Performativity: Draft of 3W Encyclopedia Entry

Explain performativity to a high school / undergraduate / general public audience, and do it within a 750-word limit. It's harder than it sounds, I'll tell you what! I tried to pack everything in: a definition and history of performativity, critiques of it, and political strategies stemming from it. I'm sure I mucked it up real good. :o

PERFORMATIVITY. Performativity is the idea that gender is a daily, habitual, learned act based on cultural norms of femininity and masculinity. The idea comes from the work of Judith Butler, who was influenced by theorists who studied “speech acts,” or the power of authoritative words to both say and do at the same time. One example is, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” According to Butler, gender works in much the same way. As girls, many of us learn countless subtle ways to groom and arrange our bodies to be feminine and attain approval as “normal” in a culture that puts people into one category: man or woman. For example, girls internalize stereotypically feminine acts such as wearing dresses and makeup, shaving one’s underarms and legs, sitting with legs crossed, and playing with dolls (which, it could be argued depending on the kind of play, is a preparation for the adult woman's traditional gender role of raising children). Women and men continually “cite” these gender norms in their day-to-day behavior, usually without realizing it. Even the simple act of filling out a form and circling the “Mr.” prefix is a performance of gender. Most often, gender is among the first things one notices about another person, and that is not so much a result of biological differences as it is a result of these stylizations of the body and habits of mind supplied by cultural norms. Such norms are oppressive because a person’s social legitimacy and normalcy is dependent on conforming to one of the two genders.

Ever since the 1970s, feminists have insisted upon the difference between sex and gender. In 1975, Gayle Rubin argued that a predominately heterosexual society that institutionalizes sexuality in marriage and the family unit needs two – and only two – genders, and a causal relationship does not exist between sex and gender; in other words, one’s sex does not determine one’s gender. Butler extends the sex/gender distinction by saying that neither gender nor sex is completely natural; they are only naturalized through repetition and people's belief in the correct performance of their designated sex and gender: their designated term in the man/woman binary. Butler claims that there is no authentic, innate man or woman behind or before the entry into culture, society, and language.

Some theorists have critiqued performativity as a concept that can be misinterpreted as a simple putting on or taking off of genders: Today I’ll perform as a man, tomorrow as a woman. That performativity is based on cultural norms, however, makes it much more complex; consider, for example, the act of cross-dressing. If a teenager goes to school in drag, he or she will likely get beaten, harassed, or at least laughed at. Others have argued that performativity reduces the importance of the physical body. However, we can only know the body through language and culture, and that what we interpret as sex is an effect of the discourse surrounding gender. Most people assume that while a person can claim to be a man or a woman, the person’s sex is a fixed, objective reality, but in the case of an infant with ambiguous genitalia, we see how powerfully gender norms act upon the body. Sometimes, it is hard to discern whether an infant has a large clitoris or a small penis. In order to protect the child from ridicule, doctors and parents will often opt to surgically alter the genitals into a more feminine shape.

Butler points out that there are several ways to expose and undermine gender norms, including creating many new genders, making fun of gender through parody, and rejecting being categorized as either “man” or “woman.” We can see many genders in transgender and genderqueer discourse, including Stone Butches, Baby Butches, Daddies, Cowboys, Masters, Boy Scouts, Dandies, Princes, Knights, and Tranny Bois. Genderqueers, drag queens, and drag kings also play with gender by embodying caricatures of extreme masculinity or femininity. The androgynous 1980s Saturday Night Live character “Pat” is an example of what Butler calls resisting “cultural intelligibility.” In sketches, everybody asks Pat questions, trying to tease out which of the two genders Pat is. All the questions are parodies of gender stereotypes: they ask Pat if he or she wants a drink: “Would you like a beer or a cosmopolitan?” Pat always resists interpretation, saying, "Oh, I shouldn't. I just took an antihistamine." Although many feminist theorists, including transgender theorists and activists, see parody, the rejection of gender categories, the proliferation of genders as potent political strategies, other theorists critique this, arguing instead that performative political strategies aestheticize “gender expression” at the expense of correcting social inequities that harm women.

References / Suggested Reading

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998: 722-30.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 1.1 (1998): 1-19.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998: 533-60.

Snitow, Ann. “A Gender Diary.” Conflicts in Feminism. Ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990: 9-43.


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performativity definition

I think what you've written is more accurately a definition of "gender performativity"--but there are all kinds of performativity--racial performativity, class performativity, linguistic performativity (the first use of the term), etc. Certainly gender is the area where the term is most used today, but it's not acc. to suggest "gender performativity" is the only meaning of performativity. A quick Google search finds uses in all kinds of fields, centered not on Butler's app. but the original notion itself. Here for ex. is a call for papers for a recent conference:

A 4-day symposium
November 30 – December 3, 2004
Arranged by: The Copenhagen Doctoral School in Cultural Studies, Literature, and the Arts
During the last decades we have witnessed a shift within the humanities from considering texts and artefacts the paradigmatic manifestations of culture toward the recognition of the central importance of the performative. This transition from a textual to a performative paradigm invites to renewed investigations of the dynamic and processual aspects of culture and reveals new perspectives for cultural studies and studies of the arts by highlighting and comparing diverse forms of performative practises within these fields.
Contemporary theories of performativity merge impulses from philosophy of language and linguistics, from anthropology, psychology, and from art studies – most prominently from theatre studies. Thus, the concept of performativity implies a strong interdisciplinary impetus, reshaping our fields of study, challenging traditional disciplinary boundaries, and opening new ways of approach to new as well as old subject matters.


