Judith Butler, philosopher: ‘Feminists who don’t repudiate the right-wing, anti-gender movement are complicit’

The American intellectual — one of the most influential of our time — returns to their flagship topic with ‘Who’s Afraid of Gender?’, a book in which they accuse anti-trans feminists of forming ‘an unconscious alliance’ with conservative currents, which have turned gender into a cultural battle

Judith Butler
Judith Butler poses for EL PAÍS in the Luxembourg Garden, in Paris, on April 30, 2024.Samuel Aranda
Marc Bassets

From afar, they are imposing. The impact of their work on public debate has been enormous, rare for someone from academia. With their cryptic prose, they have become a symbol, with worshipers and enemies alike projecting themselves upon them. Dr. Judith Butler — who uses they/them pronouns — is one of the most influential intellectual figures of our time. Up close, at the door of La Coupole — the old brasserie frequented by writers and artists on the Parisian boulevard of Montparnasse — the 68-year-old appears small and fragile. During their conversation with EL PAÍS, however, Butler reveals a mind of steel. They are implacable; nothing gets by them.

The Berkley professor is also ironic, sarcastic. Lightness and seriousness are intertwined. They are visiting Paris as the Centre Pompidou’s intellectual guest for 2023-2024. In addition to opening up the subject of queer theory, Butler has written essays on state violence, resistance and pain, among other themes.

Butler — who registered a few years ago as a non-binary person in California — explains that they use their pronouns as “a form of solidarity with the other theys of the world.” When EL PAÍS informs the professor that the Royal Spanish Academy doesn’t recognize these pronouns, they respond: “Make a note of that, of what you have to do because of the demands of EL PAÍS, which wants to stay in conformity with the Royal Academy. But you’re aware that this is not correct in relation to me. It’s up to you. I’m not the police. I’m not going to say, ‘you must do this.’”

Butler has just published Who’s Afraid of Gender? (2024), which is perhaps their most accessible book yet. She first gained recognition for Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which was written in a jargon that scared off many readers. At the time, Butler defended her work, affirming that “it would be a mistake to think that inherited grammar is the best vehicle to express radical views.” However, they now opt for greater clarity. “If I had known that Gender Trouble would gain a wide audience, I probably would have written it differently,” the author acknowledges.

Question. In Gender Trouble, you wrote about your uncle, who was incarcerated because of his “anatomically anomalous body.” How did this influence your way of understanding gender?

Answer. When I was growing up, I didn’t understand that I had an uncle. And then, I came to know that my mother had a brother, apart from the one whom I already knew. My mother told us that they sent him somewhere else… that he wasn’t able to think or speak, that he wasn’t communicative and that we wouldn’t be able to visit him. When he died, a cousin of mine discovered that he was, in fact, capable of speech. And that we might have gotten to know him. My cousin and I investigated and asked my mother [more about him]. She now regrets how her brother’s life was managed.

My uncle didn’t develop sexual and mental traits that were considered normative. Apparently, my family was ashamed of him. They sent him to an institution for psychologically challenged people. But was he really psychologically challenged? Or was he responding to rejection by his family? It’s an open question.

Q. What was your family like?

A. My parents and grandparents — especially my grandparents — struggled to assimilate into American cultural norms. They came from Eastern Europe and — at least on my mother’s side — many people in her family were Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. So, my family was worried about appearances. They copied Hollywood figures and wanted to have a very American look, very chic and elegant. Gender was very important: you had to “do” your gender right. You had to be a handsome man and a beautiful woman.

I grew up in this world of gender secrets and ideals. And I guess that’s how I started thinking about the cruelty of gender norms and how important gender freedom is — the freedom to produce a world in which people who don’t always fit the norm are free to live and breathe and be accepted and loved and recognized for being who they are, without discrimination or being pathologized.

Q. The idea behind the book Who’s Afraid of Gender? partly came out of an incident involving harassment and violence in Brazil. What happened? And what did you learn from that experience?

