Thursday, April 11, 2024

Book Review, Not Everything is About Gender, Reviewing Judith Butler's New Book

Katha Pollitt, Books: Not Everything is About Gender, Atlantic

udith butler, for many years a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, might be among the most influential intellectuals alive today. Even if you have never heard of them (Butler identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns), you are living in their world, in which babies are “assigned” male or female at birth, and performativity is, at least on campus, an ordinary English word. Butler’s breakout 1990 book, Gender Trouble, argued that biological sex, like gender, is socially constructed, with its physical manifestations mattering only to the degree society assigns them meaning. The book is required reading in just about every women’s-, gender-, or sexuality-studies department. Butler has won a raft of international honors and been burned in effigy as a witch in Brazil. How many thinkers can say as much? ***

The central idea of Who’s Afraid of Gender? is that fascism is gaining strength around the world, and that its weapon is what Butler calls the “phantasm of gender,” which they describe as a confused and irrational bundle of fears that displaces real dangers onto imaginary ones. Instead of facing up to the problems of, for example, war, declining living standards, environmental damage, and climate change, right-wing leaders whip up hysteria about threats to patriarchy, traditional families, and heterosexuality. And it works, Butler argues: “Circulating the phantasm of ‘gender’ is also one way for existing powers—states, churches, political movements—to frighten people to come back into their ranks, to accept censorship, and to externalize their fear and hatred onto vulnerable communities.” ***

In the United States, this politicized use of the word gender itself has not caught on as it has in much of the world, where, as an English word for which many languages have no equivalent, it is often used to attack feminism and LGBTQ rights as foreign imports. Still, as Butler notes, America’s Christian fundamentalists and far-right Republicans are fervently in the anti-gender vanguard, whether or not these groups actually use the word gender.

Books, Gender, Scholarship, Theory | Permalink


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