Judith Butler has long been credited as one of the architects of the modern gender identity trend we’ve seen sweep the Western world into a bundle of unsolvable brain teasers and word salads. And for good reason. Her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, introduces the now-mainstreamed (academic) concept that gender, sex, and the “category of woman” are “fluid.”
The main conundrum faced by gender identity ideologues today (and, by proxy, women’s rights advocates), which they have refused to respond to in a cohesive way, is that, 1) If there is no concrete definition of “woman,” what is a “woman’s right”? And 2) If a woman is not a material thing, but just a vague idea, why the concerted, often violent effort to insist “transwomen are [literally] women”? What does that mean? What is a woman? And why is it important we “accept transwomen as women” (particularly if there is no such thing)? What are we accepting them as, and how does it improve a male person’s life to be “accepted as a woman”?
The notion of “woman” as a fluid concept and the claim that women’s experiences diverge to such an extent we share no commonalities at all, testing the concept of “womanhood” itself, is an academic argument, introduced by gender theorists like Butler and somehow mainstreamed, now positioned as a grassroots, ground up movement. It is an amazing success story, really. That such inaccessible theory, originated in the ivory tower, has taken hold of so many institutions, as well as those who fashion themselves as “radical” activists, fighting for the downtrodden, is not something I could have predicted. But here we are, in a time where powerful corporations like Twitter have determined that to refer to a male as “he” equates to hate speech, and leftist activists agree (adding to this that women who do commit this sin should probably be punched, and maybe also executed).
Butler is not known for clarity in writing or concept, but is nonetheless referenced more often than any other gender studies scholar, today. As such, New Statesman sought to interview her, in order to follow up on her views on the transgender debate, and those very bad feminists who dare continue to question the legitimacy of gender identity ideology and to insist women’s rights matter.
When asked how far ideas Butler explored in Gender Trouble help explain how the trans rights debate has moved into mainstream culture and politics, she responded with cluelessness typical of someone so seeped in academia they have lost touch with the real world. She insists on referring to women who express concerns about the impact of erasing “woman” as a legal category as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” and further insists this is a “marginal” position that feminists (she apparently sees herself as one) must fight to ensure remain marginal.
One presumes Butler does not see the hypocrisy of advocating to marginalize women in the fight for women’s rights. This lack of self-awareness remains present throughout the interview, offering at least some consistency.
The truth is, of course, that to question the notion that one can go from man to woman in a moment, simply by pronouncement, and that men who identify as transgender should have free, unchallenged access to women’s change rooms, transition houses, sports, and prisons is not, in fact, a “fringe movement.” Rather, there is a loud minority insisting on a fringe position that appears to dominate, thanks to social media manipulation and liberal media cowardice and bolstering.
Butler goes on to claim that concerns around male access to these spaces, expressed recently by Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, exist because “the domain of fantasy is at work.” She believes women have such concerns because they fear “the penis,” and that those with penises might identify as a woman for nefarious purposes — to enter, for example, changing rooms and predate on women and girls.
This is a common trope offered up by gender identity ideologues: that women fear men will use “trans” as a disguise to “trick” women. This misunderstands the feminist position on gender identity, which is not necessarily that trans-identified people are lying, or trying to fool anyone, but that it is simply impossible to change sex. They have, rather, been “fooled” by trans activism itself, into believing it is possible for a male to become female, through faith, insistence, surgery, or clothing choice. There is no “legitimate” transwomen, in that no man can ever become a woman, no matter how badly they want it or believe it. It’s not about trickery or cruelty, it’s about facts. The “fear” is not of trans-identified people or of dishonest men, playing at trans to access women’s spaces. The “fear” is simply of men, regardless of identity.
Butler positions this fear as irrational, as though men have not been the primary source of rape and domestic violence for all of eternity. (Not all men, but yes men.) She believes “The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry,” when in fact the cause for worry is that someone who is treated as a prominent and trustworthy thinker and commentator on gender and feminism would engage in such egregious gaslighting. Everyone knows why men and women have separate washrooms and change rooms. And if Butler is going to make such claims, we may as well abolish separate spaces entirely. I wonder if that is something she would advocate for? It is truly the only way her position makes sense.
When questioned on the term “TERF,” consistently and widely used as a slur — a means to attack, marginalize, and silence anyone (whether “radical feminist” or not) who questions gender identity ideology — Butler feigns ignorance, claiming to not be “aware that terf is used as a slur.” It seems unwise to present oneself as so out of touch with this debate, while also claiming expertise on the subject, but perhaps Butler no longer cares about earning credibility. To date, her strategy has been to jargon her way into legitimacy, confusing her readers to the point they assume they are simply not intellectually equipped to understand her genius, so perhaps I should not denigrate her for continuing to use a tried and true method.