Ah, yes. :)

Well, given the context (an encyclopedia on feminism) and the audience, it wasn't too practical to go into the other kinds...but I'll see if the editor thinks I should put in a phrase or sentence that speaks to your point about class and race performativity. Hope you're doing well! How's the Alice Paul piece coming?

"man and wife"?

Very thoughtful, compressed item. Some thoughts:

I wondered if your use of this dated performative ("man and wife") was deliberate and, if so, what point you are making. My impression is that most ceremonies would now use the performative "husband and wife."

Apparently, no male scholars have addressed this issue. Wouldn't the case be stronger if you showed how culturally-constructed gender roles harm men as well?

The high school drag example seems contextual. Male football players will cross dress to create laughs and not suffer social stigma. So it's not dresses on boys that are the problem, but whether the males see it as absurd or as something acceptable.

Great points...

I can change the first one easily, without increasing the word count...thanks for that catch. Your last two points are excellent too, and I'll see what I can cut in order to work them in.


A great entry on a very difficult topic.

Again, I'll make some points, probably just to join the conversation. I don't see anything I talk about can reasonably be incorporated, and I think you do a great job writing to the audience that you have defined, and within the length constraints of a meager 750 words.

There's an enormous leap between the performative utterance "I now pronounce you man and wife" to gender performativity. When you say "gender works in much the same way," the "same way" is very much the question. A performative is not a performative because it is a performance (as well you know).

Take original distinction between statements with "content" (the cat is on the mat) and performative declaration (I pronounce you husband and wife); it's hard to see how a priest declaring two people man and wife, as a linguistic, performative act, relates to the "citational" act of gender performance. In the performance of gender, the concept that is hard to grasp is that the performance is "without content" other than to make gender gender. That link requires quite a theoretical elaboration, which is what Butler does. But what can you do in 750 words?

I can't for the life of me think of a better bridge between your example of the priest's performative and "gender works in much the same way" without going into the history of speech act theory (and a long detour through Limited, Inc.)

So, even if it doesn't seem so, what I AM really saying is that it's a job well done.

All Day Permanent Red

Just ask Alice

Alice is getting some reworking in the direction of visual rhetoric. But if you look up 'silent sentinels' anywhere (or 'women in black') you'll see how that project needs the concept of performativity, too. The problem with sorting out performativity if one goes beyond your nice 750 word level is that it screws up agency so much. Once agency becomes such a wild card, it's really hard to figure out "whose" performativity we're talking about--I tried to find the cites for that great piece on performativity and performance artists but it's hidden around here somewhere--I'll try to send you the cites when I find it. Back to the grind (workshops, you know) Thursday, dept. meetings next week. You?


Hi, I'm nice

One problem with this approach is is that individuals may be aware of their own gender behaviors and the social interpretations other than their own. Consequently, they may be choosing to these behaviors in certain settings to the advantage of their needs.

Therefore, one cannot say gender is solely product of the social collective, namely culture, society and language. There is also an inextrable internal agent or ego at work in the individual that cannot be eliminated from the equation.

But, I find the linguistic frontier of this to be the most interesting. There seems to be two approaches: the basis men and women as two different subcultures and the basis of power differences.

And also

With studying speech acts, there is also felicity conditions that must be for the speech act to be authentic. For example, 12 year saying "I pronounce you husband and wife" has no authority behind it to make it a authentic act. Therefore this act is infelicitous.

Likewise, I think for gender performativity, there could be some basis - fecility conditions - for establishing whether a gender act is authentic. This can also include cases where these conditions are intentionally flouted by an individual to create some kind of intended effect.

Of course what is considered normal/abnormal is a cultural construction, but a person is usually aware of where their particular acts fit into these two categories. And one may be consciously crossing into abnormal camp for the sole purpose of gaining the anticipated effects from that.

in much the same way

I think what happens with a performative "I now pronounce you husband and wife" is that it arrives just in time, to state what is obvious. The wedding is underway, the relationship between the two should already be fairly secure...but more importantly, it affirms a relationship that is not a singular one. It connects the singluar act of this marriage to a more general cultural act of "getting married." At the moment of the pronouncement, the effect is less to say that you two are doing something new...but you are entering into relationship that preexists you two. In this sense, it serves to affirm a couple's entry into what is often percieved as the natural state of the world. Their love is going from something that has only been imagined, to something that can be consumated in the act of getting married, and in conformity to the "natural" order of family.


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