Individual in Society – Discussion #4


Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist
Author(s): Judith Butler
Source: Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Performative Acts and Gender

Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology
and Feminist Theory

Judith Butler

Philosophers rarely think about acting in the theatrical sense, but they do have a
discourse of ‘acts’ that maintains associative semantic meanings with theories of
performance and acting. For example, John Searle’s ‘speech acts,’ those verbal as-
surances and promises which seem not only to refer to a speaking relationship, but
to constitute a moral bond between speakers, illustrate one of the illocutionary ges-
tures that constitutes the stage of the analytic philosophy of language. Further, ‘action
theory,’ a domain of moral philosophy, seeks to understand what it is ‘to do’ prior
to any claim of what one ought to do. Finally, the phenomenological theory of ‘acts,’
espoused by Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and George Herbert Mead,
among others, seeks to explain the mundane way in which social agents constitute
social reality through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign.
Though phenomenology sometimes appears to assume the existence of a choosing
and constituting agent prior to language (who poses as the sole source of its con-
stituting acts), there is also a more radical use of the doctrine of constitution that
takes the social agent as an object rather than the subject of constitutive acts.

When Simone de Beauvoir claims, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,”

she is appropriating and reinterpreting this doctrine of constituting acts from the
phenomenological tradition.’ In this sense, gender is in no way a stable identity or
locus of agency from which various acts proceede; rather, it is an identity tenuously
constituted in time -an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further,
gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be under-
stood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments
of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation

Judith Butler is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University. She is the
author of Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflection in Twentieth-Century France. She has
published articles in post-structuralist and gender theory.

‘For a further discussion of Beauvoir’s feminist contribution to phenomenological theory, see my
“Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex,” Yale French Studies 172 (1986).


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520 / Judith Butler

moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to
one that requires a conception of a constituted social temporality. Significantly, if gender
is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of
substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment
which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe
and to perform in the mode of belief. If the ground of gender identity is the stylized
repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the
possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between
such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or sub-
versive repetition of that style.

Through the conception of gender acts sketched above, I will try to show some
ways in which reified and naturalized conceptions of gender might be understood
as constituted and, hence, capable of being constituted differently. In opposition to
theatrical or phenomenological models which take the gendered self to be prior to
its acts, I will understand constituting acts not only as constituting the identity of
the actor, but as constituting that identity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief.
In the course of making my argument, I will draw from theatrical, anthropological,
and philosophical discourses, but mainly phenomenology, to show that what is called
gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and
taboo. In its very character as performative resides the possibility of contesting its
reified status.

I. Sex/Gender: Feminist and Phenomenological Views

Feminist theory has often been critical of naturalistic explanations of sex and sex-
uality that assume that the meaning of women’s social existence can be derived from
some fact of their physiology. In distinguishing sex from gender, feminist theorists
have disputed causal explanations that assume that sex dictates or necessitates certain
social meanings for women’s experience. Phenomenological theories of human em-
bodiment have also been concerned to distinguish between the various physiological
and biological causalities that structure bodily existence and the meanings that em-
bodied existence assumes in the context of lived experience. In Merleau-Ponty’s
reflections in The Phenomenology of Perception on “the body in its sexual being,” he
takes issue with such accounts of bodily experience and claims that the body is “an
historical idea” rather than “a natural species.”2 Significantly, it is this claim that
Simone de Beauvoir cites in The Second Sex when she sets the stage for her claim that
“woman,” and by extension, any gender, is an historical situation rather than a natural

In both contexts, the existence and facticity of the material or natural dimensions
of the body are not denied, but reconceived as distinct from the process by which
the body comes to bear cultural meanings. For both Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty,

2Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Body in its Sexual Being,” in The Phenomenology of Perception, trans.
Colin Smith (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962).

3Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage, 1974), 38.

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the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and
historical possibilities, a complicated process of appropriation which any phenom-
enological theory of embodiment needs to describe. In order to describe the gendered
body, a phenomenological theory of constitution requires an expansion of the con-
ventional view of acts to mean both that which constitutes meaning and that through
which meaning is performed or enacted. In other words, the acts by which gender
is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts. My
task, then, is to examine in what ways gender is constructed through specific corporeal
acts, and what possibilities exist for the cultural transformation of gender through
such acts.