A. They burned an effigy of me outside the Sesc Pompeia Cultural Center in São Paulo. I saw it online — I was hidden inside. It was 2017. Then, the mob (made up of Bolsonaro supporters) harassed me at the airport when I was leaving with my girlfriend, my partner (the political scientist Wendy Brown). She’s not my wife, because she doesn’t want to marry me. We’ve been a couple for 33 years and she doesn’t want to marry me. She’s a Marxist, she doesn’t believe in that!

Q. Would you like to get married?

A. No, but I like to ask her about it. I always ask her — it’s like a joke. She says she would have to divorce me if I tried to marry her. You can put that in the interview.

Judith Butler
Judith Butler in the Luxembourg Garden, Paris, on April 30, 2024.Samuel Aranda

Q. You mentioned that you were harassed at the airport.

A. Yes. They told me things like “you’re a pedophile!” or “hands off our children!” I was deeply confused. I hadn’t understood that, for some of the people who are part of the anti-gender movement, if you remove the prohibition against homosexuality, then the prohibition of sexuality with animals [or] with minors apparently collapses. You become a chaotic and dangerous sexual creature who has no moral constraints. And, of course, that’s a bit of a phantasmagoria. And I asked myself: “What do these people think gender is?” It’s not a predatory or indoctrinating movement… and yet, predation and indoctrination were attributed to those of use who work in the field.

Q. So, who’s afraid of gender?

A. Everyone.

Q. Everyone? Really?

A. Yes, I think so. [Laughing]. Excuse me… I’m supposed to be very serious, intellectual. I am, by the way.

Q. Why do you say that everyone fears it?

A. If [Italian Prime Minister] Giorgia Meloni says that these gender ideologists will take away your sexual identity, it sounds terrifying. Most people want to know that their sexual identity is firm and that no one can take away their legal status as a man or woman. Meloni says this because she wants to take away the sexual identity of trans people; she wants to take away their legal right to assign themselves a sexual identity. You have to produce a specter — a fictional story — that scares people, so that you can attract them to your side and attack trans and queer communities, which are, for the most part, vulnerable communities. But the truth is that all of us — in relation to our sex or gender, or whatever language we use — can be made to feel anxious about it. Psychoanalysis is all about that.

Q. Do you feel this anxiety?

A. Probably just as much as you do.

Q. So we’re all afraid of gender…

A. They can make you afraid, or cause you to experience instability. Should children act like this, or play like this? Gender is always accompanied by rules: you have to learn them, they [don’t come naturally]. And they’re learned, in part, via mistakes. Like we say, “take this bow out of your hair,” or “no pink, dear.” Although, Rafa is allowed to wear pink.

Q. Who?

A. Rafael Nadal. How come Rafa can wear the color pink? He always wears pink. And that’s the ultimate kind of masculinity, he’s comfortable with his masculinity. “Give me pink, give me violet.” I love it!

Q. How do you explain the anxiety that people feel about gender?

A. Am I doing it right? How am I perceived? Am I a strong enough man? If I’m not, am I not a man at all? If I don’t wear a certain thing, am I not a woman? There are many social norms that can make us feel anxious about gender. Parents, religions, educational or state institutions… this anxiety is exploited by far-right forces, they amplify it.

Q. Will you vote for Joe Biden to prevent Donald Trump from winning?

A. No. I’ll tell you what I think: I think we refuse to vote for Biden until the very end. We put pressure on the Biden administration, because all the young people who oppose Biden are right to oppose him. So I won’t say anything in favor of Biden.

Q. But at the last minute, maybe you’ll say something.

A. Probably, but it will depend on how things are. Since I’m voting in California (which has been won by the Democratic candidate in presidential elections since 1992), I don’t have to vote for Biden.

Q. Your voice has resonance.

A. I will not support Biden. I will criticize Trump. I’ll criticize them both, frankly.

Q. Why won’t you support Biden?

A. Because he’s supporting this horrible genocide in Gaza and because he’s continued Trump’s policies on the U.S. southern border, leaving a huge number of people in a condition of indefinite detention. The southern border violates every possible human rights law. He promised that he would change that. He hasn’t.

