In a 1988 article, gender theorist Judith Butler argued that performative acts in society constitute gender. What she meant was this. Society defines gender norms, and men and women act and dress according to those norms. But these norms have no deep structure. They are stylized performances of gender. Male and femaleness have no essential gender. “Gender is what is put on,” she argues (1988: 531).
Butler affirms and builds on Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born, but, rather becomes a woman” (1988: 519). Beauvoir means that the idea of af being a “woman” is not a natural given but something shaped by society.
At a straightforward level, Beauvoir’s statement makes sense. We learn from our family, friends, and society how to act. We learn from other men and women about how to live in society. The clothing we wear with its gendered differences further cement this distinction.
However, what Beauvoir meant in the The Second Sex and what Butler means goes beyond such observations. Beauvoir viewed the fact of being a woman as an impediment to freedom in certain respects. And Butler affirms that our bodies are blank slates when it comes to gender.
A biological male may have a larger body than a biological female. But the gendered characteristics of these bodies are inscribed on by society. Following Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but becomes a woman, Judith Butler concludes “To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning.” In other words, a “woman” is nothing until her body conforms “to an historical idea of ‘woman’” (1988: 522).
In this sense, Butler can speak of people doing their gender (1988: 526). Gender is an act, a performance, or a doing. Gender is not a given, received on the basis of being born male or female; nor does God creating humans male and female have anything to do with gender.
In a more philosophical sense, Butler starts with the will to define ourselves as the basis of what it means to be a woman or a man or even a human, one presumes. Her argument contrasts the traditional notion of essentialism in which we are given a human nature, that there is a givenness to our gender—without discounting the variety of gender expression across time and culture.
We have a human nature, and our bodies place limits on what and who we are. Biology, maleness, means our body has detail, meaning, and purpose. Gender gives us purpose to us; it is inscribed on our body at birth; nature—the fact of being human—gives it to us before our will. We do not create but receive our body’s script.
And that script, while open to all sorts of interpretation, has a concrete ending. We have purpose. Our bodies inscribe that purpose into us. At a simple level, we know that our biology tends towards union with the other sex; towards procreation in healthy bodies. We also know that by revelation sex is a mysterium, a revelatory sign of Christ’s union with his body, that is, the church (Eph 5:32).
Now nothing I have said could possibly persuade Butler. I have barely argued. Yet I am aware that most of us have lost the metaphysical tools to understand essence, nature, and sex—which are metaphysically bound.
For this reason, those who oppose gender theories like Butler’s often think of sex merely as biological. Differing bodies and hormones and DNA are enough for us. But this is another way of missing the truth of things.
Sex and gender certainly are embodied; but they are not exhausted by mere biology. To be male and female is another way to say that we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27–28). Eve’s name which means “life” was given to her because she was the mother of all living (Gen 3:20). And Adam and Eve united literally by flesh (the rib) in ways which presage a deeper sense of union (Gen 2:23–24).
Union and procreation signify as a mysterium Christ’s Spiritual union with his body and fullness of the children of God in the cosmos. This is why Paul, for example, regularly calls Timothy his child. Sex and gender as physical signs point beyond themselves to deeper meanings among both human relations and human-divine relations.
To rescribe gender unto our bodies in contradiction to given sex would obscure these signs and bar us from experiencing natural union with our partner to fulfill our sexual purpose and thus experience the happiness that living the good life garners. Some it is true are excepted from this sign and experience directly the reality (eunuch’s for the kingdom). But these exceptions should not make us shy from affirming the general truth.
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