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In this paper I will critique Judith Butler's recent views on gender, which I will argue, fail to be a convincing synthesis of Freudian and Foucauldian views. In The Psychic Life of Power (1997a), Butler writes about gender not only to deconstruct other modern theories of gender, subjectivity and the self, but to present her own, arguably modernist, theory of gender based on an amalgam of Freud and Foucault.
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Butler, Subjectivity, Sex/Gender, and a Postmodern Theory of Gender
by Ann Ferguson
Philosophy and Women’s Studies
Univ. of Mass./Amherst
@Ann Ferguson: Draft: Do Not Quote Without Permission
Although not everyone has recognized it yet, most major thinkers in
contemporary feminist theory have bypassed the modernist/postmodernist debate by
finding creative ways to combine some of the insights and investigative methods of
postmodernism, deconstruction and post-structuralism with general (modernists) theories
of gender. But not all these syntheses are convincing. In this paper I will critique Judith
Butler’s recent views on gender, which I will argue, fail to be a convincing synthesis of
Freudian and Foucauldian views. In The Psychic Life of Power (1997a), Butler writes
about gender not only to deconstruct other modern theories of gender, subjectivity and
the self, but to present her own, arguably modernist, theory of gender based on an
amalgam of Freud and Foucault. However, her amalgam leaves out the most ground-
breaking aspect of Foucault’s work, his genealogical post-structuralist approach to
subjectivity and sexuality. Furthermore, her early attempt to distinguish her performative
theory of gender from expressive theories of gender in Gender Trouble (1990) becomes
increasingly incompatible with the more psychoanalytic direction of her theory of gender
in The Psychic Life of Power. As a result, we lose the exhilarating sense of rebellion
conveyed with the idea that gender is a matter of a non-determined repetition of gender
performances which can be subverted by outlaw performances. I will provide an
alternative reading of Foucault, which, together with Bernice Hausman’s Changing Sex, a
1995 historical study of the development of transsexualism and sex-change medical
technology, can be used to support my own sketch of a theory of gender and sexuality.
I.
Postmodernism and Feminist Theory
In an early paper, Jane Flax argued that feminist theory is a type of postmodern
philosophy, which in turn she characterizes as “deconstructive”: “skeptical about beliefs
concerning truth, knowledge, power, the self, and language” that serve as legitimation for
modernist Western thought (Flax, 1987, reprinted in Mahowald, 1994: 465). In this same
article Flax takes various feminist theorists to task for being insufficiently deconstructive
in their assumptions and key concepts, particularly when it comes to their theories of
Gender.1 She particularly challenges the idea of a sex/gender distinction. But without a

1 Obviously Flax is begging the question here, because she has already set up as a standard for feminist
theory, that it be postmodern, which many feminist theorists do not accept. Flax’s critique of the thinkers
she faults, for example, Gayle Rubin (1975) is that they put forth too universal a set of analytic categories
from which to analyze historical variations in gender domination. Rubin makes the sex/gender distinction a
foundational moment in her analysis of the social construction of gender, sexuality and male domination,
which Flax opposes on the suspicion that this distinction itself is based on the unconvincing binary of
“raw, biological sexuality” (i.e. Nature) vs. socialized understandings of gender (i.e. Culture). But there is
no need to give “sex” such a stereotypical meaning. Sexual urges and the sexed body itself can be assumed
1

