Judith Butler Thinks You’re Overreacting – Interview

April 3, 2024

How did gender become a scary word? The theorist who got us talking about the subject has answers.

Interview for New York Times by Jessica Bennett, contributing editor in Opinion, where she writes about gender, politics and personalities.


The first thing I did when reading Judith Butler’s new book, “Who’s Afraid of Gender?”, was to look up the word “phantasm,” which appears 41 times in the introduction alone. (It means illusion; the “phantasm of gender,” a threat rooted in fear and fantasy.)

The second thing I did was have a good chuckle about the title, because the answer to the question of who is afraid of gender was … well, I am? Even for someone who’s written on gender and feminism for more than a decade and who once carried the title of this newspaper’s “gender editor,” to talk about gender today can feel so fraught, so politicized, so caught in a war of words that debate, or even conversation, seems impossible.

I am perhaps the intended reader of Butler’s book, in which the notoriously esoteric philosopher turned pop celebrity dismantles how gender has been constructed as a threat throughout the modern world — to national security in Russia; to civilization, according to the Vatican; to the American traditional family; to protecting children from pedophilia and grooming, according to some conservatives. In a single word, “gender” holds the power to seemingly drive people mad with fear.

Butler’s latest comes more than three decades after their first and most famous book, “Gender Trouble,” brought the idea of “gender as performance” into the mainstream. As it turns out, Butler — who has written 15 books since — never intended to return to the subject, even as a culture war raged. But then the political became personal: Butler was physically attacked in 2017 while speaking in Brazil, and burned in effigy by protesters who shouted, “Take your ideology to hell.”

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity

Did you ever think you’d see a world in which your ideas would be so widespread — and so fraught?

When I wrote “Gender Trouble,” I was a lecturer. I was teaching five classes, trying to work on this book I thought no one would read. Still, I knew I wasn’t just speaking for myself; there were other people who were strong feminists but also lesbian or gay or trying to figure out gender in ways that weren’t always welcome. But today, the people who are afraid of my ideas are the people who don’t read me. In other words, I don’t think it’s my ideas that they’re afraid of. They’ve come up with something else — a kind of fantasy of what I believe or who I am.

And of course it’s not just my views that are being caricatured, but gender more broadly — gender studies, policies that focus on gender, gender discrimination, gender and health care, anything with “gender” in it is a kind of terrifying prospect, at least for some.

The book cover for “Who’s Afraid of Gender?” is beige with a yellow stripe along the left margin and a lilac stripe along the right.

So … who is afraid of gender?

It’s funny, I have a friend, a queer theorist. I told him the book’s name and he said, “Everyone! Everyone’s afraid of gender!”

What’s clear to me is that there is a set of strange fantasies about what gender is — how destructive it is, and how frightening it is — that a number of forces have been circulating: Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Giorgia Meloni, Rishi Sunak, Jair Bolsonaro, Javier Milei, and of course Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and lots of parents and communities in states like Oklahoma and Texas and Wyoming, who are seeking to pass legislation that bans the teaching of gender or reference to gender in books.

Obviously, those folks are very frightened of gender. They imbue it with power that I actually don’t think it has. But so are feminists who call themselves “gender critical,” or who are trans-exclusionary, or who have taken explicit positions against trans politics.

Can you describe what prompted you to return to this subject?

I was going to Brazil for a conference on the future of democracy. And I was told in advance that there were petitions against me speaking, and that they decided to focus on me because I’m the “papisa,” the female pope, of gender. I’m not quite sure how I got to have that distinction, but apparently I did. I got to the venue early, and I could hear the crowds outside. They’d built a kind of monstrous picture of me with horns, which I took to be overtly antisemitic — with red eyes and kind of a demonic look — with a bikini on. Like, why the bikini?

But in any case, I was burned in effigy. And that freaked me out. And then, when my partner and I were leaving, at the airport, we were attacked: Some woman came at me with a big trolley and she was screaming about pedophilia. I could not understand why.

