Butler, Feminism, Gender Trouble, heteronormativity, Heterosexual Matrix, Performativity, Queer Theory, Sex & Gender

What Is Queer Theory?

What exactly is queer theory? Queer theory is hard to define! Tiina Rosenberg, queer scientist and Associate Professor in Theater Studies at Stockholm University writes:

I kort begreb kan man sige, at queer-teorien forskyder kønsdiskrimination fra at handle om patriarkatets udelukkelse af kvinden til at handle om den heteroseksuelle norms udelukkelse af ikke-heteroseksuelle

(Rosenberg i Munk Rösing 2001)

[Our translation] In short, queer theory shifts gender discrimination from being about the exclusion of women by patriarchy to the exclusion of non-heterosexual by heterosexual norms.

We have chosen to use Judith Butler who has paid the way for queer theory to be our main queer theorist since we find her understanding to be one of the most accurate and useful approaches to gender and sexuality – both how they affect each other, as well as what the categories ‘gender/sex’ contain.

Judith Butler

Butlers book Gender Trouble (1990) helped put queer studies on the agenda (within gender and feminist studies). Her critical analysis of feminist thinkers such as Julia Kristeva and Monique Wittig as well as Michel Foucault, Jacque Lacan and Sigmund Freud has helped shape her own philosophy (more than an actual theory) which is an attempt to de-neutralise existing discourses within gender and sexuality.

Men hvilken sammenhæng mellem køn og seksualitet forsøger jeg at fremhæve? Jeg vil bestemt ikke hævde, at former for seksuel praksis producerer bestemte køn, men kun at kontrollen af køn under den normative heteroseksualitets betingelser undertiden bruges som et middel til at sikre heteroseksualiteten

(Butler: XXI)

[Our translation] But which connection between gender and sexuality am I trying to emphasize? I am not trying to claim that one specific sexual practice produces specific genders but merely the fact that by controlling gender within the conditions of normative heterosexuality it is sometimes used as a way to secure heterosexuality

Butler presents the idea of ‘biological gender’ (sex) as oppose to ‘social gender’ (gender) and the connection as well as the differences between these – with the fundamental understanding of gender as a performance.

In addition, she talks about the relation between the understanding of gender and sexual desire: A heterosexual ‘woman’ and a heterosexual ‘man’ make up ‘the Heterosexual Matrix’.

‘Woman’ as a Category

“Strictly speaking, “women” cannot be said to exist”

(Kristeva in Butler 2008: 1)

Inspired by Michel Foucault, Butler points to problematic, dominating tendencies when it comes to women (in society, language as well as politics), since all women are placed in just one shared category. Existing discourses which society is subjected to produces gendered (masculine and dominating) subjects, that excludes the category ‘women’ by placing all women in one category both politically and culturally, thereby creating just one identity. Butler criticizes this:

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive (…) because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts (…)

(Butler: 4)

Another point of critic is the lack of: “(…) racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities” (Butler: 4).

Butler is, as mentioned, inspired by De Beauvoir who sees gender as more than something that is biological determined: you are not born a woman, you become a woman (which is not to say, that there are absolutely no biological differences between women and men), and because of this, one cannot assume that there is only one women’s category.

Sex & Gender


By deconstructing binary understandings and truisms of gender and sexuality that are dominant in our current society, Butler questions some of the naturalized truths which determine the general understanding of gender. She argues that gender is culturally determined and that the biological body is connected to the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ because society is subjected to cultural compulsion that teaches us how we should think about these (Butler: 8).

Historically, there has been a clear distinction between gender and sex. Gender was seen as ‘destiny’ and sex as a cultural construction, which is to say it is changeable. Thus, Butler doesn’t think you can separate sex and gender since they depend on each other:

Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature (…)

(Butler: 10)

With this in mind, the physical (biological) body is nothing but an ‘instrument’, a ‘construction’, without meaning until it has been ‘assigned’ a gender at (or even before) birth (boy or girl), predetermined by culture and existing discourses. This means that a person born with what is acknowledged as a biological ‘male’ body is also able to embody the female category the same way women born in a body acknowledged as ‘female’ can (De Beauvoir in Butler: 11).

Butler points out, that it is not just about choosing freely when it comes to one’s understanding of gender since gender identity is influenced by existing, powerful discourses.

Butler’s frame of understanding is thereby based on interpellation, where gender identity as a social construction is displayed: a subject becomes part of a gender discourse at birth since it is assigned the label: boy or girl.

The Heterosexual Matrix and heteronormativity

Butler explains that “”Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire” (Butler: 23). This definition constitute the Heterosexual Matrix. The matrix is to be understood as a structure that creates norms in which one (because of one’s sex) has a heterosexual desire that produces a heterosexual practice. Since this heteronormative understanding is dictating how vi think about sex, gender, and desire, identities that differ from the norm (gays, bisexuals, and trans*) are tabooed. As a result, these identities are viewed as intelligible genders and evolutionary failures (udviklingsmæssige fiaskoer). Since the understanding of gender is based on a heterosexual construction regulated by its reproductive sexuality, a false stabilization of gender emerges.

Butler points out that it is problematic (in more than one way) to equate gender and sex with desire in modern queer theory since a given sex does not necessarily presuppose a certain desire and vice versa. She elaborates by saying:

The second and related move within queer theory is to argue that gender is not reducible to hierarchical heterosexuality, that it takes different forms when contextualized by queer sexualities, indeed, that its binariness cannot be taken for granted outside the heterosexual frame, that gender itself is internally unstable, that transgendered lives are evidence of the breakdown of any lines of causal determinism between sexuality and gender

(Butler 2004: 54)


The many identities that are placed outside of the Heterosexual Matrix are proof that the matrix is constructed and constantly controlled and upheld by repetition, language, and representation. Butler thinks that it is necessary to recognize that rather than viewing gender/sex as a cause of sexual experience, behavior, and desire, it is important to acknowledge that the cause must be understood as an effect of the heteronormative discourse that creates certain subject positions. Which is to say, gender/sex is a label created performatively by hegemonic discourses.

It may seem, however, that there is a difference between the embodying or performing of gender norms and the performative use of discourse. Are these two different senses of “performativity”, or do the converge as modes of citationality in which the compulsory character of certain social imperatives becomes subject to a more promising deregulation? Gender norms operate by requiring the embodiment of certain ideals of femininity and masculinity, ones that almost always related to the idealization of the heterosexual bond

(Butler 1993: 231)

Butler views gender/sex as fluent. To become one’s gender/sex, one is forced to perform in order to live up to the social and public discourse on “intelligible” genders. Gender is thereby produced in order to create stabile, primary, and recognizable identities. These identities can be interpreted as performative, since being placed outside the norm has negative consequences. Those who does not perform their gender/sex in accordance with the norm are challenging the political construction and our way of understanding gender/sex (Butler: 192) (note: This is not to say, that gender/sex is merely a performance (Serano 2016: 336)).


Butler, Judith: Gender Trouble – Feminism and the subversion of identity

Butler, Judith (2004) Undoing Gender. Routledge. ISBN: 978-0415969239

Butler, Judith (1993): “Critically Queer” i Bodies That Matter – On The Discursive Limits of “Sex”. pp. 223-283. Routledge.

Ravn, Flemming (2014): HVAD ER HETERONORMATIVITET? Læs her

Munk Rösing, Lilian (2001): De skæve kønsidentiteter. Information. Læs her

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s