sex/gender distinction of some sort, it would be hard to explain the modern phenomenon
of trans-sexuality, which Bernice Hausman convincingly shows is a historical
development due both to the development of sex change medical technology and the
invention of the concept “gender” by John Money et al in the 1940s to provide a
legitimating discourse for sex changes (Hausman 1995). Flax would herself be guilty of a
totalizing meta-narrative if she were to argue that sex cannot be distinguished from
gender, which demonstrates the point that any theory of gender, including Flax’s
deconstructive theory, will have its foundational starting points.2 So rather than condemn
out of hand the use of any analytic concepts, a more fruitful approach would be to
investigate each particular theory in terms of its explanatory power for phenomena we
want to study today, as well as its ability to historically situate itself. This is what I
propose to do with Butler’s theory of Gender.
II. Butler vs. Hausman on Sex and Gender
In chapter 1 of Gender Trouble Butler argues that sex and gender cannot be
distinguished. She analyzes various discourses about gender which assume that biological
sex, as the starting point of gender, grounds the political identity of “women”, as those
gendered subjects who, born as female bodies, have been socially constructed with the
gender “woman”. Butler’s aim is to demonstrate that Freudian and feminist theorists
alike have obscured how the discourse of gender serves to produce sex as the “natural”
condition of its existence as an identity (cf. Hausman 1995: 177). In her argument she
appeals to the Foucauldian notion of a modern regime of “sexuality” created by sexologist
discourses and psychoanalytic, parental and pedagogical practices of the bourgeois class
in the 19th century which assumes that sex and gender are in alignment except for certain
pathological “inversions” like homosexuality and transsexuality. However, as Hausman
points out, Butler here ignores the deeper genealogical reading of Foucault’s analysis of
modern “sex” as sexuality, which is that there have been historical variations in the
relations between the term “sex” and the term “gender” in different discursive regimes. So
even if “sex” itself is a socially constructed concept, its meaning may vary independently
of “gender”. Thomas Laqueur (1990) brilliantly demonstrates this in a plausible
genealogy in the scientific shifts in the concept of “sex” from the one-sex model (females
are the same as men, only inferior) of the Greeks to the Enlightenment, and the two-sex
model (females are different and complementary to males) of the post-Enlightenment
Romantic, Victorian periods and present day periods.
What follows from Laqueur’s investigation of the way that “sex” and “gender”
have shifted in their paradigms and connections historically is that we should be careful of

to always already be socialized or enculturated with meaning --for example, the forthcoming book by
Rachel Alsop, Annette Fitzsimons and Kathleen Lennon et al (2002) puts forth a phenomenological theory
of the “bodily imaginary”--and still to be distinguishable from the gendered norms that one learns are
appropriate for one’s body in different cultures.
2 For further defense of this claim, see Diana Fuss (1989).
2

rejecting the sex/gender division simply because “sex” itself is socially constructed. For if
both concepts are socially constructed, but the distinction between them only begins to
occur in the modern historical period, then we cannot accept universalistic theories of
either sex or gender which claim to give us a foundational base, whether it be Freudianism
or sociobiology, which will show us which concept is somehow “prior”.
III. Butler’s Theory of Subject and Agency
In chapter 1 of The Psychic Life of Power Butler lays forth her starting points for
a theory of subject and agency. Her intention is to give us a marriage of Freud, under a
Kleinian reading, and Foucault. But what she has suppressed in her search for the ideal
master narrative which combines a modernist and a postmodernist base for a feminist
theory of gender, is that the Foucault is a theory of the subject is never the universal
subject that Freud gives us, but the historically situated, modern subject. Consequently
she misses the liberatory moment of Foucault’s historical investigations when he realizes
that the modern subject is not only different from the ancient Greek subject, but may be
nearing its end as a subject formation.
Butler formulates the main question of her book as this: “how to take an
oppositional relation to power that is, admittedly, implicated in the very power one
opposes (17)”. As she outlines, the subject, or self-consciousness, or reflexivity, comes
into existence after the initial primary attachments of the dependent human baby to its
caretakers is suppressed by the regulation of the psyche which forbids these objects of
desire to the child. On this re-formulation of Freud’s incest taboo and feminist theories of
compulsory heterosexuality (Rubin, Rich), the subject comes into existence when it
institutes against itself a regulatory ego ideal that forecloses the possibility of love of the
same sex caretaker. In so doing, a subject/object split is created in which the “I” can
critically judge the “me” in terms of how closely it resembles the introjected ego ideal.
But since this self-image is postulated on the condition of one becoming the object of
desire (the ego ideal) rather than being able to possess that object, one has forever lost and
foreclosed the possibility of fulfilling one’s original desire to possess that object in favor
of attaining what Butler, after Klein, thinks of as a “melancholic identification” with the
subject. In the process one also has given up any possibility of grieving the lost object,
since one’s original desire can not even be formulated in consciousness.
For Butler, as for Klein, the process of separating the self-conscious subject from
the original psyche also involves violence, in two senses. First, it involves the subject’s
aggressive desires to kill or vanquish the object of desire it cannot have. Secondly, it
involves turning these aggressive desires against oneself, which is the base of the strength
of the conscience, and of guilt, to allow the subject to incorporate social norms and thus
subject itself to these norms. This allows Butler to make the connection to Foucault, and
“the peculiar turning of a subject against itself that takes place in acts of self-reproach,
conscience and the melancholia that works in tandem with processes of social regulation
3

