Image by Maki Yamaguchi

Gender, Troubled | Judith Butler’s Culture War Misfire

Brock Colyar

In 2017, a group of right-wing activists gathered in São Paulo, Brazil, carrying a life-sized dummy with Judith Butler’s face on it. Butler identifies as nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns, and is usually photographed wearing a well-tailored blazer, but the protestors dressed the puppet in blue jeans, a witch’s hat, and a black t-shirt over which they had attached a lacy, pink brassiere. Eventually, the mob set fire to its creation, burning Butler in effigy. Some carried posters bearing slogans like “–Butler +Familia” or depicting the scholar with devil horns. “Burn the witch!” they screamed.

Butler was in Brazil with their partner, the political scientist Wendy Brown, to participate in a colloquium on “The Ends of Democracy.” But the protestors, organized by several hard-right religious groups, had gathered outside the conference because of the topic Butler is most famous for writing on: simply put, that slippery, unwieldy thing we call gender. It’s hard to imagine many other American academics, especially ones known mostly for incredibly dense books they wrote three decades ago, fomenting such animosity abroad. But to the Brazilian protesters, Butler represented a danger to “the natural order of gender, sexuality and the family,” according to a petition circulated and signed by 370,000 people. At the airport before their flight leaving Brazil, Butler and Brown were accosted by another protester who attacked them with a metal suitcase trolley, while others yelled “pedophile!” 

It was after those close encounters that Butler began work on a new book called Who’s Afraid of Gender?, out this spring.“In reflecting on who those raging people were who accused us of a chaotic and lurid cluster of sexual crimes, I decided to write about the anti-gender ideology movement,” they explain in the acknowledgements the “anti-gender ideology movement” being Butler’s clunky phrase of choice (try saying it three times fast) for those around the world who seek “to nullify reproductive justice, undermine protections against sexual and gender violence, and strip trans and queer people of their rights to pursue a life without fear of violence.” In Butler’s thinking, the word “gender” itself has become a “catchall phantasm” (a psychoanalytic term that Butler employs 133 times), mobilizing a number of “anxieties, fears, and hatreds” for those who wish to return us to some mythical “patriarchal dream-order.” 

“To refuse gender,” Butler writes in the introduction, is to refuse “to let one’s thinking be transformed by the complexity that one finds in contemporary life across the world.” It is a tame beginning to a carefully researched — and uninspiringly careful — book. If you begin Who’s Afraid of Gender? hoping the gender-neutral mother of queer theory has written a rousing polemic that rescues gender and sexuality from the culture wars, or even an instruction manual for how to combat the “gender ideology” naysayers, you might be disappointed. Despite being born of what I assume was a pretty terrifying experience, Who’s Afraid of Gender? is unexpectedly tepid, and — for a subject that is obviously quite personal for Butler, their fans, their foes, and really all of us — written at a strange remove from the ways both the left and the right think and talk about gender and queerness on an everyday basis, online and off. 

What Butler seems to get angriest about in the book is what they see as a trend on “anti-intellectualism” on the right. “As an educator, I am inclined to say, ‘Let’s read some key texts in gender studies together and see what gender does and does not mean,’” they write. (Later, they explain that TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, “would do well to understand the vicissitudes of materialism.”) Butler repeatedly underscores the importance of debate and the danger of shutting down gender studies departments, a concern that seems, for them, on par with the stripping of trans health care rights, the pathologization of queer people, and discriminatory legislation. “Indeed, some who oppose ‘gender’ do not read books in gender or feminist studies, queer or trans studies, queer of color critique, Black feminism, or any version of race theory,” Butler tells us in the introduction — surprising, I’d imagine, almost no one. 

In 2017, when asked about their experience in Brazil by Inside Higher Ed, Butler snarked, “There does not seem to be any evidence that those who mobilized on this occasion had any familiarity with my text Gender Trouble,” let alone Butler’s work since that 1990 blockbuster — dozens of books and numerous articles on everything from hate speech to post-9/11 grief to, more recently, the power of nonviolence, public assembly in the age of Black Lives Matter, and “the essential interrelationship of living creatures” during the Covid-19 pandemic. The educate yourself! posture can border on schoolmarmish, and even Butler recognizes its limitations. “We might be tempted to conclude that the task is to make our enemies smarter, to ask them to read and discuss, but that misses the point,” they concede. “As opponents of gender and critical race theory, these groups also oppose universities not for the ostensible dogma they teach, but for the open mind they risk producing.”