Merleau-Ponty maintains not only that the body is an historical idea but a set of
possibilities to be continually realized. In claiming that the body is an historical idea,
Merleau-Ponty means that it gains its meaning through a concrete and historically
mediated expression in the world. That the body is a set of possibilities signifies (a)
that its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner
of interior essence, and (b) that its concrete expression in the world must be un-
derstood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities.
Hence, there is an agency which is understood as the process of rendering such
possibilities determinate. These possibilities are necessarily constrained by available
historical conventions. The body is not a self-identical or merely factic materiality; it
is a materiality that bears meaning, if nothing else, and the manner of this bearing
is fundamentally dramatic. By dramatic I mean only that the body is not merely
matter but a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities. One is not simply
a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does
one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied prede-
cessors and successors as well.

It is, however, clearly unfortunate grammar to claim that there is a ‘we’ or an ‘I’
that does its body, as if a disembodied agency preceded and directed an embodied
exterior. More appropriate, I suggest, would be a vocabulary that resists the substance
metaphysics of subject-verb formations and relies instead on an ontology of present
participles. The ‘I’ that is its body is, of necessity, a mode of embodying, and the
‘what’ that it embodies is possibilities. But here again the grammar of the formulation
misleads, for the possibilities that are embodied are not fundamentally exterior or
antecedent to the process of embodying itself. As an intentionally organized mate-
riality, the body is always an embodying of possibilities both conditioned and cir-
cumscribed by historical convention. In other words, the body is a historical situation,
as Beauvoir has claimed, and is a manner of doing, dramatizing, and reproducing a
historical situation.

To do, to dramatize, to reproduce, these seem to be some of the elementary
structures of embodiment. This doing of gender is not merely a way in which em-
bodied agents are exterior, surfaced, open to the perception of others. Embodiment
clearly manifests a set of strategies or what Sartre would perhaps have called a style
of being or Foucault, “a stylistics of existence.” This style is never fully self-styled,
for living styles have a history, and that history conditions and limits possibilities.
Consider gender, for instance, as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both

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522 / Judith Butler

intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ itself carries the double-meaning
of ‘dramatic’ and ‘non-referential.’

When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she

clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender,
as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according
to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have
become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to
induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an
historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal
project. The notion of a ‘project’, however, suggests the originating force of a radical
will, and because gender is a project which has cultural survival as its end, the term
‘strategy’ better suggests the situation of duress under which gender performance
always and variously occurs. Hence, as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance
with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’
individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender
right are regularly punished. Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender ex-
presses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender
is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those
acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly
conceals its genesis. The tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain
discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of its
own production. The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions
whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness. The
historical possibilities materialized through various corporeal styles are nothing other
than those punitively regulated cultural fictions that are alternately embodied and
disguised under duress.

How useful is a phenomenological point of departure for a feminist description of
gender? On the surface it appears that phenomenology shares with feminist analysis
a commitment to grounding theory in lived experience, and in revealing the way in
which the world is produced through the constituting acts of subjective experience.
Clearly, not all feminist theory would privilege the point of view of the subject,
(Kristeva once objected to feminist theory as ‘too existentialist’)4 and yet the feminist
claim that the personal is political suggests, in part, that subjective experience is not
only structured by existing political arrangements, but effects and structures those
arrangements in turn. Feminist theory has sought to understand the way in which
systemic or pervasive political and cultural structures are enacted and reproduced
through individual acts and practices, and how the analysis of ostensibly personal
situations is clarified through situating the issues in a broader and shared cultural
context. Indeed, the feminist impulse, and I am sure there is more than one, has
often emerged in the recognition that my pain or my silence or my anger or my
perception is finally not mine alone, and that it delimits me in a shared cultural
situation which in turn enables and empowers me in certain unanticipated ways.
The personal is thus implicitly political inasmuch as it is conditioned by shared social

4Julia Kristeva, Histoire d’amour (Paris: Editions Denoel, 1983), 242.

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structures, but the personal has also been immunized against political challenge to
the extent that public/private distinctions endure. For feminist theory, then, the
personal becomes an expansive category, one which accommodates, if only implicitly,
political structures usually viewed as public. Indeed, the very meaning of the political
expands as well. At its best, feminist theory involves a dialectical expansion of both
of these categories. My situation does not cease to be mine just because it is the
situation of someone else, and my acts, individual as they are, nevertheless reproduce
the situation of my gender, and do that in various ways. In other words, there is,
latent in the personal is political formulation of feminist theory, a supposition that
the life-world of gender relations is constituted, at least partially, through the concrete
and historically mediated acts of individuals. Considering that “the” body is invariably
transformed into his body or her body, the body is only known through its gendered
appearance. It would seem imperative to consider the way in which this gendering
of the body occurs. My suggestion is that the body becomes its gender through a
series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time. From a
feminist point of view, one might try to reconceive the gendered body as the legacy
of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined or foreclosed structure, essence or
fact, whether natural, cultural, or linguistic.