(19)”. Here Butler adds her own distinctive social metaphysic to that of Freud and
Foucault when she posits, “where social categories [she is obviously thinking of those of
man and woman, of heterosexual and homosexual] guarantee a recognizable and enduring
social existence, the embrace of such categories, even as they work in the service of
subjection, is often preferred to no social existence at all (20)”. She then asks her key
question: “How is it, then, that the longing for subjection, based on a longing for social
existence, recalling and exploiting primary dependencies, emerges as an instrument and
effect of the power of subjection? (20)”
Butler goes on to tie a Foucauldian explanation to her Freudian base by showing
that the disciplinary regime of gender and compulsory heterosexuality is an instance of a
power-knowledge which “delimits” the objects of possible love, that marks certain
objects for death, as she puts it, if the subject is to continue in its social existence as a
legitimate subject. As evidence for this hypothesis, she points to the “melancholic
aggression” of public homophobic satisfactions concerning the deaths and ongoing misery
of those with AIDS, arguing that this could be read as the inversion of an aggressive desire
to vanquish the dead (forbidden) object of desire that is now read as the threat of death of
the other, now seen as the “persecutor of the socially normal and normalized” (27).
What follows from this theory about the possibility of Agency? Butler sums up
her theory of subjection as follows:
“(1) an account of the way regulatory power maintains subjects in subordination
by producing and exploiting the demand for continuity, visibility, and place; (2)
recognition that the subject produced as continuous, visible, and located is
nevertheless haunted by an inassimilable remainder, a melancholia that marks the
limits of subjectivation; (3) an account of the iterability of the subject that shows
how agency may well consist in opposing and transforming the social terms by
which it is spawned.(29)”
Number (3) in this list is Butler’s way of introducing the Foucauldian theory of
Agency as Rebellion and Resistance, of challenging the existing regulatory order of
possible subjects and objects of desire by deviating from the repetitious practices of
gender and sexuality that are necessary to continue the myth of gender and sexual
stability.
This reading of Foucault makes him into an ahistorical thinker, where discourses
of the subject and attendant physical practices to control the body are always restrictive,
and thus to be an agent, to be free, one must rebel against them. However, we must not
forget that Foucault’s historical studies of ancient Greece and Rome in volumes 2 and 3 of
The History of Sexuality suggest that subjectivity was created quite differently in this
pre-modern period, with a dynamic of self-regulation through an “aesthetics of existence”.
Here, agency is identified with self-control in the process of self-creation through
“techniques” and “practices of the self” or “practices of liberty” rather than rebellion
4

