Chronicle | Prof Bruno Perreau featured in Roundtable: Gender and Its Enemies

Published on: March 27, 2024

Who's Afraid of Gender?: 9780374608224: Butler, Judith: Books - Amazon.comGender and Its Enemies

Five scholars discuss Judith Butler’s new book.

The Review: Roundtable
By  Adrian Daub MARCH 25, 2024

The last decade or so has seen the rise of a curious crusade against “gender” — which at times seems to mean an academic field of study, at other times the existence of LGBTQ+ people in certain spaces and the social recognition of their existence. Anti-gender politics make strange bedfellows: disappointed radical feminists and Catholic theologians, far-right strongmen and assorted reactionary centrists. In Who’s Afraid of Gender?, the philosopher Judith Butler suggests that the anti-gender movement is ultimately “as much an attack on feminism, especially reproductive freedom, as it is on trans rights, gay marriage, and sex education.” “Gender,” at least as it is used by its critics is an “overdetermined” “phantasm.” And resistance to “gender” has emerged as a powerful weapon to be wielded against liberal democracy itself — from Hungary to Brazil to the United States.

Butler, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley (and who uses they/them pronouns), has been the target of the movement they portray in Who’s Afraid of Gender? Their books on the topic, starting with Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), have clearly had an impact on the way we think and talk about gender and bodies in 2024. But Who’s Afraid of Gender? is neither a counteroffensive nor an assessment of Butler’s own influence. Instead, writing for the first time for a mainstream audience and publishing with a trade press, Butler makes an urgent case that the category of gender names a central axis in the anti-democratic and illiberal international. They try to explain why anti-gender positions are so central to today’s far-right movements and governments the world over.

“For several years,” Butler writes, “I encountered the anti-gender ideology movement only outside of the United States.” This movement, they argue, arose from the natural-law tradition and originated in Catholic networks in Latin America. From there it spread to Europe and Africa, often with the support of American anti-LGBTQ organizations that were at that time busy losing the fight against gay marriage in the U.S. When it arrived in the United States, it immediately made its impact felt legislatively — in laws regulating pronouns, drag bans, bans on gender care, or legislation aimed at sex ed or gender studies. “Gender” became the nexus that bundled together all these different, and at times contradictory, projects.

I spoke with the historian Susan Stryker, the political theorist Bruno Perreau, the literary scholar Katie Kadue, and the philosopher Lynne Huffer about Who’s Afraid of Gender? Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Daub: Who’s Afraid of Gender? is a book of a particular moment. It’s not that surprising that gender studies has become a target for this very well-networked, authoritarian global movement. But the precise shape the reaction takes, the permutations of this anti-gender international, can actually be quite puzzling and counterintuitive. So: Does Butler meet this strange moment that we’re in? Does the book elucidate not just what’s predictable about this latest anti-gender onslaught, this most recent rearguard action of the patriarchy, but also the specificity and weirdness of it?

Stryker: It’s remarkable the way gender, the struggle over the word itself and what it means, has become such a hot-button issue in the culture wars. I think the book is at its strongest when it maps the contemporary terrain, asking, “What are all of the things that gender is doing in our culture right now?”

Butler’s style here is more “investigative journalist” than “dense cultural theorist.” Still, the book is grounded in a predominantly psychoanalytic perspective, particularly the idea of fantasies that guide the interpretation of experience. They make the point that we can’t have wide-ranging rational arguments about gender today, because there are profound disagreements about the status of evidence, the measure of truth, let alone what the thing we’re actually talking about is. Gender has become phantasmatic, something that operates according to the syntax of dreams, caught up in the irrational, touching on deep fears and fantasies that manifest in wildly divergent takes on reality. That’s a very useful way to frame the current status of gender as a concept.

American philosopher and author Judith Butler in Paris, on March 17, 2024. “There is a set of strange fantasies about what gender is -- how destructive it is, and how frightening it is,” said Butler, whose new book takes on the topic.

ELLIOTT VERDIER, THE NEW YORK TIMES, REDUX Judith Butler in Paris, March 17, 2024

Perreau: The phantasm of gender doesn’t manifest in the social arena solely in the form of fear. However, Butler’s book reminds us that we all live in fictions. This generates tensions with our sensitive experience of the world. The book’s title is derived from Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In that play, the main characters speak of children that do not exist; they have imaginary lives. Fictions pre-exist us and exceed us all. This is why the title should not be read too literally. Anti-gender movements are far too disparate for us to name them as a single entity. However, they are based on imaginaries that resonate from one country to another: that of corruption, contamination, invasion, undifferentiation, and so on.

This is how I read the book: Butler approaches gender as a “transactional reality,” to use Michel Foucault’s term, i.e., a framework for interpreting reality that enables us to act on it, whether or not this framework conforms to reality. It is precisely why the fear of gender is a fear of theory: Thinking critically about gender can only unsettle reactionary imaginaries.

Kadue: Like Susan and Bruno, I found the “phantasm” to be a really helpful device for explaining how all these contradictory ideas about gender get bunched together…

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