Performativity and bad communication

“Gender is performative” means that gender is what you do, or it is produced by what you do. The word “performative” is taken from J. L. Austin’s concept of “performative utterances“, and refers to statements that are not truth propositions, but actions. For example, saying “I apologize” is not so much a statement of fact, but an action that creates the very apology it speaks of. Likewise, gendered behavior does not merely communicate who you are, but creates who you are.

“Gender is performative” does not mean that gender is acted out, as if on a stage. It does not mean that gender is pretended. Judith Butler, the originator of gender performativity theory, says so herself in this video.

Okay, but I have complaints about this video. The first thing Butler does is state the misconception, followed by “But what I mean is different.” Debunking 101: don’t do that! Generally, you should put as little emphasis on the misconception as possible, instead emphasizing the truth of the matter. People sometimes come away with a stronger memory of the misconception than of the correction. There’s a lot of literature about this, and here’s one example.

Of course, the larger issue is that Butler has already invited misconceptions with the very choice of word, “performative”. It’s just too easy to confuse “performative” with “performance”. Butler herself has used the two words interchangeably on occasion. Even when people understand the difference, they often mentally compare the two concepts, even though they have virtually nothing to do with each other.

One thing that further contributes to misconceptions is that gender is not just performative–sometimes gender is also a performance. It is in fact the case that gender on occasion involves acting roles. For instance, men often pretend to have less emotions than they really do. But gender performativity is really trying to address a different aspect of gender.

I was thinking about this topic because I recently came across two different posts, one which used “performative” correctly, and the other one incorrectly.

First, David Prokopetz wrote a post about similarities between acephobia and biphobia. Among other things, acephobes and biphobes argue that sexual orientation is purely performative. Therefore, if you’re in a male/female relationship, or not in a relationship, your behavior is failing to create a bisexual/asexual orientation, and therefore you should be regarded as straight. Even though Prokopetz is rejecting this argument and implying criticism of performative theory, they seem to be using “performative” correctly.

Second, Heina Dadhaboy wrote a post about “performative apathy“. It describes people on the internet who write “WHO CARES”. This isn’t true apathy, it’s a performance, it’s acting out a role.  It’s not performative in the Butler sense.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Dadhaboy. Rather, I really dislike the performative/performance distinction, and I wish it would die, but now that I know the distinction I can’t help but see when other people are using the distinction correctly. It would be better if Butler chose a word that sounded completely different from any other words.

By the way, some of you may have noticed that I study physics, but all I seem to talk about are humanities and social science. Well you know, in condensed matter physics, we hope that our research will eventually be applied by some engineer somewhere, and educating the public is only icing on the cake. For humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, the eventual application is often by people in the general public. So if non-experts don’t understand physics, whatever. But if people don’t understand humanities and social science, sometimes I wonder what was even the point?


  1. Siobhan says

    So if non-experts don’t understand physics, whatever. But if people don’t understand humanities and social science, sometimes I wonder what was even the point?

    As a “humanities with interest in sciences” type, basically the inversion of you, I am cautious to allow too much ignorance regarding scientific literacy. I may not know any equations for relativity or quantum physics, but I do know what to look for in terms of things like “was that a testable hypothesis?” or “could that even be falsified?” Since I have to rely a bit on scientific authority, I watch for little things like that to clue me in that the person is not really doing science, but peddling something similar to it, usually for a quick buck.

    At any rate, Butler is da bomb. A wonderful example of a feminist who has kept up with the times, going so far as to apologize for some of her older material.

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