Within the academy, the intellectual war has already been won, and Butler is one of its most decorated veterans. But as the right continues to mount its assault on gender, it’s a political battle that comes next. Butler is never one to stay locked in the ivory tower — they have spent their career wading publicly into hot-button political problems and have set up this book to strike at the heart of some of today’s most divisive issues. And yet Who’s Afraid of Gender? ultimately does little to either advance our understanding of what we’re up against or give us the tools to combat it. The book is emblematic of the impasse we have reached in much of our national discourse around gender: the left is unable to fight real-world threats with more theory and new lingo. Those things alone won’t defeat the forces of reaction, but they can, sometimes, win people over. The existing language, in Butler’s work and beyond, isn’t succeeding.


Who’s Afraid of Gender? — Butler’s “first book with a trade publisher,” per FSG’s marketing materials — comes three decades after Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which altered the course of feminist, queer, and trans theory. Despite the fact that Gender Trouble was a bit of a theoretical slog, the ideas it introduced eventually made their way into the mainstream. In the process, Butler became a “pop celebrity,” as the journalist Molly Fischer put it in a 2016 profile for New York magazine — in which Fischer also declared that Butler had “spawned a gender-queer nation.” Butler’s status as a celebrated figure far transcends the gender studies classroom: RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sasha Velour once considered impersonating them on the reality show’s famous Snatch Game. (Ultimately, she decided to play Marlene Dietrich instead.) If Butler is often misunderstood and villainized by the right, they have been misunderstood and lionized by the left. As Masha Gessen wrote in the introduction to a 2020 New Yorker interview (before Butler began using “they” pronouns), “Many more people know her name than have read her work — and most of them have an opinion about Butler and her ideas.” I often joke that Gender Trouble is a book that young queers keep prominently displayed on their bookshelves, even though in throwing around words and phrases Butler made famous, they are more often than not simplifying them into misinterpretation. In my queer theory class in college, no one would admit they didn’t understand our assigned Butler reading until the professor finally passed around a comic called “Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Performativity’ Explained with Cats.”

Butler uses the concept of “performativity” to explain gender not as something essential to our beings, but rather as a construction performed over and over again, until it is assumed to be natural. As Butler once put it, “To say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.” This was a radical proposition in 1990, when mainstream feminists often relied on the implicit assumption that there were specific features essential to each gender. Gender Trouble sought to complicate that unspoken premise; in a preface to the book’s 1999 edition, Butler wrote, “I opposed those regimes of truth that stipulated that certain kinds of gendered expressions were found to be false or derivative, and others, true and original.” Instead, they aimed to open up the field.

That Butler has been so widely misconstrued is at least partly a function of the fact that reading them is an infamously trying experience. In 1998, they were awarded the first prize in an annual “Bad Writing Contest” in the journal Philosophy and Literature. The philosopher Nancy Fraser has called the complexity of Butler’s style “deeply antihumanist,” because it is “removed from our everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves” and “projects an aura of esotericism.” Butler once responded to this kind of criticism by arguing that since “gender itself is naturalized through grammatical norms,” it follows that “the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.” 

One wonders just how effective such an approach actually is. Developing new formulations to describe gender and sexual identity — and then fighting about those new terms — has been central to the queer project for years. Even the reappropriation of the word “queer” (from a slur to a sterilized umbrella term) is still divisive, rankling the likes of David Sedaris, who once complained: “Like the term ‘Latinx,’ ‘queer’ was started by some humanities professor, and slowly gathered steam. Then well-meaning radio producers and magazine editors thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s what they want to be called now!’” Which maybe makes the process sound more passive than it’s actually been. Queer people have fought for the inclusion of new identity labels (like “nonbinary”) and their accompanying pronouns (like “they/them”) in the mainstream — which the right often seizes on as objects for mockery. Conservative news outlets widely reported on the existence of an eighteen-page guide to “LGBTQ Family + Gender Diversity” for elementary school teachers in San Francisco, which outlines “inclusive language,” such as “caregiver,” “guardian,” and “grown-up” instead of “mom” and “dad.” Last year, a North Dakota Republican state representative likened allowing students to choose their pronouns to letting them commit murder at school.

