Celebrity queer philosopher Judith Butler fights to vindicate her life’s work

The launch of Berkeley philosophy professor Judith Butler’s much-heralded new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024), is an attempt to vindicate what is left of gender theory among the general reading public.

Once called the “queen of queer theorists”, Butler’s incomprehensible academic prose is widely credited, by friend and foe alike, with helping to pave the way for the unprecedented explosion in, or at least recognition of, transgender identification in recent decades.

Yet the gender revolution that Butler and her fellow academics, at the very least, encouraged has resulted in consequences that even they may not have anticipated.

These consequences include surgical and chemical castration of prepubescent boys and double mastectomies (“chest reconstructions”) of adolescent girls by licensed doctors...  “trans” male athletes being allowed to dominate women’s sports and bathrooms... the mandatory declaration of pronouns” before some law courts and many woke corporations... the claim that there are “37 genders”... the insistence that “misgendering” someone is a hate crime that should result in arrest... and the recent proposal in jurisdictions such as California to remove children from their parents’ homes if the parents refuse to accept the view that people can change the sex they were “assigned” at birth.

Of course, these developments have also resulted in a growing global backlash -- and this explains why Butler is finally bringing her case to the general public. 

For the first time in Butler’s lengthy career, she is writing in what is supposed to be ordinary English rather than in the opaque, jargon-filled language of “queer theory.”  (Butler famously won first place in a Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal Literature and Philosophy.)

As Naomi Klein puts it, Who’s Afraid of Gender is “a profoundly urgent intervention” in the face of what others call “reactionary politics around the world.”

A growing resistance

First, J.K. Rowling, the billionaire author of the Harry Potter franchise, was re-hired as the executive producer for a new round of Potter TV series – despite being denounced by many in academia, and even by the Scottish police, as a virtual Nazi for her opposition to the transgender lobby.

Then the pioneer of celebrity transsexuality – the former male Olympic gold medalist now known as Caitlin Jenner – came out in support of banning biological males from competing in women’s sports, saying it’s “unfair.”

Most recently, in March 2024, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service announced that it was no longer permitting “gender-affirming health care”, such as the use of puberty-blocking drugs, for minor children – joining states across the United States (although not the Biden Administration) restricting the use of such drugs and procedures on children. 

The reason: "We have concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the safety or clinical effectiveness of puberty-suppressing hormones to make the treatment routinely available at this time," the NHS explained.

For these and many other reasons, Butler, a soft-spoken academic who is now 68, rightly suspects that her life’s work – “deconstructing” the very idea of women -- is under growing attack, and Who’s Afraid of Gender is her attempt to win new converts to her cause.

Why are so many afraid of “gender”?

The 303-page book is divided into ten self-contained chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, all focused on the “anti-gender ideology movement” and the many and varied pathologies that give rise to it. 

These horrors include so-called gender-critical feminism and “fascist” TERFs – that is, traditional feminists who want to protect the rights of women -- the US Supreme Court and populist politicians such as Donald Trump and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni. 

Like many “queer” theorists, Butler attempts to bolster her case by linking opposition to, say, drag queen story hours in kindergarten (known as “gender fucking” in the biz) to “white supremacy.”  

“The colonial history of idealized gender dimorphism shows how colonial powers imposed gender norms on Black and brown bodies that naturalized and idealized heteronormative white and (mainly) European norms,” she writes, in a fairly typical passage. (p. 234)

Of course, Butler reserves much of her considerable ire for the Catholic Church and the “progressive” Pope Francis, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who has repeatedly called gender theory an “ugly ideology” that threatens humanity itself

“In 2014, Pope Francis made clear that ‘complementarity’ was essential to the preservation of the family and marriage as a distinctive and exclusive bond between men and women,” Butler writes, correctly noting that this “serves as the basis for a political opposition to gay and lesbian marriage and parenting rights as well as intersex and trans rights.” (p. 91)


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Butler is also aghast that the pope says the sexual revolution has “brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable” precisely because such “leftist rhetoric” demonises those who “make use of reproductive technologies, abortion rights, lesbian and gay marriage, and queer kinship.” (p. 86)

Sex and gender radically distinct

Anyone who has tried to read Butler’s earlier academic works will recognise most of the themes in Who’s Afraid of Gender.

