Gender Trouble

A quarter of a century ago, philosopher Judith Butler (1990) called upon society to create “gender trouble” by disrupting the binary view of sex, gender, and sexuality. Key to her argument is that gender is not an essential, biologically determined quality or an inherent identity, but is repeatedly performed, based on, and reinforced by, societal norms. This repeated performance of gender is also performative, that is, it creates the idea of gender itself, as well as the illusion of two natural, essential sexes. In other words, rather than being women or men, individuals act as women and men, thereby creating the categories of women and men. Moreover, they face clear negative consequences if they fail to do their gender right.

Butler’s philosophical approach to under standing gender has many resonances with, and implications for, a large body of gender research being conducted by social psychologists. Indeed, Butler’s notion of performativity echoes a range of social psychological approaches to gender and gender difference. What we social psychologists might call gender norms and stereotypes, or gender schemas provide the “scripts” for what Butler’s describes as the performance of gender.

Despite past acknowledgments of the importance of Butler’s work by social psychologists, in particular by qualitative psychologist, to our knowledge, little theorizing and research within experimental (and quantitative) social psychology has directly drawn on Butler’s ideas. This is despite the fact that there are identifiable similarities in broad theoretical ideas espoused by many social psychologists with an interest in gender and Butler’s ideas. Thus, we argue that there is great value in (again) promoting the ideas Butler puts forward in Gender Trouble to social psychologists. While experimental social psychological perspectives on gender have been concerned primarily with the origin and perpetuation of gender stereotypes, Butler’s work is more political in her explicit call to create gender trouble. The political nature of the work is perhaps one reason why experimental social psychologists have been reluctant to build on and integrate Butler’s ideas in their work – but, we would argue, it is indeed one of the reasons they should. Combining these two perspectives seems potentially fruitful, bringing together Butler’s theorizing and her call for social and political change with established experimental social psychological theory and empirically testable hypotheses.


Judith Butler



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