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Gender performativity is the process of constructing a sense of one’s own gender through a series of repeated acts of behaviors. In other words, acting in a typically male fashion is linked with being male, for example, while acting in a typically female fashion is linked with being female. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler coined the term in her 1990 book “Gender Trouble.”
We all perform the role of our gender, according to Butler. The way we walk, speak, act, and relate to others demonstrates and solidifies our gender. While we are individuals, we have certain commonalities with our gender group and perform much as if we were reading from our gender script.
There is very little to distinguish male and female infants. However, parents typically surround them with influences that will help guide the part they will play, dressing them in pink or blue, buying them dolls or cars, for example.
Part of gender performativity for females is the wearing of dresses as children. Gender is further cemented and demonstrated during the teenage years when the female experiments with makeup. Butler notes that drag queens also wear dresses and makeup, as females do. When they do, they adopt a female persona. In their everyday lives when presenting as men, these individuals typically wear more masculine clothes and avoid makeup. When drag queens choose how they will dress, they are effectively choosing the gender they will present to society on any given occasion.
Despite this, gender performativity shouldn’t be confused with gender performing. Performance is controlled and artificial. An actress playing a male part in a film, for example, is playing a role but not really expressing a part of her identity. Gender performativity goes much deeper by expressing aspects of one’s own identity through gendered behaviors.
People who are transgender typically feel most comfortable performing the behaviors commonly linked with the gender opposite to their sex ascribed at birth. Performing these behaviors that feel natural helps to construct and reinforce the true gender identity.
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