Q. You call what’s happening in Gaza “genocide.” Isn’t that a legal term, something the courts will decide?

A. It’s a genocide. Hundreds and hundreds of jurists have confirmed that what’s happening in Gaza is in accordance with what the Genocide Convention says. This is well-established.

Q. You’ve gotten into trouble for your opinions on this issue.

A. I always get in trouble.

Q. Now we’re moving away from the subject of gender, but we’ll return to it…

A. Well, maybe it’s still about gender. The way I’m treated may have to do with gender. Maybe, I don’t know. Would I have been treated the same way if I were a man? It’s a valid question.

Q. In any case, it’s clear to you that what’s happening in Gaza is a genocide. The Hamas attack on October 7… would you say it was genocidal?

A. No. There were atrocities, but they didn’t seek the death of all people in the region based on their religion or nationality.

Q. Do you regret saying that what Hamas did on October 7 of 2023 was an “uprising” and an “act of resistance”?

A. We must make a distinction. I have condemned Hamas from the beginning and continue to condemn [the group]. I defend an ethics and politics of non-violence. The Palestinian organizations I support are all non-violent. Resistance, for me, isn’t something romantic or an ideal — it’s descriptive. I understand that they resist, they fight against the [Israeli] occupation, but I’ve never supported Hamas and I continue to condemn their atrocities.

Q. Let’s go back to gender. There’s something that’s been criticized in your new book that may surprise readers: in it, you put the extreme-right, the Vatican and progressive feminists in the same bag…

A. Progressive feminists? Or regressive feminists?

Q. Well, they consider themselves to be progressive.

A. I don’t think so. Do they use that word? It would surprise me.

Q. So they’re not progressive?

A. They’re returning to biological reductionism, which is what feminism always fought. “Biology is not destiny.” That’s Simone de Beauvoir.

Q. But Simone de Beauvoir also said that biology exists: she spoke of males and females.

A. And I say it, too. I accept that biology exists, I don’t deny biology. It’s one thing to say that biology determines who you are and another to say that biology exists. It can exist without determining you. I affirm that biology exists, but what’s interesting is that the biological sciences are constantly changing the framework [that is utilized] to determine sex.

Should we read all of biology and see what the debates are within biological studies of sex and sexuality? Or should we just choose the [elements] we like and plug them into our theory and say “that’s what biology says”?

Q. You’ve put these types of feminists in the same basket as fascists.

A. Not the same basket. Very different baskets. You have to read [the book] carefully.

What I’m saying is that it’s an unconscious alliance. I wonder why feminists — who should be allied with [LGBTQ+] people and social movements — sometimes break these alliances and echo the same arguments of the right.

Q. You refer to them as being “complicit.”

A. If they don’t disavow the right-wing attack on gender, then what are they doing? Then they’re complicit. They should disavow it. They should fight it, because the right-wing attack on gender is an attack on abortion rights. It’s an attack on legislation and the Istanbul Convention that protects women against gender-based violence. Do they care about gender-based violence? Do they care about abortion rights? Do they want to oppose discrimination on the basis of sex? All of these things are being attacked by the right-wing, anti-gender ideology movement, which also attacks feminism, because it places it alongside the [LGBTQ+ communities]. Why don’t [these feminists] dissociate themselves from it? It would be great if they disowned it. We need solidarity against fascism and emerging authoritarianism. That’s my invitation to them.

Q. Is this an invitation to abandon their point of view?

A. No, they can have their views. But [they should] make sure that they also critique the fascist attack on gender, so that they’re not identified with it. J. K. Rowling did this wonderfully when Putin said, “I agree with J. K. Rowling.” And J. K. Rowling quickly replied [on Twitter], “No, we’re different.” And I thought that was beautiful.

Translated by Avik Jain Chatlani.

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