In some ways, Who’s Afraid of Gender? is Butler’s equivalent of Susan Faludi’s Backlash — a canonical 1991 critique of the media’s role in bringing the feminist movement to its nadir in the 1980s. Who’s Afraid of Gender? explains why and how the “anti-gender ideology movement” represents a backlash of its own, and has gained ground not only in the United States but around the world. Among the movement’s ranks are unabashed culture warriors like J.K. Rowling and her TERF following; religious movements such as the evangelical right in the U.S. and the Pentecostal church in Africa; and nationalist dictators and wannabe autocrats like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Viktor Orbán, who has lumped the proponents of “gender ideology” with other right-wing punching bags like Barack Obama, George Soros, and immigrants. Butler reserves a particular disdain for the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, who has likened “gender theory” to nuclear weapons and the Hitler Youth. (Butler’s not-so-subtle thesis is that all of these are fueled, to use a word that they admit is “bandied about too easily” these days, by “fascism.”)

“It is not possible to fully reconstruct the arguments used by the anti-gender ideology movement because they do not hold themselves to standards of consistency or coherence,” Butler writes. “The task is not simply to expose their ruse through more finely honed analytical skills,” they add. “The task is to help produce a world in which we can move and breathe and love without fear of violence.” Yet Butler devotes a considerable amount of energy to the former, taking pains to identify the inconsistencies in anti-gender propaganda: “Depending on the anxieties circulating in a particular region, gender can be figured as Marxist or capitalist, tyranny or libertarianism, fascism or totalitarianism, a colonizing force or an unwanted migrant.” One example Butler summons of such hypocrisy: the Catholic Church has blamed lesbians and gays for child abuse, despite the fact that the church itself has perpetuated it. The delicate parsing of these typically bad-faith conservative arguments can come across as tedious, or simply naive. “In France alone over the last seventy years, approximately 330,000 minors suffered sexual abuse by priests,” Butler writes. “Why does this appear nowhere in the allegation that gender ideology leads to pedophilia?” In these moments, it can feel like Butler is trying too hard to speak above the noise directly to their critics, rather than to the people one assumes will purchase this book and are already sympathetic to their politics.

Butler’s ballsiest intervention comes in the form of a suggestion that TERF Queen Rowling has a problem with trans women, and particularly their use of women’s restrooms, because of her prior experience with domestic abuse. “The associations that any of us live with as a result of traumatic violence make it difficult to navigate the world,” Butler writes. “If having been traumatized allows one to see the scene of trauma everywhere, then part of reparation is being able to localize what happened, and to relieve the mind of uncontrollable associations that, left unchecked, would vilify everyone who prompts an association with the traumatic material.” There is some satisfaction in reading Butler playing armchair analyst to the Harry Potter author, but this kind of diagnosis doesn’t offer much insight into TERF ideology more broadly. 

When it comes to one of the most significant material threats faced by transgender people in the United States — the push to curtail gender-affirming health care — Butler merely offers bland and evasive musings. “Of course, there are serious discussions to be had about what kind of health care is wise for young people, and at what age. But to have that debate, we have to be within the sphere of legality.” Despite their earlier acknowledgment of the strategic limitations of debate, Butler can’t seem to help falling back on it again and again. “We need to keep those debates open,” they write, even though right-wing legislators have long since blown past reasoned discussion.

Prime real estate in the book, and much of Butler’s indignation, is reserved instead for the war in Ukraine and police violence and economic precarity and neoliberalism and, and, and… well, pretty much every other leftist concern. Again and again, Butler avoids taking hard stances on the specifics, and instead broadens out into a parodic level of existential worrying. “We live this way now, assuming that living this way is the way to live, and once that repeated practice becomes a way of life, at some point it looks like the way things simply are, or ought to be,” they write in the conclusion. “Climate destruction is the most terrifying example.” The most terrifying? It just may be, but it’s a strange claim to make in a book with “gender” in the title.


It was a mostly pleasant Saturday afternoon early last April when, while making my way through Williamsburg, and in the process getting frazzled by all the baby strollers, dog leashes, and various well-to-do heteros, I came across a demonstration not so unlike the one that greeted Butler in Brazil.

