Conceptualizing Gender (3)

Posted on 9 May 2012


Body Practice and Gender Performance

by Azadeh Azad

Part III

Key words: Body practices, Gender performance and performativity, Hegemonic models of identity

Bryan Turner’s Body Practice

Bryan Turner, who has developed the sociology of the body (1), examines bodies as “objects over which we labour: eating, sleeping, cleaning, dieting, exercising” (2). He puts forward the concept of “individual and collective body practices”, which refers to the ways in which the body is tackled by social labour and activity.

Body practices, which, to a great extent, could be done in social institutions, are related to the creation of gender. Nancy Theberge (3) irrefutably demonstrates that in official sport, the different disciplinary practices of teaching and different workout routines for women and men are devised to create gendered bodies. Plus, surgery is able to effectively create gendered bodies if social education cannot. Cosmetic surgery such as breast implants, face-lifts, and height corrections, delivers more socially sought-after feminine bodies. Now, with penile implants to the front, this technology also offers the surgical construction of masculinity (4).

Judith Butler’s Gender Performance and Performativity

Judith Butler rejects the idea that binary sexes and gendered behaviors are natural. She defines gender, as well as sex and sexuality as ‘performative’, explaining the ways of ‘doing gender’ (5), the ways one learns to perform gendered behavior (related to femininities and masculinities), which is a repeated acting or performance imposed upon us by heterosexist society. In other words, Butler claims that our sexed bodies themselves are socially constructed within convention and language or “regulative discourses”. These disciplinary techniques lead subjects into performing conventional acts that in reality create gender and sexuality rather than the inverse. For Butler, while ‘performance’ is a particular form of self-presentation, ‘performativity’ is the discursive production of gender and the discursive mode that supports and punishes subjects’ gender performances (6).

Following postmodernist and poststructuralist method, Butler uses the term “subject”, instead of ‘individual’ or ‘person’, in order to emphasize the linguistic quality of our position within the “symbolic order” – that is, the system of internalized signs, linguistic conventions, routines, laws and contracts that rules our perception of reality.

Butler argues that, contrary to theatrical performance, we cannot even adopt a stable subjectivity that performs different gender roles. Instead, it is the very act of performing gender that establishes our identity. For Butler, identity itself is a figment of our imagination, “an object of belief” (7), produced retroactively by our performances. This belief in fixed identities and permanent gender differences is, in reality, induced by social sanctions and prohibitions. In other words, it is actually both subtle and blatant pressures that bring about our belief in “natural” behavior. Consequently, the performance of gender is about power in society.

To make the meaning of gender more clear, Butler claims that gender, as a tangible natural thing, does not exist: “Gender reality is performative, which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (8). For her, gender

is not at all connected to visible corporeal details, but is merely and entirely a social construction, and consequently a fabrication that could be challenged and changed:

“Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses 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 those productions–and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction “compels” our belief in its necessity and naturalness.”(9)

As the origin of gender is not physical but performative, the body becomes gendered simply “through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (10). Butler’s explanation of the contrived, customary, and historical quality of gender construction simultaneously questions the presuppositions of normative heterosexuality, that is, the disciplinary legal, social and familial regulations that compel us to adapt to hegemonic (11), heterosexual models for our identity.

Butler expands her approach by expressing doubts about the validity of the distinction between gender and sex. In the past, feminists argued that sex is a biological category, while gender is a socio-historical category. Butler questions this distinction by contending that our gender performances influence us in a way that even our perception of body parts and bodily sexual differences is affected by social norms. Here she follows the postmodern tendency to see our very idea of reality as defined by language, so that eventually it is inconceivable to think or speak of sex without imposing linguistic rules and cultural or ideological norms.

To be continued.


1. The body has become a significant site of developing theories within Sociology. The contemporary views of the body deal with the issues of explaining and understanding the body, its meanings and uses, as well as discerning the nature of a society by reflecting on its bodies.

2. Turner, Bryan S. 1996. The body & society: explorations in social theory. Sage Publication: Thousand Oaks, CA.

3. Theberge, Nancy. 1991.” Reflections on the body in the sociology of sport”, in Quest 43: 123-34.

4. Dull, Diana and Candace West. 1991. “Accounting for cosmetic surgery: the accomplishment of gender”. Social Problems 38: 54-70.

5. Butler, Judith. 2004. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” In Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Eds). Blackwell Publication: Malden, MA.

6. Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: New York.

7. Butler, J. 2004. Op. cit.

8. Ibid.

9. Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge.

10. Butler, J. 2004. Op.cit.

*11. Hegemony (hegemonic): The methods of sustaining the dominant station of a dominant culture; for instance, the use of institutions to validate power; the exercise of bureaucracy to make power appear abstract and, thus, separate from any specific individual; the indoctrination of the public in the models of the hegemonic group through advertisement, publication and education; the deployment of a police force and military staffs to crush opposition.