against an externally imposed order of “compulsory heterosexuality” or the incest taboo.
He explicitly contrasts the type of self-discipline valorized in the ancient Western world
(cf. History of Sexuality , v. 2, 1985: 12). with the disciplinary model of the modern
“normalization” of life, language and labor he studies in The History of Sexuality, v. 1
(Foucault 1978). For example, since homosexual sex was not forbidden, at least to men,
during this period, one was enjoined instead to play the age-appropriate role: either active
lover-subject (the older man’s role as masculine exemplar) or passive loved-object (the
boy’s role as feminine exemplar). Thus, the shift in normative regulation from the object
of one’s desire to the aim of one’s desire (active or passive love) sits uneasily with the
Freudian picture of the universal incest taboo and compulsory heterosexuality, which
govern the objects of desire and require the child to give up the same sex object of desire
by melancholic identification with it. It would seem that even if Foucault in his later
work can be said to be investigating pre-modern discourses and practices of sexuality that
involve another type of disciplinary power, it is not compatible with the mistakenly
universalized Freudian categories of analysis, which Foucault would argue are historically
specific to the modern disciplinary regime of sexuality.
Butler can be seen in her readings of Foucault to be critiquing what she takes to be
his inconsistencies, and correcting him in the direction that would make his theory of
gender and sexuality more compatible with her Freudian model. So, for example, in
Gender Trouble, she critiques what she takes to be his romanticizing of the situation of
the 19th century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin in the introduction to his memoir
(Foucault, ed. 1980). Herculine, raised as a girl called Alexina in a convent of girls, falls in
love with, and has sex with Sara, yet is separated from her when her confessions to
priests and doctors discloses the genital anomalies of her body. She is then forced to
change her gender identity from woman to man, separate from Sara, wear men’s clothes,
change her name from feminine Alexina to masculine Herculine, and assume a male
identity. Foucault analyses this as the imposition of a modern gender binary, compulsory
heterosexual disciplinary regime. Foucault in his introduction suggests that she was
forced to leave her world of bodily pleasures with Sara, which he describes as the “happy
limbo of a non-identity” (Foucault 1980: xiii). Butler describes Foucault as romanticizing
“a world that exceeds the categories of sex and of identity” (Butler 1990: 94), and argues
that a discourse of sexual difference and the categories of sex that exist within Herculine’s
memoirs “will lead to an alternative reading of Herculine against Foucault’s romanticized
appropriation and refusal of her text (Butler: 94)”. Butler argues that Alexina herself
assumes the discourse of gender when she positions herself as a girl, but a girl unlike the
other girls.
But the fact that gender identity is indeed binary in Alexina’s world does not
show that sexual identity is binary, for example, with respect to the categories of
homosexuality and heterosexuality, and this is probably what Foucault was referring to as
the “non-identity” in question, which then allowed two supposed women to have sexual
pleasures together without the imposition of the norm of compulsory heterosexuality.
5

Foucault’s reading still stands, then, as a counter-example to the Freudian analysis that
would claim that gender and sexual identity are formed together with the resolution of the
Oedipus complex, since this is only a feature of the modern disciplinary regime of gender
and sexuality. It also stands as a counter-example to Butler’s theory of melancholy
gender, for if before the late19th or early 20th century sexual pleasures with the same sex
were not associated with a defective gender identity (although they were associated with
sin), then it would not be necessary for children to repress and introject their love for the
same sex parent as a melancholy gendered ego identification. Hence, if Foucault is correct,
the assumption that the normative regimes of gender and heterosexuality articulate each
other in all human societies is mistaken, and Freud, Butler Rich (1980) and Rubin are all
mistaken in assuming an analytic connection between them, since this is true merely of
the historical period of modernity. And as we shall see later, the hegemony of such a
connection is even now being challenged with the development of concepts like trans-
gendered identities, suggesting a move to a post-modern historical formation of gender and
sexuality.
IV.
More on Butler’s Theory of Gender (Gender Trouble, then Psychic Life of
Power)
Let us turn now to tensions between the two versions of Butler’s theory of
gender. In Gender Trouble Butler begins to develop her by now well-known theory that
gender is performative.
To say that gender is performative in Butler’s technical philosophical sense is to
imply that gender only exists when it is performed, or acted out, somewhat like a promise
comes into existence when it is declared, either in the utterance or in the writing of the
words “I promise”. She contrasts this view with the idea of a “psychological core” or
internal essence of gender (in a later article she refers to this as the “expressive theory of
gender”)3 which would assume that whether innate or socially constructed, one’s gender
as man or woman has become an unchangeable part of one’s internal subjectivity in early
childhood. But how, then, is the rejection of an internal psychological core of subjective
identity compatible with the Freudian theory of melancholy gender which she gives in
The Psychic Life of Power?
Butler tries to make them compatible with a re-interpretation of Freud through
Foucault. Using a Foucauldian theory of subjectivity as created through both reigning
discourses of subjectivity (psychoanalysis, confessional religious discourse, liberal
individualism) as well as disciplinary material practices, a masculine or feminine subject
on this model is formed not only by a binary form of address based on the typing of
one’s body but also disciplinary practices including gender-differentiated clothes, work,

