The lines between the perceived genders of male and female get blurred every day. This is how gender trouble is created. Judith Butler’s idea of gender trouble is that gender is not natural. Instead, gender is performative and when it is performed out of bounds this creates gender trouble (Butler, 1990). Media is a place where the bounds of gender can be blurred and provide alternative means to the construction of gender.
The term gender trouble was coined in 1990 by Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler is a philosopher primarily concerned with the constructions of gender (Butler, 1990). Although the concept of gender trouble did not have a name until 1990, its existence started long before. There is plenty of evidence of men and women performing outside of gender bounds. Much like the cross-dressing actors in the Shakespearian era, gender has always been performative. In one essay regarding gender trouble in early modern England, it says “Whether in real life or in literature… cross-dressing involved struggle, resistance, and subversion, as well as modification, recuperation and containment of the system of gendered patriarchal domination” (Cressy, 1996, p. 438). This shows how the lines of gender were being blurred long before Butler coined a term for it. The struggle relates to the trouble that performing gender outside of the bounds. Trouble in this case is not a negative and can be used to foster diversity.
In a more modern sense, gender trouble can be thought of through the work of Betty Friedan. Friedan wrote in the 1960’s about how women had a need to break their gender roles. During this time, women were expected to stay a home and care for the children, their husband and the house. This left many women deeply unfilled but unsure as to the
reason why they felt like this. Friedan called it “the problem that has no name” (Friedan, 1963, p.34). This idea illustrates how women were unhappy with the gender expectations placed upon them. They were performing gender as they were expected to in the form of subservient housewives. The solution here was to reject this role and specific performance of what it means to be a woman. These women of the 1960’s could then enact gender trouble if they left the house and got jobs. This was rejecting the expected performance of gender and enacting a blend of feminine and masculine gender roles.
Around the time that the term gender trouble was developed, feminist theories included postfeminism and third-wave feminism. Postfeminists support the idea that gender equality has been reached (Laughey, 2007). If this was the case, gender trouble would not exist because no ‘trouble’ would be created by performing out of bounds. Third-wave feminists are concerned with intersectionality which helps include minority women who were being left out of the feminist narrative (Laughey, 2007). Like intersectionality, Butler is concerned with the multifactorial connections that make up a person. For gender trouble, Butler is most interested in the multifactorial connections that make up gender identity instead of total identity.
There are two main tenants to Butler’s theory of gender trouble. The first is that gender is not natural and the second is that gender is performative. Where the ‘trouble’ comes in is when someone is performing outside the expectations of one’s gender. Butler theorizes that the biological differences would mean nothing without the social constructions of what it means to be male versus female (Butler, 1990). Society places expectations of femininity and masculinity. If someone’s gender presentation does not meet the expectations that go with their assigned biological sex, then they are performing outside the bounds of gender expectation. Everyone is performing gender but some are troubled. By continuing to act out gender, this is how gender has meaning, not because of any biological difference. Some examples of people whose gender performances trouble gender are transgender individuals (Laughey, 2007).
A case of a transgender individual is Jazz Jennings who is a young trans activist and TLC reality television star. In her show I am Jazz, she addresses her everyday issues of being transgender and growing up. Jazz openly talks about the bullying she experiences as a trans individual. The show is a platform for her gender performance and depicts her as an average teenage girl (“I am Jazz,” n.d.). This helps fight against heteronormativity. Transgender individuals like Jennings illustrate how gender is subjective and can be performed in a multitude of ways. The fact that Jennings is biologically male would mean nothing without gender constructions. It is up to the individual to perform gender in their own way.
In looking how gender has been performed in the past and what theories surrounding feminism were present during this time, it is important to understand not only how gender is constructed but how it is represented in the media. The types of people enacting gender trouble are not often represented in media. There is currently gender trouble present in media sources such as television shows like as I am Jazz. Without the theory of gender trouble there would not be examples of people breaking gender expectations in television. One example of this is in a Disney television series called Star vs. the Forces of Evil.
In an episode of Star vs. the Forces of Evil male character Marco dresses up like a princess. The disguise is to go under cover in a princess school. The show takes a surprising turn by not making fun of him for acting feminine. The other characters also do not conclude that he can’t be a princess because he is a boy when his gender is revealed. The other princesses decided that anyone can be a princess if they choose to be regardless of gender. This demonstrates how a main stream media platform like Disney can show the interruption of gender expectations. Marco performs femininity in the episode but goes back to his more masculine self at the end of the episode. Other characters accept either version of Marco (Piluso, 2015). This change in performance of gender supports Butler’s theory that gender is not natural. The only reason there are such distinctions are because we choose to enact them. This example illustrates that gender is not fixed and what can happen when performing out of bounds.
An evolution of Butler’s gender trouble can be seen in today’s drag. Without the concept of gender trouble there would be no drag. Drag queens embody gender trouble. They put
on a different persona and appearance to perform a feminine gender that is different from their assigned gender of male. These drag queens are celebrated through media such as RuPaul’s Drag Race which is a drag queen competition that has been airing on television since 2009 (Wortham, 2018). These queens show gender fluidity by performing as women on the stage and men off the stage. Both personas are still a part of who they are and differ from an actor playing a part.
One essay looking at drag queens investigated how drag performances can serve social change. The researchers for this essay conversed with audience member after they went to a drag show in Key West, Florida. One drag queen was asked about one of the performances, saying that “leaving on the wig and makeup confounds people. It baffles them and it does make them think” (Taylor & Rupp, 2005, p. 2129). This illustrates how drag can make people question gender roles by creating a staged performance of a certain gender. Drag queens enact the stereotypes of female gender by having dramatic makeup, big hair and fanciful costumes. However, they blur these lines by being men enacting this performance and having both more masculine out of drag persona and in drag persona as part of their identity.
Butler’s theory of gender trouble can give a name to the struggling concept of how gender is constructed and how it can be performed. It is an ever-present theme going back to Shakespearian era (Cressy, 1996). Butler’s theory that gender is only naturalized because of social constructions aligns with how the lines of gender are blurred in various accounts of media (Butler, 1990). Further representation in media for non-conforming gender performance would create greater diversity. These representations could give voice to those who are not shown in the main stream media and are looking for someone like them in the media that they consume.
Butler, J (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY: Routledge
Cressy, D. (1996). Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England. Journal of British Studies, 35(4), 438-465. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/176000
Laughey, D. (2007). Feminisms and gender. In Key themes in media theory (pp. 100-121). New York, NY: Open University Press.
Piluso, P. (Writer), & Piluso, P. (Director). (2015). St. Olga’s reform school for wayward princesses [Television series episode]. In A. Hammersley (Producer), Star vs. the forces of evil. United States: Disney Television Animation
Taylor, V., & Rupp, L. (2005). When the Girls Are Men: Negotiating Gender and Sexual Dynamics in a Study of Drag Queens. Signs,30(4), 2115-2139. doi:10.1086/428421
TLC. (n.d.). I am jazz. Retrieved from https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/i-am-jazz/about
Wortham, J. (2018, January 26). Is rupaul’s drag race the most radical show on tv. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/magazine/is-rupauls-drag-race-the-most-radical-show-on-tv.html
Image Attribution: “1960’s Housewife” by Pixabay in the Public Domain; “Jazz Jennings at Pride Parade” by Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0; “Bianca Del Rio” by Wikipedia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Written by Casey Wolhar, 2018