By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
As a writer of science fiction, Samuel Delany slides from words to bodies. It’s an idea discussed at some length by gender theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. It is noteworthy that Delany changed the title of his novel about fluid gender identities from Triton to Trouble on Triton in 1996, six years after Butler’s book came out.
Sex and Gender
Judith Butler’s book was a ground breaker. In some ways, it was theorizing around what Samuel Delany had talked about almost 15 years earlier with Triton. What was new in Butler’s formulation of gender trouble was that, for a long time before Butler, feminists had made a distinction between sex and gender. Sex is the thing that’s biologically essential—one’s biological sex, male or female.
Gender, on the other hand, is socially constructed, how one performs their biological sex, masculine or feminine or something else. Butler’s argument in Gender Trouble was totally subversive, although it’s a lot easier to process a few decades later. She argued that not only is gender socially constructed. Sex is too.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Sex is Socially Constructed
How can sex by socially constructed? We have ultrasounds, chromosomal typing, and genitals that make it pretty clear whether someone is, biologically, male or female.
Not always, said Judith Butler. A certain fairly small percentage of the population is not born with clear identifiably sexed genitals and doctors often make a determination at birth, sometimes—in the past—without even telling the parents.
Another—again fairly small—percentage of the population, has chromosomal typing that does not fit the xx or xy chromosome patterns we associate with male and female. And sure, that’s a small percentage, but it’s still a lot of people among the seven plus billion of us. And those people can’t be ignored.
Learn more about how Le Guin uses sci-fi and utopia to explore LGBTQ issues.
Sex is a Continuum
And now, years later, with an increasing attention to transgendered and intersexed people, these issues are much more discussed in mainstream society. And Butler cares very deeply about individuals. But also, she’s a philosopher, so she cares very deeply about what they tell us, about what new science about sex and gender tells us. Sex is not a simple binary. It’s a continuum, with more possibilities than we initially thought.
And that brings us to grammar. A binary, male or female, that’s something easy to describe in language, and it also provides us with a clear syntax for gender identity. A female is feminine. A male is masculine. Now that’s an unproblematic grammatical construction. But what if a person’s gender identity does not match her or his sex? So then, it would require a more complex grammar, but we can work with it. A masculine female. A feminine male. So that’s workable too.
The Grammar of Gender
But, and one can see where this is going, if we start to question what those basic words, the words related to sex, it begins to get slippery. Now the grammar doesn’t necessarily hold. What’s the term for someone whose sex is neither male nor female? And how does that fit with gender identity?
Judith Butler suggests that gender is a performance. Not just the gender of people who don’t easily fit into categories we associate with sex or gender. All gender is a performance. And we should celebrate that.
Performing one’s gender—differently in different contexts—is a form of freedom, a way for an individual to really shape and understand and control her or his or, insert gender-neutral term here, identity. It is not just about gender identity, but personal identity as well since gender is wrapped up in all of it.
Butler’s work became one of the cornerstones of queer theory, of a gender politics that takes back the word queer, refusing to think of it as derogatory. That actually uses queer as a noun, an adjective, and even a verb. To queer—to problematize or question definitions.
Learn more about the feminist utopian movement.
Michel Foucault and Judith Butler
One may never know for sure if Delany renamed Triton in honor of Butler’s work on gender trouble, but if he did, that would make sense, because Trouble on Triton very much anticipates Butler’s work.
It also embodies Michel Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, with its problematic relationship to grammars. Because on Triton, Neptune’s largest moon—which is a lovely terraformed locale with a nice dome that controls gravity and temperature in Delany’s future—there is a lot of gender trouble, a lot of queering of gender identity.
Common Questions about Samuel Delany and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble
In her book Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler argued that not only is gender socially constructed. Sex is too.
A certain fairly small percentage of the population is not born with clear identifiably sexed genitals and doctors often make a determination at birth without even telling the parents. Also, a fairly small percentage of the population has chromosomal typing that does not fit the chromosome patterns we associate with male and female. This is how sex is socially constructed.
Judith Butler’s work became one of the cornerstones of queer theory, of a gender politics that takes back the word queer, refusing to think of it as derogatory. It actually uses queer as a noun, an adjective, and even a verb.