The feminist appropriation of the phenomenological theory of constitution might
employ the notion of an act in a richly ambiguous sense. If the personal is a category
which expands to include the wider political and social structures, then the acts of
the gendered subject would be similarly expansive. Clearly, there are political acts
which are deliberate and instrumental actions of political organizing, resistance col-
lective intervention with the broad aim of instating a more just set of social and
political relations. There are thus acts which are done in the name of women, and
then there are acts in and of themselves, apart from any instrumental consequence,
that challenge the category of women itself. Indeed, one ought to consider the futility
of a political program which seeks radically to transform the social situation of women
without first determining whether the category of woman is socially constructed in
such a way that to be a woman is, by definition, to be in an oppressed situation. In
an understandable desire to forge bonds of solidarity, feminist discourse has often
relied upon the category of woman as a universal presupposition of cultural expe-
rience which, in its universal status, provides a false ontological promise of eventual
political solidarity. In a culture in which the false universal of ‘man’ has for the most
part been presupposed as coextensive with humanness itself, feminist theory has
sought with success to bring female specificity into visibility and to rewrite the history
of culture in terms which acknowledge the presence, the influence, and the op-
pression of women. Yet, in this effort to combat the invisibility of women as a category
feminists run the risk of rendering visible a category which may or may not be
representative of the concrete lives of women. As feminists, we have been less eager,
I think, to consider the status of the category itself and, indeed, to discern the
conditions of oppression which issue from an unexamined reproduction of gender
identities which sustain discrete and binary categories of man and woman.

When Beauvoir claims that woman is an “historical situation,” she emphasizes that
the body suffers a certain cultural construction, not only through conventions that
sanction and proscribe how one acts one’s body, the ‘act’ or performance that one’s

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524 / Judith Butler

body is, but also in the tacit conventions that structure the way the body is culturally
perceived. Indeed, if gender is the cultural significance that the sexed body assumes,
and if that significance is codetermined through various acts and their cultural per-
ception, then it would appear that from within the terms of culture it is not possible
to know sex as distinct from gender. The reproduction of the category of gender is
enacted on a large political scale, as when women first enter a profession or gain
certain rights, or are reconceived in legal or political discourse in significantly new
ways. But the more mundane reproduction of gendered identity takes place through
the various ways in which bodies are acted in relationship to the deeply entrenched
or sedimented expectations of gendered existence. Consider that there is a sedi-
mentation of gender norms that produces the peculiar phenomenon of a natural sex,
or a real woman, or any number of prevalent and compelling social fictions, and that
this is a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corporeal styles which,
in reified form, appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes which exist
in a binary relation to one another.

II. Binary Genders and the Heterosexual Contract

To guarantee the reproduction of a given culture, various requirements, well-
established in the anthropological literature of kinship, have instated sexual repro-
duction within the confines of a heterosexually-based system of marriage which
requires the reproduction of human beings in certain gendered modes which, in
effect, guarantee the eventual reproduction of that kinship system. As Foucault and
others have pointed out, the association of a natural sex with a discrete gender and
with an ostensibly natural ‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender is an unnatural
conjunction of cultural constructs in the service of reproductive interests.5 Feminist
cultural anthropology and kinship studies have shown how cultures are governed
by conventions that not only regulate and guarantee the production, exchange, and
consumption of material goods, but also reproduce the bonds of kinship itself, which

require taboos and a punitive regulation of reproduction to effect that end. Lev’i-
Strauss has shown how the incest taboo works to guarantee the channeling of sex-
uality into various modes of heterosexual marriage,6 Gayle Rubin has argued con-
vincingly that the incest taboo produces certain kinds of discrete gendered identities
and sexualities.7 My point is simply that one way in which this system of compulsory
heterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into
discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions.
Although the enthnocentric conceit suggests a progression beyond the mandatory
structures of kinship relations as described by Levi-Strauss, I would suggest, along
with Rubin, that contemporary gender identities are so many marks or “traces” of

SSee Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York:
Random House, 1980), 154: “the notion of ‘sex’ made it possible to group together, in an artificial
unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled
one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle .

