Gender Theory vs. Pragmatism: A Point of Diversion Between Judith Butler's Gender Performativity and the Psychosocial Limitations of Gender Construction

By Melissa Padron
2021, Vol. 13 No. 04 | pg. 1/1


The question of what it means to be a gendered individual has been left unanswered in light of its variants. The feminist movement proceeding the Industrial Revolution propelled philosophical and literary works, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, challenging the traditional perception of man and woman and concomitantly advancing the foundation for gender theory. Judith Butler’s Gender Performativity theory proved to be one of the most salient works of the rather unexplored realm of philosophy. This paper confronts Butler’s theory of gender as an individual act and analyzes its limitations outside the western world. In response, Sally Haslanger’s constructionist accounts of gender and principles of behavioral psychology are presented to illustrate the loopholes in Butler’s individualistic gender constitution, redirecting the focus towards a pragmatic comprehension. As the interest in gender metacognition continues to escalate, the psychosocial determinants and limitations are sine qua nons for the future of gender theory if it ought to provide a generalizable understanding of the gestalt of gender construction and attribution.

The philosophical inspection of identity awakened by the early works of Simone de Beauvoir has yet to provide an answer to the conflicts guarding the gendered experiences of human beings. Namely, Judith Butler’s salient proposal of gender construction following Beauvoir’s pièce de résistance The Second Sex has ignited the interest of contemporary academia while novel questions depart old answers. Butler argues gender is performative. She states, in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” that it is the socially constructed default of sex created through an individual’s social performance in accordance with society’s gender norms (Butler 520). Although the general consensus has awarded this theory with positive acclaim, it is worth noting that aspects of Butler’s gender performativity fail to analyze gender pragmatically. Analysis of human experience, in any of its realms, must account for a pragmatic focus, as it must be centered on the realistic improvement of the daily functioning of humans. Providing ambiguous answers to beings of certainty, are prerogatives of gender performativity that are too broad to provide anything concrete enough to redefine the social conception of gender in any absolute.

It is certain, nonetheless, that Butler’s claim of gender as performative possibly encompasses the individual expression of gender best conceived to date. However, even gender as an individual expression is a reflection of the collective conception of gender. For this reason, Butler’s individualistic theory of gender constitution raises questions regarding its pragmatic application to the individual within the social world in which he/she functions. Is gender ever truly the act of an individual? Is gender construction and expansion a luxury, first-world phenomenon? In light of these questions, Butler leaves much room for her gender theory to survive in practice as gender is arguably not an individual act.

The Individual vs. The Environment

The importance of the individual claims of a person’s identity do not offer the pragmatic focus with which gender should be treated. Butler presents gender as being consolidated through repetitive “corporeal acts” or behaviors, that are typically associated with women or men. This view states gender as performed and established through a “stylized repetition of acts” which are molded by the prototypes of what is culturally expected and indoctrinated of a biological female or male (Butler 519). Gender is thus, not only performative but also transformative because it is performed:

Because there is neither an 'essence' that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis. (Butler 522)

Having stated that gender is socially constructed, she expounds this notion as being parallel to a theater act: if the audience believes the performance of the actor, the actor will continue to perform the same act (Butler 521). The performance of gender is initially pre-reflective and reactive, but can be transformed through reflective and contemplated behavior modifications by the gendered individual. Through reflective acts, Butler alludes to the idea that gender has the capacity to be individually controlled, as an identity with the ability to transform and consequently change the response elicited by the environment in which it is performed. Reasonably, the experienced gender of a person is to largely impact his/her human functioning, making the individual account of gender identification a necessary fragment of gender constitution. However, the environment in which an individual expresses a gender implicates social factors imperative to understand gender identification. While Butler’s gender theory behaviorally acknowledges the role of social reinforcement in the theater act analogy, it neglects the substantial impact of social determinants in gender identification, even following reflective behaviors.

To illustrate this loophole, I provide Sally Haslanger’s account of the gendered body. Her constructionist standpoint in “(What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?” asserts that gender is real and socially constructed (Haslanger 51). She aims to construct a social model that defines how society dictates the social placement of individuals into genders with the purpose of subordination or privilege (Haslanger 39). This gender theory challenges the idea of Butler’s individual identity as being primary to gender identification, specifically in relation to social perception by accentuating the minimal effect of individual identity in social categorizing. Haslanger’s interest is not in comprehending the individual association of a person with a gender, but rather the social categorization that occurs to that person out of their individual control. This theory of gender as a socially determined aspect of someone’s identity highlights the pragmatism lacking in Butler’s theory. It provides the practical conceptualization of gender in a social environment where the individual identity of a being, be it pre-reflective or reflective, will not impede his/her outwardly imposed categorization into genders as perceived in society. Therefore, it is scarce to say that gender is performative and transformative through reflective acts, even while this might be accurate because it neglects the unavoidable, social gendering experienced by every individual. In this sense, individual identity of gender is pragmatically negligible.

