Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter presents a critique of the American gender structure, as well as the feminist response to it. She focuses largely on the use of language, which is the subject of research by many sociological scholars. The words that we use are attached to social meaning, based on culture and history, so it is important to differentiate what is “politically correct.” This is often ridiculed by society, but the point is that there are words that have very real meaning to people and actually offend them, and as a people we should be sensitive to those feelings, given that the groups affected are often those who have faced immense oppression. That being said, Butler takes-on a critique of the use of the term “women.” She says that feminists fight for the rights of women, but questions what that term includes, making the point that there are many gender nonconforming people who do not fit into either category of “man” or “woman,” and questions if those people’s rights are being fought for.
I appreciate Butler’s opinion because it made me aware of an issue I had never thought about. I consider myself a feminist, and I have taken part in many demonstrations in the current time-period. At the women’s march in New York City, a common phrase was “women’s rights are human rights,” and I never stopped to consider the phrase. First of all, I have to ask myself, did gender nonconforming people feel welcomed at the march? From my stance, the march was not just for women, but for all people who wanted to express their views in solidarity with other like-minded individuals. However, there were probably plenty of people who did not understand that, and instead felt alienated because they did not feel they were being represented. Secondly, stating that “women’s rights are human rights” raises the question of what really were we raising our voices for? I can see how the rhetoric used must be sensitive to include all disadvantaged people, which is difficult to do when an inclusive term is not mainstreamed.
On a different topic, Butler’s ideas about the timeline of the social contract were also eye-opening to me. As a political science major, I have read many of the social contract theorists who describe a time in which there was social chaos, before people came together and formed a social contract to live and work together. Thus, the idea that there really is no period of madness, and the social contract exists first is a difficult concept for me to absorb; however, I think she does a great job supporting it. Her theory that the story of a time before the social contract is told to make the social arrangements seem natural makes sense. Gender has been reproduced for such a long time, that people think it is natural and real, but really it was created by mankind. Thus, people who do not conform are questioned and seen as less than human, because people think they are “going against nature,” even though there is nothing natural about a woman shaving her legs and wearing makeup. Further, an even more controversial point that she makes is that biology itself is a social contract. This point I still cannot comprehend, but it is interesting to think about how the world would look, if society had been organized based on a different trait. For example, what would have happened if the social contract was based on height? Perhaps tall people had subordinated short people, forcing them to take care of them and not paying them fairly for their work. Today, we would have a lot of short stay at home parents, teachers, maids, etc, and a lot of tall doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. Because this system would be reinforced over time, it would seem totally natural, people might say “of course short people do childcare, it is their natural instinct! Tall people are natural providers, they are more capable.” Thinking about the social structure in this way is a little eerie, because it goes to show how impressionable people are, and how there is an overarching society way over any individual’s head, influencing these social phenomena.