There, in a park by the river named after the gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson, was a gaggle of pissed-off protestors holding shoddy cardboard posters that read “Stop Encouraging Child Gender Dysphoria” and “DRAG QUEEN STORY HOUR IS THE SYRINGE. QUEER THEORY IS THE POISON IN IT.” It was unclear why, exactly, they had shown up — from what I could tell, there were no queens in sight. Perhaps naively, I was surprised to encounter them in Brooklyn, where everyone seems to suddenly be identifying as bisexual, polyamorous, nonbinary, or all of the above. Even some of the straight-passing normies I know are fucking with gender these days, or at the very least painting their nails like Harry Styles does, or trying on new pronouns for size like Demi Lovato is. Meanwhile, my queerest friends and I seem to be constantly wrapped up in (mostly unproductive, not to mention privileged) debates about who’s really queer and who’s a queerbaiter. In a relatively short amount of time, the definition of gender, and thus queerness, seems to be wider and weirder than it’s ever been. It’s tempting to see the arc of recent queer history as progress and progress alone.

Stumbling across the protest, though, I couldn’t help but think, like Butler, that despite and probably because of recent steps forward, that trajectory is now in doubt. If my life were a dystopian, Trump-era TV miniseries, this moment would return to me in a flashback, an omen that everything was about to get even worse. In some ways, it already had. Just a few months earlier, two women were arrested after attempting to break into a gay New York City councilman’s apartment building, but not before scrawling “OK GROOMER” and “CHILD PREDATOR” in chalk on the sidewalk outside. Elsewhere in 2023, over five hundred anti-LBGTQ+ bills (an annual record) were introduced in state legislatures, many of them restricting gender-affirming health care for young people a right that former and possibly soon-to-be President Donald Trump has referred to as “child genital mutilation.” Maybe the clearest evidence that things were getting almost comically out of hand came when Tennessee banned drag and Bud Light lost its place as America’s number-one-selling beer for partnering with a trans influencer named Dylan Mulvaney, who was then lambasted by everyone from Joe Rogan to Ron DeSantis just for being trans on TikTok.

As if to prove the point, when I logged onto YouTube to watch an old lecture by Butler in preparation for writing this essay, I was served up a trailer for the new documentary Gender Transformation, which, despite its name, positions itself as a cautionary tale about the “dangers” of letting your kid transition. As the voice-over went, “This is all coming from the top — from major corporations, governments, politicians.” This meant, I assume, the pro-gender agenda: drag shows and trans TikTokers and Judith Butler.

Gender inspires all kinds of strong, unexplainable, and sticky feelings for everyone across its “spectrum” (as we call it these days), because it has to do with the most personal of topics: our sex lives, our love lives, our children, the most private parts of our physical bodies. Which is partially why I walked away from Who’s Afraid of Gender? — a text that is, to be completely honest, not unlike most works by Butler — feeling perhaps more disappointed by them than I did when I was a college student coming out, and justifying my new identities by reading Butler and all kinds of highfalutin gender theory. By now, Butler and I use the same pronouns, but I’ve also learned that gender does not always have to be as sterile and linguistically precise as it seems in their pages. The scholar’s continued resistance to talking about gender and queerness in plain speak makes it difficult to find any sort of call to action.

Butler’s obtuseness fits into a larger strategic problem in modern queer politics. We may be skilled at coming up with new pronouns and labels to describe our lives and the way we want to live them, but we are too often taken aback when language alone is inadequate to ensure our safety and autonomy. Butler tries to speak across the divide that separates us from the rest of straight-cis society, but without making any concessions to mutual intelligibility. Even they seem to have doubts about the efficacy of this approach. “Perhaps arguments do not have the power to address the fear of destruction that motivates the anti-gender ideology movement,” they wonder almost offhandedly in the conclusion. Inspiring!

“It is up to us to produce a compelling counter-vision,” Butler writes, before issuing a boilerplate call for collective action by the oppressed: “The only way forward is for all those targeted to gather themselves more effectively than their enemies have, to recognize their alliance, and to fight the phantasms prepared for them with a powerful and regenerative imaginary.” It’s all a bit of a provincial argument to make. The kind of doe-eyed, hand-holding pipe dream you might expect from a less provocative thinker. “It won’t do to scatter into our own identitarian corners clutching one agenda at the expense of others,” they continue. But it won’t do, either, to focus so much on formulating the most theoretically rigorous possible vision of what is to be done that we lose sight of the task of actually doing it.

Brock Colyar is a features writer at New York magazine and a recipient of the 2023 ASME Next Award for Journalists Under 30. They live in Brooklyn.