You thank the young man who threw his body between you and the attacker, taking blows. Was this the first time you’d heard that “pedophilia” association?

I had given a talk on Jewish philosophy, and somebody in the back said, “Hands off our children!” I thought, What? I figured out later that the way that the anti-gender ideology movement works is to say: If you break down the taboo against homosexuality, if you allow gay and lesbian marriage, if you allow sex reassignment, then you’ve departed from all the laws of nature that keep the laws of morality in tact — which means it’s a Pandora’s box; the whole panoply of perversions will emerge.

As I was preparing to interview you, I received a news alert about the “Don’t Say Gay” settlement in Florida, which says that schools cannot teach about L.G.B.T.Q. topics from kindergarten through the 8th grade, but clarifies that discussing them is allowed. You write that words have become “tacitly figured as recruiters and molesters,” which is behind the effort to remove this type of language from the classroom.

Teaching gender, or critical race theory, or even ethnic studies, is regularly characterized as forms of “indoctrination.” So for instance, that woman who was accusing me of supporting pedophilia, suggests that my work or my teaching would be an effort at “seduction” or “grooming.”

In my experience of teaching, people are arguing with each other all the time. There’s so much conflict. It’s chaotic. There are many things going on — but indoctrination is not one of them.

What about the warping of language on the left?

My version of feminist, queer, trans-affirmative politics is not about policing. I don’t think we should become the police. I’m afraid of the police. But I think a lot of people feel that the world is out of control, and one place where they can exercise some control is language. And it seems like moral discourse comes in then: Call me this. Use this term. We agree to use this language. What I like most about what young people are doing — and it’s not just the young, but everybody’s young now, according to me — is the experimentation. I love the experimentation. Like, let’s come up with new language. Let’s play. Let’s see what language makes us feel better about our lives. But I think we need to have a little more compassion for the adjustment process.

I want to talk for a moment about categories. You have occupied many — butch, queer, woman, nonbinary — yet you’ve also said you’re suspicious of them.

At the time that I wrote “Gender Trouble,” I called for a world in which we might think about genders being proliferated beyond the usual binary of man and woman. What would that look like? What would it be? So when people started talking about being “nonbinary,” I thought, well, I am that. I was trying to occupy that space of being between existing categories.

Do you still believe that gender is “performance?”

After “Gender Trouble” was published, there were some from the trans community who had problems with it. And I saw that my approach, what came to be called a “queer approach”— which was somewhat ironic toward categories — for some people, that’s not OK. They need their categories, they need them to be right, and for them gender is not constructed or performed.

Not everybody wants mobility. And I think I’ve taken that into account now.

But at the same time, for me, performativity is enacting who we are, both our social formation and what we’ve done with that social formation. I mean, my gestures: I didn’t make them up out of thin air — there’s a history of Jewish people who do this. I am inside of something, socially, culturally constructed. At the same time, I find my own way in it. And it’s always been my contention that we’re both formed and we form ourselves, and that’s a living paradox.

How do you define gender today?

Oh, goodness. I have, I suppose, revised my theory of gender — but that’s not the point of this book. I do make the point that “gender identity” is not all of what we mean by gender: It’s one thing that belongs to a cluster of things. Gender is also a framework — a very important framework — in law, in politics, for thinking about how inequality gets instituted in the world.

This is your first book with a nonacademic press. Was that a conscious decision?

Oh, yeah. I wanted to reach people.

It’s funny because many of your ideas do reach people, albeit in internet-era sound bites. I’m thinking about, for instance, of “gender is a drag” T-shirts or “Judith Butler explained with cats.” It strikes me that a lot of people who claim to have read you have actually just read the Instagram caption of you.

Well, I don’t blame them for not reading that book. It was tough. And some of those sentences are truly unforgivable. Hopefully I didn’t do that in “Who’s Afraid of Gender?”

I feel like I’m more in touch with people who are mobilizing on the ground at the global level than I have been before. And that pleases me.


Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times. She teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of “Feminist Fight Club” and “This Is 18.” More about Jessica Bennett

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