3 “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (Butler
1997b). I use this article plus
Gender Trouble to explicate her theory of gender as performative.
6

bodily norms, etc. A “regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence” is imposed on “the
gender discontinuities that run rampant within heterosexual, bisexual, and gay and lesbian
contexts in which gender does not necessarily follow from sex, and desire, or sexuality
generally, does not seem to follow from gender” (Gender Trouble: 135-6). But we still
have the question, if this heterosexual coherence is imposed from without, how is it
internalized into individual subjects? Butler says: “According to the understanding of
identification as an enacted fantasy or incorporation, however, it is clear that coherence is
desired, wished for, idealized, and that this idealization is an effect of a corporeal
signification. In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal
core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body. . . Such acts, gesture,
enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity
that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained
through corporeal signs and other discursive means.” (135).
It appears to me that Butler is engaged in a sleight of hand here, through two
different meanings of “performative”. On one meaning, if my gender only exists to the
extent that, and when, I perform it with my body, in the way that promises only come to
exist by performative acts of enunciating them, there is no appearance/reality gap. That
is, gender, as a description of bodily acts, is nothing more than the bodily appearance
which is described as feminine or masculine behavior, and it would not make sense to
speak of an inner psychological core gender which causes the behavior. But if, on the
other hand, gender and heterosexuality are norms which we desire, wish for and idealize as
cohering together but which, just because they are unobtainable, can be described as
“fabrications” which in reality don’t cohere, there is an appearance/reality gap: gender
appears to be more than the sum of one’s gender-indicating acts but in fact is not. In this
second sense of “performative”, to say I am performing my gender is to say that I am
performing something which is not, and could never be, true, and this is more like the idea
of acting out something one is not. But on this second sense, the one which fits more
plausibly with the rest of what Butler says, the idea of a core psychological fantasy, or
idealization of a regulatory fiction of gender, is still a key part of acting one’s gender, even
if there is no reality which corresponds to the fantasy! Thus, it makes sense to still
distinguish between the times where I am "expressing” my gender identity through my
acts (i.e. when I am trying to perform my fantasy) and times when I am not (i.e. when I
am masquerading as the other gender, as in a costume party where I take on the clothes
and bodily posture of a gender I do not identify with). Thus, even if we agree with Butler
that gender is performative in her second sense, it does not follow that it is also not
expressive! Butler has thus not eliminated the expressive theory, for it lurks in the
concept of a regulatory fiction, a fantasy, which guides my actions.
Another way of putting this objection to Butler’s claim to have given us a theory
of gender which is performative, and rejects an expressive theory of gender, is that she
still must refer to desires and wishes for, and idealizations of, the coherence of gender and
sexuality. Since she is clearly not presenting simply a behaviorist theory of desire but a
7