Butler’s questions, in response to the interviewer demonstrate that she either truly does not understand what women’s rights advocates are on about or that she is committed to dishonesty, on the assumption she is speaking to people too stupid to see through her fraud.
In response to the claim that “TERF” is a slur, she asks, “What name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude transwomen from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary?” Easy: we do not wish to “exclude transwomen from women’s spaces,” per se. We wish to exclude men from women’s spaces, as we always have. Nothing has changed — this is not some new, radical concept. The “trans” affix is a misnomer, intended to present longstanding, basic facts and feminist work as bigoted, rather than the status quo.
Butler goes on to ask, “If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?” It is unclear if she is talking, here, about actual sex reassignment surgery or simply identifying as the opposite sex, but either way, to question whether or not attempting to change sex under the law or as an individual is a productive pursuit is not inherently a radical feminist position. Most ethical humans might wonder whether endless experimental surgeries that often have lifelong complications will enable individuals to live their best lives. Similarly, most ethical humans would not support men’s unchallenged access to women’s spaces. Radical feminism is a particular analysis of the world and of power relations radical feminists believe should be upended. Most people in the world do not identify with or share radical feminist analysis, yet still understand why men should stay out of women’s change rooms, and why telling people hormones and invasive surgeries will solve all their problems is a bad idea. (I should be clear that I am not invested in stopping adults from having cosmetic surgeries, if they wish, but I do believe trans-identified people are not being properly informed about complications, dangers, and physical realities related to “transition.”)
Butler goes on to conflate sex with gender, the most basic confusion underlying the trans debate, pointing out that “Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled” and that “It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women…”
It feels strange to have to explain the meaning of “gender” to a gender theorist, and point out that what feminists have been arguing for the past century has been that one’s biological sex should not determine one’s interest in masculine or feminine stereotypes or roles, but here we are. I can only assume Butler has plugged her ears like a child every time women like me have explained, patiently, that “sex” refers to one’s body and biology, and “gender” refers to the social roles imposed on or assumed based on one’s sex. We have argued that one’s affinity for femininity, for example, does not make a woman, and that the only thing that makes a woman is the fact she is female. Rather, it is gender identity activists who have insisted that identification with regressive, sexist, gender roles and stereotypes is what defines a man or woman. That is to say, that preferring femininity to masculinity actually determines one’s biology. Butler is arguing against herself.
She asks if we need to have “a settled idea of women, or of any gender, in order to advance feminist goals,” to which I would say, obviously. The only reason feminism exists is to advocate on behalf of women (not on behalf of gender, i.e. “femininity,” Judith — I caught that, not to worry). If there are no women (that is to say: adult, human, females), there is no feminism. And perhaps when women’s rights around the world have been resolved, and male violence against women has ended, feminism will cease to be necessary. But one cannot on one hand claim to be in support feminism while also claiming there is no such thing as women.
We are indeed “living in anti-intellectual times,” as Butler tells the interviewer, but she is in large part responsible. She both does not understand her own arguments, nor does she care about making them understandable to the public. She refuses to engage in good faith or to operate within material reality. She denies the violent threats faced by women labelled “TERF,” quickly diverting the topic back to the “abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person,” as though one wrong makes a right, or simply disappears the need to discuss one wrong. She announces: “We should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it,” but refuses to do that herself, as it is women — one half of the world — most profoundly affected by this attack on women’s rights and spaces, and it is women who challenge this who are subjected to the most vitriol. Butler adds, “It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable,” but has literally done just this. She seems proudly unconcerned with what women face, despite the fact that women are subjected to more violence in a day, globally, than trans-identified people are in a year. And despite the fact trans activism is celebrated on social media and has been institutionalized across health, education, and mainstream media, while those who question are vilified.
It is amazing to me that a respected scholar could be so deeply confused as to fail to even understand her own claims and arguments, but I suppose this is a testament to the situation of fields like gender studies, wherein scholars have their heads shoved so far up one another’s asses, they no longer feel required to think. All they need is an endless circle jerk of positive reinforcement to continue to receive funding and keep their jobs. Usefulness and rationality be damned — if we all participate in the charade, there is no threat. Indeed, this has been the tactic of trans activists as well, for whom “no debate” has become a mantra, saving them from the humiliation of having to defend their own statements.
Butler must know her career depends on her continuing this farce, and trusts no one will call her on it. She can hang on until she retires, financially secure and perhaps, therefore, content with her lack of integrity and investment in leading a duplicitous life.
Had it not been for this interview, I may have forgotten what a fraud she is, so I suppose we can thank her for reminding us.