"Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire"
by Judith Butler
Written by Meg Kaplan-Noach, December 2014
I want to jump right into Judith Butler's discussion of feminist identity immediately because I remember feeling winded at my own complete ignorance as a young feminist. I was floored because somehow (I now no longer understand how it happened) I was made to understand that the feminist movement (in its original form) did not necessarily represent the experiences of poor, urban women of color, for example. I just never considered for anyone second ever that feminism wasn't every woman's revolution! But–once I heard this revelation–I instantly learned it, remembered it, and have since tried to be sensitive to the ideas that labels-banners-manifestoes-ideologies cannot ever truly cover everyone at the same time. It is impossible. We all have so many different identities in addition to being women. This was life-changing!
Butler articulates this problem in feminism and explains why universal identity is so problematic in this case. She begins by identifying that the "political assumption" for a universal feminism doesn't consider the myriad differences of cultural contexts throughout the world. She illuminates: "...[The] notion that the oppression of women has some singular form discernable in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy has been widely criticized in recent years for its failure to account for the workings of gender oppression in the concrete cultural context in which it exists...that form of feminist theorizing has come under criticism for its efforts to colonize and appropriate non-Western cultures to support highly Western notions of oppression, but because they tend as well to construct a 'Third World' or even an 'Orient' in which gender oppression is subtly explained as symptomatic of an essential, non-Western barbarism. The urgency of feminism to establish a universal status for patriarchy in order to strengthen the appearance of feminism's own claims to be representative has occasionally motivated the shortcut to a categorical or fictive universality of the structure of domination, held to produce women's common subjugated experience." (Butler, 6-7)
Butler then identifies real questions surrounding even the idea of a universal or commonality within the 'frame workof women"–are there
anyways in which women are "bonded?" She further elucidates by suggesting that the "...presumed universality and unity of the subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constraints of the representational discourse in which it functions...the premature insistence on a stable subject of
feminism, understood as a seamless category of women, inevitably generates multiple refusals to accept the category. [Editor: No Shit!] These domains of exclusion reveal the coercive and regulatory consequences of that construction, even when the construction has been elaborated for emancipatory purposes...the fragmentation within feminism and the paradoxical opposition to feminism from 'women' whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary limits of identity politics...By con forming to a requirement of representational politics that feminism articulate, a stable subject, feminism thus opens itself to charges of gross misrepresentation." (7-8) These ideas, once heard–had long-lasting meaning to me. To read a theoretical piece so many years later, simply strengthens my awareness of identity, cultural contexts, and political and ideological constraints for an all-encompassing feminism.