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Performativity and Feminism

Performativity as a concept seeks to examine the meaning of a word or term in relation to the context within which the word was uttered. This means that the same term may vary in its meanings from one place to the other. In performative utterances, the word is used in performing a deed. It is not just a statement of a fact. The best known performative social scientist is Judith Butler. This woman used this term in analyzing the development of gender in the society, especially when it comes to feminism. In using this concept, Butler examines how Identity is conferred via discourse. The identity she is referring to here is that of gender.

She looks at gender as an act. There are roles that are associated with this phenomenon which the actors rehearse. The rehearsal between the social actors in performing this role is equated to that of theatre actors, who have to rehearse parts of their scripts. When the actor is on the stage, he or she is living the part that she is acting, bringing it to life, and making it a reality. The same happens in the society. By rehearsing and acting out some proscribed roles and acts, we make them a reality. These roles are as it pertains to gender. As such, gender is not a manifestation of what we are. Rather, it is what we do.

This means that there is no stable category of gender, since it keeps on changing. In feminism, this can be viewed as saying that genders keeps changing, as does the category woman. The problem now arises of how the feminists can articulate the fights for women roles if in the first place “woman” is as fluid as the gender roles. If this woman then does not exist in a stable form, how can someone, like the feminists, articulate her issues, claiming to know her likes and dislikes? This paper is going to look at how claims can be made on behalf of the unstable category of “woman”. Performativity and Feminism

Linda McDowell is a geographer as well as a feminist theorist. Her views on feminism are rooted in geography. She tries to link gender to the geography of the globe. Her major concern is how men and women, the two divisions of gender, vary from one geographical region to the other (McDowell, 1999). She looks at the interplay between gender and place. She comes to the conclusion that the interplay between these two phenomena leads to the construction of multiple identities varying from one place to the other (Smith, 2004). It is as a result of this realization that she asks the thought provoking question in her introduction to this book.

She asks “if there is no longer a stable category ‘woman’, how may we make claims on her behalf? ” (McDowell, 1999). This statement question is a clear indication of the varying nature of the concept gender. The question may appear comical in some ways, but when one thinks deeply about, one can never fail to see the weight and depth to which it goes. For if it is true that gender roles vary, then how can one claim to be fighting for the rights of man or woman? Which woman, amongst all those varying categories, will the individual be fighting for the rights of? Butler (1990) seems to take a likewise stance on gender and sex.

First of all, she downplays the distinction between sex and gender (Salih, 2006). She is of the view that these two phenomena cannot be separated, for “there is no sex that is not always already gender” (Butler, 1990: 25). When any kind of “body” enters the realm of the social existence, regardless of its sex, it is “gendered” by the cultural prescriptions of that social system (Salih, 2006). This means that there is nothing like a natural body, or in that case a natural sex. All are acts. Gender is what one does. These acts are carried out within a structure that is so rigidly constructed such that over time, it appears to be the norm.

This paper seeks to answer the question of how we can make claims on behalf of the woman who is in the previously identified unstable category. To do this, we must first understand this phenomenon “gender”. In quoting Butler, we have to find “a political genealogy of gender ontologies…. which will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts” (Butler, 1990: 25). This means that we break down gender into its constitutive parts, and then try to examine these parts in the context of the society within which they occur.

These parts may include the roles that are ascribed to the individual by the society and the importance of these roles. In doing this, we should try to avoid the shackles of the conventional feminist thinkers. These thinkers make a clear distinction between sex and gender. They claim that sex is biological, which means that it cannot be changed, while gender is socially constructed. As a result of this distinction, the thinkers further make another distinction between “man” and “woman” in the society (Smith, 2004). If this is the case, one is left wondering to which category does the homosexual fall into?

The gay man is born with the male gonads, but he takes meaning that he is man biologically and in terms of sex. However, when it comes to performing roles that distinguish men and women in the society, the “man” seems to play the roles that are traditionally reserved for women. These roles include having sex with other men, dressing like a woman and other feminine behaviors. Now, what will the feminists do with such a “man”? Will they fight for his rights since he is a woman as far as gender is concerned, or will they not because his gonads show that he is a man?

Butler (1997) contends that words are powerful, and have the ability to “do things”. This is what is referred to as the “illocutionary force” of a word (Butler, 1997). But this force depends on the context within which the word is used. This means that a certain word or deed cannot be taken to have the same effect at all places. This is impossible since change of places, be it over time or over space, means that there is a corresponding change in context. This is the same with feminism and the concept woman. This will be explained in detail below.

Feminism speaks for and about women (Smith, 2004). As noted earlier in this paper, the concept “woman” is not stable. It varies from one culture to the other and from one time to the other (Smith, 2004). This concept is related to and integrated into other concepts and categories. These others are the ones that construct the society at that particular time and place. They include class, ethnicity, and reason amongst others. The concept gender has to be understood in relation to these other concepts. This is because these concepts are in a constant state of change.

As they change, the meanings accrued to them and the meanings they accrue to others in the society also changes (Smith, 2004). This means that the meaning of the concept gender, with its related woman and man connotations, also changes. This indicates the instability of this concept over time and space. Feminism calls for equal rights to both men and women. But it becomes hard to identify “a constant meaning for or a stable category of ‘woman’” (Smith, 2004: 276). The logical deduction here is that it becomes even harder then to “define feminism in any reliable way” (Smith, 2004: 276).

This is because the definition will vary from place to place, and from time to time. And not forgetting that the definition will also vary from individuals, since some men want to “feel” like women, the same with some women, who wants to feel like “men”. For this reason, the writer agrees with Smith that the definition of the word feminism, and the connotations gender (man and woman), should be placed in a time or historical context (Smith, 2004: 276). Just like Butler contends in her performativity discourse, the illocutionary power of the word “feminism” will then be deduced from the context within which it is used.

In this case, the context is defined as the space and place of usage, together with the overriding attachments. As such, the meaning of the word feminism and its attachments can only be gleaned by superimposing them on the historical period within which they are uttered. After identifying the period in history where these words were used, then the analyst can progress to the next step. This step involves identifying the particular category of women that is existing at this period. The analyst will then examine this category and discern its meanings, both stated and implied.

Does the woman of that time in history include men who feel like women, does it include women of different races or just from one race? Only then can we “make claims” on behalf of the woman in that category. Conclusion The writer accepts the fact that the category “woman” is as stable as the most unstable chemical elements. However, we still need to articulate the issues of women rights and opportunities. No matter how cynical Butler and other writers become, feminism has to continue fighting for the rights of women. In this unstable nature of women, it becomes hard to determine which women we are fighting for.

As the writer indicated, this can be solved by addressing the unique characteristics of the context within which the feminist is acting. This then makes it hard to have a universal feminist movement, since the category woman is also unstable across space. What the writer is trying to say is that despite the instability of the category “woman”, it is possible to find stability of the same if we restrict ourselves within a particular time and space. References Butler, H. J. (1990). Gender trouble: A feminist perspective. London: Routledge, 25. Butler, H. J. (1997).

Excitable speech and performativity. London: Routledge. McDowell, K. L. (1999). Gender, identity and place. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Publishers. Salih, V. B. (2006). Butler and performativity. Retrieved from http://209. 85. 129. 132/search? q=cache:riemvgFv0XIJ:www. georgetown. edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Salih-Butler-Performativity-Chapter_3. pdf+performativity%2Bbutler&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ke&client=firefox-a, on 16th June, 2009. Smith, G. B. (2004). Women’s history: A global perspective. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 276.

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