6See Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965).
7Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an

Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 178-85.

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residual kinship. The contention that sex, gender, and heterosexuality are historical
products which have become conjoined and reified as natural over time has received
a good deal of critical attention not only from Michel Foucault, but Monique Wittig,
gay historians, and various cultural anthropologists and social psychologists in recent
years.8 These theories, however, still lack the critical resources for thinking radically
about the historical sedimentation of sexuality and sex-related constructs if they do
not delimit and describe the mundane manner in which these constructs are pro-
duced, reproduced, and maintained within the field of bodies.

Can phenomenology assist a feminist reconstruction of the sedimented character
of sex, gender, and sexuality at the level of the body? In the first place, the phe-
nomenological focus on the various acts by which cultural identity is constituted and
assumed provides a felicitous starting point for the feminist effort to understand the
mundane manner in which bodies get crafted into genders. The formulation of the
body as a mode of dramatizing or enacting possibilities offers a way to understand
how a cultural convention is embodied and enacted. But it seems difficult, if not

impossible, to imagine a way to conceptualize the scale and systemic character of
women’s oppression from a theoretical position which takes constituting acts to be
its point of departure. Although individual acts do work to maintain and reproduce
systems of oppression, and, indeed, any theory of personal political responsibility
presupposes such a view, it doesn’t follow that oppression is a sole consequence of
such acts. One might argue that without human beings whose various acts, largely
construed, produce and maintain oppressive conditions, those conditions would fall
away, but note that the relation between acts and conditions is neither unilateral nor
unmediated. There are social contexts and conventions within which certain acts not

only become possible but become conceivable as acts at all. The transformation of
social relations becomes a matter, then, of transforming hegemonic social conditions
rather than the individual acts that are spawned by those conditions. Indeed, one
runs the risk of addressing the merely indirect, if not epiphenomenal, reflection of
those conditions if one remains restricted to a politics of acts.

But the theatrical sense of an “act” forces a revision of the individualist assumptions
underlying the more restricted view of constituting acts within phenomenological
discourse. As a given temporal duration within the entire performance, “acts” are a
shared experience and ‘collective action.’ Just as within feminist theory the very
category of the personal is expanded to include political structures, so is there a
theatrically-based and, indeed, less individually-oriented view of acts that goes some
of the way in defusing the criticism of act theory as ‘too existentialist.’ The act that
gender is, the act that embodied agents are inasmuch as they dramatically and actively
embody and, indeed, wear certain cultural significations, is clearly not one’s act alone.
Surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one
does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions, is
clearly not a fully individual matter. Here again, I don’t mean to minimize the effect

8See my “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault,” in Feminism as Critique,
ed. Seyla Benhabib and Drucila Cornell (London: Basil Blackwell, 1987 [distributed by University of
Minnesota Press]).

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526 / Judith Butler

of certain gender norms which originate within the family and are enforced through
certain familial modes of punishment and reward and which, as a consequence,
might be construed as highly individual, for even there family relations recapitulate,
individualize, and specify pre-existing cultural relations; they are rarely, if ever,
radically original. The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense,
an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an
act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who
make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and
reproduced as reality once again. The complex components that go into an act must
be distinguished in order to understand the kind of acting in concert and acting in
accord which acting one’s gender invariably is.

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As anthropologist Victor Turner suggests
in his studies of ritual social drama, social action requires a performance which is
repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of
meanings already socially established; it is the mundane and ritualized form of their
legitimation.9 When this conception of social performance is applied to gender, it is
clear that although there are individual bodies that enact these significations by
becoming stylized into gendered modes, this “action” is immediately public as well.
There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public nature
is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of
maintaining gender within its binary frame. Understood in pedagogical terms, the
performance renders social laws explicit.

As a public action and performative act, gender is not a radical choice or project
that reflects a merely individual choice, but neither is it imposed or inscribed upon
the individual, as some post-structuralist displacements of the subject would contend.
The body is not passively scripted with cultural codes, as if it were a lifeless recipient
of wholly pre-given cultural relations. But neither do embodied selves pre-exist the
cultural conventions which essentially signify bodies. Actors are always already on
the stage, within the terms of the performance. Just as a script may be enacted in
various ways, and just as the play requires both text and interpretation, so the
gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts

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