Freudian one (fantasies, desired ego ideals, etc.) she still seems to be assuming a
psychological core different from the actual gendered acts and repetitions of these acts
which make sense of, and give meaning to, even cause, these acts.
Butler claims that in both the Freudian and Foucauldian theories, our subjective
gender and sexual identities are created by the regulatory regime of normative
heterosexuality, which requires the repression of some desires and the creation of others
through prohibiting them. We would then seem to have no option but to take up the
subject positions that have constituted our gender identities, injurious though they may
be due to their built-in social subordination. Foucault allows that social movements based
on identity politics can allow us to refuse their original content and re-signify them. But,
according to Butler’s Freudian reading of Foucault, we are limited in this re-signification
by the original gender positions of those loved people we desired, lost because of the
compulsory heterosexuality and the incest taboo, and then introjected by identifying with
them in a melancholic way. The binary of sexual difference then, becomes non-eliminable,
although what masculinity and femininity mean can be re-signified through resistant and
subversive performances of those original gender identifications (cf. Butler The Psychic
Life of Power: 164-65). But this conflicts with the conclusion of Gender Trouble, in
which Butler argues that if we follow her in accepting that gender is performative, we
must reject a feminist identity politics, which would allow the possibility of challenging
the gender binary itself: “Cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate
or, rather, their present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourse
that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarisms of sex, and exposing
its fundamental unnaturalness” (Butler 1990: 149).
As far as I can see, Butler cannot easily resolve this contradiction in her synthesis of
Freud and Foucault4.

4 Although a merger of Foucauldian and Lacanian thought sounds promising, any feminist project of
deconstructing gender remains problematic given the background assumptions of Lacan (cf. Mitchell and
Rose, eds. 1982). Lacan claims that the notion of a coherent stable self is a fiction because at the mirror
stage of child development, subjectivity or the self-conscious ego comes into existence by misrepresenting
itself through its imaginary identifications with desired others who are not self. The imposition of the
Symbolic Law of the Father via the incest taboo forces the ego to repress those original desires and
impulses which fail to meet the ego ideal thus created. Subjectivity is thus split between the wider
Psyche, which includes all the repressed and unacknowledged aspects of the Unconscious, and the Subject
or Ego, the conscious self created by its gender identification. Foucault disagrees with the Lacanian
Freudian theory of original Libidinal or sexual drive that is repressed in the creation of the Subject, and
maintains instead that sexual desire is actually created by the prohibition of desire through the incest taboo
and the productive effects of the moralizing discourse imposed on children and clients by parents and
therapists. But Butler points out that this theory of sexuality is not functionally different from that of
Lacan and Freud, for if we take into account Freud’s theory of sublimation, a sexual charge can be spread
to other objects through displacement and substitution. Thus, there would be no way to tell whether libido
exists before disciplinary practices or comes into existence with them.
Butler maintains that both theories are also similar in that they hold that once gender is
constructed through the creation of a subjected self, there is no way to resist that law except by reactive
means, that is, by resisting the content imposed by one’s gender identity, and by re-signifying that
content. Any attempt to go beyond the gender binary, to challenge gender itself as a limiting category, fails
because the division is a foundation of human subjectivity as socially constructed (cf
The Psychic Life of
8

Foucault’s approach holds open the possibility of “refusing who we are”,
something impossible for most people on the Freudian reading of melancholic identities
which are constitutive of our very ability to be self-conscious at all. Furthermore,
Foucault’s theory can explain the actual proliferation of genders we note in today’s queer
communities, for example, the creation of a new “trans-gender” identity, and the re-
valuation of trans-sexual identities, as a joint product of resistance to the reigning regime
of sexuality and the enabling and productive effects of the discourse of “gender”, a
concept itself created in the 1940s to solve the ethical problems of radically altering
patients’ bodies, through the invention of the concept “gender dysporia” to legitimate the
use of medical-technological developments to create the contemporary sex-change
industry (Hausman 1995)
Another problem with Butler’s appropriation of Freud to explain gender is that it
cannot point a path to liberation from compulsory heterosexuality and from gender power
relations for those people whose childhood gender identity formation is linked to
heterosexuality. Only those who have a “troubled” gender identity in childhood, through
preserving homosexual or bisexual desires rather than incorporating them through
identification, or those “trans” people who find themselves with a gender identification at
odds with their bodies, will have the possibility of resisting the gender binary. Indeed,
Butler admits at places in The Psychic Life of Power that her theory of melancholy
incorporation may be too simple to capture all cases of sexual identity. For example, it
cannot explain the femme lesbian, quite sure that she is a “real” woman, who still loves
women. In this case, either her gender identity is not a melancholic incorporation of a lost
object of desire of the same sex (since this would seem to require that one has foreclosed
the possibility of desiring the same through its incorporation), or else the creation of an
ego through the identification and incorporation of the object of desire of the same sex
does not foreclose future desirings of the same sex!! Butler might try to explain this by
assuming that such women have maintained a heterosexual desire (are bisexual) which
they are re-directing to a masculine role-playing woman (the butch), but this in turn
would leave unexplained love relations between two femme lesbians!! Complications like
this in the theory are rather damaging because they weaken the explanation of
homophobia as the fear of social non-existence gained from a necessary foreclosure on
certain objects of desire as a part of the very constitution of the ego.

