I have been afraid to read this book. My previous encounters with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble have been unpleasant. For some reason, lecturers seemed to pick the more opaque quotes from Gender Trouble to bring it into their critical analysis of texts. That, or I just remember them because of how much I struggled with them. That, and a constant stream of comments, virtual and in discussion with people comfortably adept at gender studies, always seemed to reel at Judith Butler, framing Gender Trouble in particular as a necessary evil of postmodern gender theory and criticism. Gender Trouble is an important work, but it is horrible to read has been an impression firmly embedded onto my idea of the work. So I have been afraid to read, and when I did… it actually wasn’t that bad. Maybe I made what other people had said about Gender Trouble become exaggerated as I half remember actual discussion, maybe Butler can write… maybe (maybe) I’m actually smarter than I give myself credit for and maybe the text is more accessible than I had made it out to be in my head. I don’t know, but I’ve read it, so let’s review it.
What I liked
Unsurprisingly, Butler is really good at talking about gender. There are extended segments where Butler focuses on gender and what she thinks gender is and how it manifests. Those aren’t the opaque parts of Gender Trouble. These moments provide helpful insight into what the Butler identifies as gender performativity.
There was also some discussion of drag, which was nice for me.
What I loathed
I hate psychoanalysis. The extended discussions of Lacan and Freud and Kristeva were really dull, convoluted and were so hard to read. This was the Butler that I was expecting for the whole of Gender Trouble. It was not for me.
There was also that usual 80/90s critical way of writing that makes needlessly hard to read, mostly with the psychoanalysis stuff.
What I learnt
I learnt more about gender performativity than I have ever before and I think it will inform my critical practice a lot. I’ve learnt that drag is consistently deprived of critical attention even from works that supposedly derive a large source of their inspiration from this. Butler makes reference to the significance of drag to informing Gender Trouble in the second preface, but then there are only 4-5 pages that talk about drag in some critical way. That was kind of disappointing, but also keeps my point that “no one has given drag proper critical attention”, so my PhD idea is still original (that’s important, right?). I learnt why this text is important, so that it was nice to see that the hype was worth it.
I learnt that I think the following point is often overlooked when teaching people about Gender Trouble. Butler spends a large amount of time discussing psychoanalytic methods of gender construction. I think that Butler is doing all that work to show how much psychoanalysis is overdetermined, tautological, and basically a load of shit. I think Butler takes psychoanalytic thought to the conclusion of its internal logic to demonstrate how ridiculous those ideas (in relation to gender) actually are. I might be wrong, or it might be super obvious and I’m actually quite thick. I don’t know, but to me Gender Trouble spends so much time going on about psychoanalysis to effectively diminish its monolithic hold over gender ideas by taking it to its internally logical conclusion to demonstrate the stupidity of those ideas. Maybe I’m wrong and actually Butler is an active proponent of psychanalytic thought, but I think it makes sense given the value Butler puts on parody that Butler would effectively parody psychoanalytical criticism
Personally, I don’t think I can add anything truly new or insightful into what criticisms of Gender Trouble are already out there. It’s been around for like 20 years, so I’ll leave it at that.