Butler’s central claim is that there is profound, almost metaphysical distinction between biological sex (with every cell in the body, alas, chromosomally coded either XX or XY) and “gender.” 

The latter is entirely a “social construct”, the result of unfortunate cultural programming and what she terms “performativity”, a concept she borrowed from British analytic philosopher J.L. Austin.   

It’s not so much that humans are playing gender “roles” and giving a performance.  Rather, according to Butler, being a man or woman is “an impulsive yet mindful process of interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos and prescriptions.” [Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault (1987), included in The Butler Reader, p. 26.]

The performative character of gender means that the male/female “binary”, intrinsic to biological sex, is both absurd and oppressive.  (To this end, since 2020, Butler has requested that she be referred to as “they”, a request that even many left-wing publications ignore for stylistic reasons.) 

Where’s the evidence?

What evidence or argument does Butler marshal for this extraordinary claim?

Well, critics have long pointed out that Butler rarely bothers with arguments – that is, with the tedious philosophical task of laying out premises that could be tested or questioned. 

Instead, Butler mostly relies on the postmodern tactic of appealing to obscure authorities, browbeating readers into submission with lengthy and often incomprehensible quotations from the likes of Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and Simone de Beauvoir.  

Yet a surprising number of professional philosophers simply didn’t buy it. 

As early as 1999, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago and herself a feminist activist, attacked Butler’s whole approach as a mere “parody” of what philosophy is supposed to be. 

Nussbaum noted that what few ideas are expressed in Butler’s work, such as the denaturing of gender roles, are already present as early as Plato and in the work of such dreaded dead white males as John Stuart Mill. 

Referring to Butler’s famous early works, Nussbaum mocked Butler’s aversion to evidence and argument: “Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter contain no detailed argument against biological claims of ‘natural’ difference, no account of mechanisms of gender replication, and no account of the legal shaping of the family; nor do they contain any detailed focus on possibilities for legal change,” Nussbaum fumed.

More recently, other “gender critical” feminist philosophers, such as Kathleen Stock, have noted the way Butler’s ideas have been used to create “gender identity laws” that undermine, rather than support, hard-won rights for women.  Stock taught until 2021 at the University of Sussex in the UK, but a coalition of “queer, trans and nonbinary students” waged a campaign to have her fired (she resigned).    

To be fair to Butler, she appears to have heeded some of her critics. 

Not only is Who’s Afraid of Gender far more readable than Butler’s academic titles, but she occasionally cites evidence for her assertions, such as scientific studies. 

At one point, Butler even concedes that the early pioneers of “gender-affirming health care” – such as John Money’s Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins (1966–1979), where “corrective surgeries” were performed in the 1960s and ‘70s – were “exercises in cruelty.”

In the end, however, Butler’s new book will likely appeal solely to those who already accept on faith the many unproven axioms underlying gender theory – that the categories of men and women are solely social constructions, that human beings can change their biological sex, and that opposition to such ideas is motivated by malice and the desire to bring back gas chambers

According to Butler, “the anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times” – a sentiment that even The Guardian newspaper apparently censored and removed after it was first published, perhaps for legal reasons.

Like too many postmodern works, Butler’s latest book seems designed less to persuade than to belittle – a sign that the sun may indeed be setting on the entire gender theory project. For feminist intellectuals like Butler, it’s the end of an era. Opaque words like “heteronormativity” and “interpellation” paid the bills for a long time.

Is this the dying gasp of a rotten ideology? Sound off in the comments section below.

Robert J. Hutchinson writes on the intersection of ideas and politics.  He is the author of The Dawn of Christianity.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


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