Power : 164-65) But this is not a plausible reading of Foucault, since such a presupposition seems to
preclude the possibility of a Queer theory connected to a liberating social movement which encourages the
proliferation of genders and trans-gender identities. Further, it is in tension with her use of Foucault in
Gender Trouble , as I have suggested above, to suggest a Queer theory of pluralist resistances to the
power/knowledge of modern sexuality. For, given Foucault’s view that resistance is an internal component
of any regime of power, his genealogical approach could explain the contemporary proliferation of genders
and sexualities as a resistance effect, which Butler’s Freudian theory cannot.
9

V. Genealogy, Sex/Gender and Gender Liberation
Butler’s foundational moment is her acceptance of the Freudian story of the
necessary connection between one’s acquisition of a gender identity and a sexual identity
in childhood, through the operation of the norms of the incest taboo, compulsory
heterosexuality and the psychological formation of the ego ideal through identification
with one of the prohibited objects of desire
While I am not opposed to master narratives per se, I argue that we must reject
the Freudian model because it does not give us helpful insights when applied to our
contemporary situation as feminists, lesbians and gays and other self-defined sexual
identities trying to find ways to use the theory of gender and sexual domination to
develop political strategies for social change. Butler’s expanded theory after The Psychic
Life of Power cannot make plausible the contemporary development of categories like
transgender and bisexuality as identity categories that challenge the gender binary and
compulsory heterosexuality. Nor can she explain how the children of lesbian and gay
families, and their friends who have straight parents, exist as part of a new culture of sex,
sexuality and gender that help to undermine the weakening hegemony of binary gender
and compulsory heterosexuality. Butler cannot explain this since her psychoanalytic
emphasis can, at most, explain individual subversive gender performances but not a whole
pluralist counter-culture of social proliferations of gender and sexual identity categories.
I suggest we need instead a genealogical account of the construction and feminist
deconstruction of our contemporary Freudian discourse on gender and sexuality. As
Foucault, Faderman (1981), Weeks (1979), Hausman and other historians of sexuality
have pointed out, Freud’s theory of gender development and sexual orientation occurs as
part of the development of a more general discourse around sexuality that late 19th and
early 20th century sexologists developed for a bourgeois class that was increasingly self-
absorbed with its ideology of individualism, introspection and sexual health as a
mechanism for bio-power in the control of populations. Therapeutic and parental
practices assuming the categories of this discourse, defining childhood eroticism as
dangerous, hence the prohibition on masturbation, women’s sexuality as problematic,
masculine sexuality as assertive, feminine sexuality as passive, homosexuality as a type of
perversion, and hysteria as a type of sexual sickness of women, spread through all types
of popular discourse and thus framed the social construction of gender and sexuality in
much of Europe and the United States in the 20th century.
However, rival discourses on gender and sexuality, notably those of the American
symbolic interactionists (Money and Ehrhardt, 1972, Gagnon 1977, Gagnon and Simon
1973), supported by sexual ethnography by Kinsey (1948, 1953) positing a continuum
rather than a binary model of heterosexuality and homosexuality, have countered these
initial discourses. These counter-discourses, as well as feminist re-interpretations of
Freud based on object relations theory (Chodorow 1978), have allowed other therapeutic
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