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A Gender Theorist Who Just Wants Everyone to Get Along

WHO’S AFRAID OF GENDER?, by Judith Butler


As the example of Judith Butler shows, the boons of intellectual celebrity come at a cost. Yes, your work will command the kind of attention that would be the envy of most scholars; but the substance of that work will get eclipsed by your name, and your name will trigger a reaction in people who have never read a single thing you wrote. Throw some misogyny into the mix, and the most scornful attacks can take a lurid turn — even (or especially) if, like Butler, you identify as nonbinary. In 2017, when Butler visited Brazil for a conference on democracy, far-right protesters burned an effigy of Butler dressed in a pink bra and a witch hat.

Despite its notoriously opaque prose, Butler’s best-known book, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” (1990), has been both credited and blamed for popularizing a multitude of ideas, including some that Butler doesn’t propound, like the notions that biology is entirely unreal and that everybody experiences gender as a choice.

So Butler set out to clarify a few things with “Who’s Afraid of Gender?,” a new book that arrives at a time when gender has “become a matter of extraordinary alarm.” In plain (if occasionally plodding) English, Butler, who uses they/them pronouns, repeatedly affirms that facts do exist, that biology does exist, that plenty of people undoubtedly experience their own gender as “immutable.”

What Butler questions instead is how such facts get framed, and how such framing structures our societies and how we live.

Any framework conditions norms and expectations. A binary framework, Butler says, is necessarily complicated by a more expansive view of gender — one that actually takes into account the variety of human experience and expression. “To refuse gender is, sadly, to refuse to encounter that complexity,” Butler writes, “the complexity that one finds in contemporary life across the world.”

Butler, who was trained as a philosopher, finds it curious that their dense, jargon-filled work has been invested with an almost supernatural authority. Conservative Christians have been especially fervent in their insistence that scholars like Butler are corrupting the youth, as if mere exposure to a text amounts to ideological inculcation: “Gender critics imagine that their opponents read gender theory as they themselves read the Bible.”

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