Elizabeth Ohlson Wallin

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Theory, Sexuality, and Subversion

Instructor: Paige Sweet
Bureau of General Services—Queer Division
208 West 13th Street, #210
New York, NY 10011

1990 saw the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a text that has become required reading for anyone interested in feminist theory, critical appraisals of gender, and the burgeoning field of queer theory. Central to Butler’s theory is the concept of performativity as a way to describe how we become gendered subjects, that is, how we come to enact gender in recognizable ways. The text is also well known for its account of how certain kinds of performative (gendered) practices—like drag—might become subversive; or how, as Butler says, it might be possible “to open up the field of possibility for gender.” Gender Trouble has proved surprisingly controversial, notably for its difficult prose, but also for its treatment of the body as discursively produced, as well as for its ambiguous “subversive” politics. How, 30 years after publication, does Gender Trouble complicate, or help us make sense of, contemporary problems of feminism, identity, queerness, and politics?

Whether one is a devotee of Gender Trouble or to some degree a skeptic, it remains a text to be reckoned with. This course will take Gender Trouble as the primary text and keep both approaches in mind—one appraising, one critical—as we pair it with select supplemental readings. We will consider its historical context and theoretical frameworks. In addition, we’ll grapple with the insights and limitations of its core arguments about gender and sexuality. Finally, we’ll consider how its politics resonate (or don’t) today. We will ask: Why was it written when it was? With what other texts and ideas was it in conversation? How does it understand the relation between language and categories of sex and sexuality? What polyvalent meanings of performativity, whether reverential or revisionary, did Gender Trouble originate and inspire? What is the legacy of Butler’s argument for shifting the subject of feminism away from “women” to “gender”—especially in view of Robin Weigman’s critique, or in view of more recent studies of trans subjectivity? How might we evaluate the political potentials or failures of parody today? Some may come to the course curious about the text’s enduring relevance, others skeptical of a scholar involved in scandal. The course invites careful reading of Gender Trouble both by those familiar with Butler’s body of work and by first-time readers.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
March 03 — March 24, 2020
4 weeks


Registration Open

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