The last half of the twentieth century saw the birth, adolescence and remarkably mature adulthood of a new field of cultural investigation: Gender Studies. A natural consequence of the sexual awakening of the Western world in the sixties, Gender Studies focuses on how we define what it means to be a man and/or a woman, and why we insist on creating such definitions in the first place.
Sex, which is where our understanding of femininity and masculinity intersects, is of special interest to this field of study. Here, sex is understood as a manifestation of desire and is inseparable from identity, because what we want in many ways defines who we are.
Gender as Self-Reliance
Judith Butler, now Professor of Gender Studies at California’s Berkeley University, is one of the leading figures in the field. For Butler, gender is not prehistoric or precultural; it is learned. We are taught to be a woman if we are born a girl, and we are instructed in the ways of manhood if we are born male. Granted, Butler allows for biology to play a role in the construction of gender, but it is subject to cultural conditioning.
The following excerpt, from Butler’s ”Undoing Gender,” summarizes her view:
If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.
Two major themes from Butler’s work are presented here, performance and improvisation. For Butler, gender is the combination of authentic improvisation (a nod to biology) and showmanship (a nod to cultural expectations) upon society’s narrow stage.
Gender Studies’ work to vindicate each person’s right to create his or her own sexual identity is surprisingly similar to the firm defense of individuality posited by America’s most traditional and best-loved philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Insist upon Yourself
An eighteenth century thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson is worlds away from concerns of sexuality and gender. Yet, his foremost preoccupations are individuality and identity, today irrevocably linked to sexuality.
Emerson travelled the country sharing his message of self-reliance, urging all who would listen to embrace their individuality and to remake themselves anew every day. Here are two examples:
Insist upon yourself.
Your conformity explains nothing.
Emerson’s self-deterministic program remains the most influential manifesto in American philosophical history, and can be linked to Butler’s work in Gender Studies via her idea of performance. For Butler, performance, as regards the construction of gender, need not be a negative, forced act. Instead, performance can be an opportunity for agency, for action. Butler’s definition of performance is thus parallel to Emerson’s notion that individuality should be built within and then displayed without.
The key link between both thinkers, then, is that they believe that the construction of a self is possible, even within the context of a demanding society. Emerson, like the poet Charles Baudelaire, invited his followers to relish a life lived amongst the crowds, while maintaining a keen sense of who they are as individuals.
Inapplicable for All
Granted, Butler’s individual has fewer options than Emerson’s, but there are options nonetheless. Society and culture tell us what it means to behave like a woman or a man, biology influences this behavior through hormones and impulses, but there remains an opportunity for each of us to define our sexual identity. For Butler, sexuality is equal to possibility.
The problem arises when the law attempts to universalize what it interprets as beneficial for most. In the contemporary world, where individuals are creatively enacting their sexuality, policies that standardize practices related to sexuality, such as marriage and adoption, are no longer effective. Here, in this point of conflict, is where Butler’s work operates, seeking to create awareness of our inherent differences, a difference that need not be feared.
If only Emerson were around to witness our era’s range of individual expression. Would this trusted and forward-thinking voice express support for gay marriage? It is quite likely that he would, for he once said:
Let us treat the men and women well, treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are.