Currently a professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at University of California, Judith Butler is a well-known philosopher, presenting theories on gender, identity and power. Described as the ‘superstar’ of the ‘90s alternative culture academics, her ideas have created an impact on both society and politics.
Butler’s philosophy revolves around identity and queer theory. Queer theory suggests that a person cannot be identified on the basis of any one characteristic, such as gender. Each person has various elements to their personality which form his/her unique identity, thus referring generally to all ‘women’ or any other group is insignificant as each woman or member of that group is different from the next in all aspects.
By Butler’s perspective, the problem of gender inequality lies in the definition of a ‘woman’. Historically, women have been used as subjects to be symbolized politically. Butler disagrees by saying that all women cannot be identified as a homogenous, equal group since all women vary in their habits, situations and attitudes.
According to Butler, the labeling of women as a group, away from men is in fact harmful to the feminists’ cause. She states that if we suppose that men and women are different from each other then true equality can never be achieved. In this manner, Butler’s stance is different from feminists who call attention to the separation of the sexes. She also believes that holding men as enemies of women aggravates the sexual inequality rather than helping the agenda.
Gender Trouble (1990), Butler’s most powerful work, holds her ideas that the binary division of the sexes is a grave mistake. Instead of opening new potential for an individual to identify the self as a person and perform accordingly, it constricts them forcefully into two definite groups of men and women, thereby limiting the formation of an individual identity.
Freud says that sex and gender can only be related in two ways; sex (being a male or female) causes gender (masculine or feminine) which results in desire of the opposite sex. Homosexuality is explained by Freud by stating that a woman recognizes herself as a man when she desires another woman. Butler advances towards the issue in a different manner. She believes that our gender is not an integral part of our identity, but more of an act which individuals put up to cope with varying circumstances.
Butler rejects the fact that gender is attained by destiny alone. This would leave no room for escape from the gender roles set by society throughout history. She insists on considering gender as variable, something more flexible which can be alternated as the situation requires in shifting contexts and times. This way we can achieve a new kind of equality between the two sexes, where people are free to behave as they wish. Consequently, gender is not who you are, rather it is what you do; it is similar to a dramatic performance.
Butler has also remained a political activist throughout her career, focusing on feminism, queer and gender-related issues. She has served as the chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission board. She has spoken a great deal on the war atrocities, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. She is an executive member of the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in the United States. Butler also supported the Boycott movement against Israel.
Considered by the majority as one of the most influential political voices in the contemporary times, Judith Butler is the recipient of several awards, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award (2008), a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship (1978) and the Brudner Memorial Prize for Lifetime Achievement for contributions to Lesbian and Gay Studies from Yale University (2004).