and a father.

Political potential and limits

Butler suggests that "[t]he critical promise of drag does not have to do with the proliferation of genders…but rather with the exposure of the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals", though such remarks fail to indicate how the inadequacies of heterosexual regimes might be explicitly exposed. [6] Much of the discussion surrounds Butler’s inability to differentiate clearly between notions of performativity and performance even when pressed to define a clear division. Generally, it is considered that the performativity describes the process of discursive production and performance as a specific type of self-presentation.

According to Butler, gender performance is only subversive because it is "the kind of effect that resists calculation”, which is to say that signification is multiplicitous, that the subject is unable to control it, and so subversion is always occurring and always unpredictable". [7] Moya Lloyd suggests that the political potential of gender performances can be evaluated relative to similar past acts in similar contexts in order to assess their transgressive potential: "Even if we accept that there are incalculable effects to all (or most) statements or activities, this does not mean that we need to concede that there are no calculable effects". [8] Conversely, Rosalyn Diprose lends a hard-line Foucauldian interpretation to her understanding of gender performance’s political reach, as one’s identity "is built on the invasion of the self by the gestures of others, who, by referring to other others, are already social beings". [9] Diprose implies that the individual’s will, and the individual performance, always be subject to the dominant discourse of an Other(s), so as to restrict the transgressive potential of performance to the inscription of simply another dominant discourse.


  1. Butler, Judith [1990] (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 140. 
  2. Butler, Judith (1993). "Critically Queer". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1): 21. 
  3. Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer": 24. 
  4. Butler, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. University Press of Stanford. 
  5. Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer": 25. 
  6. Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer": 26. 
  7. Butler, Judith. "Critically Queer": 29. 
  8. Lloyd, Moya (1999). "Performativity, Parody, Politics". Theory, Culture and Society 16 (2): 207. doi:10.1177/02632769922050476. 
  9. Diprose, Rosalyn (1994). The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. London: Routledge, 25.