Gender identity is not an individual act—even following reflective choices. Butler’s theory appraises the idea that gendered behavior becomes the habitual act of an individual. If society believes the act, the act will continue. This reflects social reinforcement, the quintessential principle of behaviorist psychology, as stated by behaviorism philosopher, John C. Jay Moore (Moore 47). The transformative attribute of Butler’s gender theory directly relates her concept of pre-reflective and reflective choices to behaviorism, confronting the pragmatic transformative value of reflective acts. Although pre-reflective choices are more common, the transformation of the gender presentation in an individual is contingent with the conscious awareness of their gendered behavior and reflective modification of behavior choices. However, human behavior is strongly influenced by that which society accepts or rejects. According to psychologists Nathan C. DeWall and Brad J. Bushman, “Social acceptance is pleasant [and] rewarding...” while “social rejection is experienced as ‘bitter’... to motivate individuals to avoid a negative state in which they do not receive the benefits of inclusion” (DeWall and Bushman 257). From a behaviorist scope, the reflective choices made by an individual to transform his/her gender presentation are unable to detach from the social response they elicit, and cannot thus, be truly individual acts as per. That is to say, that the individual will return to the initial gendered behavior that aligned with accepted pre-reflective choices if this leads to an avoidance of social rejection and cognitive dissonance—psychological discomfort.

It is worth noting, that this would not constitute a pathologization of normal behavior, as has been argued to refute psychological arguments by some, it is simply an understanding of human nature. By the same token, the performative facet of gender is confronted by its pragmatic application, further reasoning with the idea that gender identity is never truly an individual act. The claim of gender as a performative act places limitations in gender identity that might find conflict within its own philosophy. It is not sufficient to view gender as performative if the individual does not “pass” as the performed gender, meaning if they are not socially perceived and conceptualized as that gender. Dennis Schep in “The Limits of Performativity: A Critique of Hegemony in Gender Theory,” illustrates one flaw of Butler’s gender theory as it attempt “to account for all gender dynamics, eagerly foreclosing the possibility of an outside to which it cannot be applied” (Schep 873). That is not to delegitimize the gender experienced by the individual. The challenge to the theory is not of an individual’s identity as a being but rather the social conception of them, which will directly impact the social response towards the individual. Consequently, the pragmatic application of a person’s individual gender identity primarily defined by social conception, instead of individual action, is inescapable.

Freedom vs Freedom

Gender performativity is limited to a first-world phenomenon. Part of the manual of Western ideologies is the freedom to do things simply because they can, because choices are available. A freedom that is an undeniable right which those who don’t have envy and those who never lacked, guard. Said freedom has resulted in a society guided by individualistic ideals, to think for and as an individual first. It is logical then, for gender to be an inquiry approached from a similar individualistic perspective tailored to the culture that birthed it. Yet, Butler’s theory of gender as performative and transformative appears to be limited to Western cultures. Not due to an inability of academia from different cultures to interact, but rather because of the primary preoccupation for fulfillment of basic human needs. Patrick A. Gambrel and Rebecca Cianci refer to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain the levels of well-being that must be sufficed for abstract and systematic thinking to be possible (Gambrel and Cianci 145).

The model ranks physiology, safety, sense of belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization as the steps needed to satiate, respectively, in order to progress to the following (Gambrel and Cianci 145-146). In the context of social freedom, this would mean that once a social group is assured of safety, available food, housing, hygiene, and economic sustainability other social concerns, regardless of individualism or collectivism, are raised for discussion towards improvement. Gender performativity assumes that the thought of gender as more than simply “something that is,” is a viable option to ponder on accessible to every individual, however, Verena Stolcke argues for the theory’s lack of cultural implications in “The Woman Is Pure Story: The Culture Of Gender:”

Butler does not lend any attention to the socio-political circumstances that favor or prevent people and/or social groups that challenge the heterosexual norm. Surely there is only one small privileged minority on the planet that enjoys full freedom to realize their sexual desires. In the work of Butler is again pending, in addition, the doubt about what consequences does it have then in the game of identities, sex and sexuality, in which people have sexed bodies of two different types. (Stockle 100)

Stockle sheds light on the implications that make an individual-centered gender theory, such as gender performativity, inaccessible to cultures where concerns roam far from those of developing or even questioning an identity that defies gender norms. Furthermore, the deficit in universality of individual-based theories, due to the high variability of being an individual in itself, reaffirms pragmatism as a necessary component to be implemented in gender theory.

Butler’s gender performativity theory posed a novel interpretation to propel contemporary beliefs of gender construction. A commended vision, nonetheless, its flaws propose that the questions regarding gender development, maintenance, and reform are a sea too wide to say anything but that its existence is known. The individualistic approach and cultural questions I established guide the conversation of gender in regards to Butler’s theory to a much needed pragmatic focus. Understanding gender construction through a pragmatic lens in conjunction with the role of social behavior and expected behavior might perhaps enlighten the necessary question to arrive at a more generalizable gender theory.


Butler, Judith. "Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory." Theatre journal, vol. 40.4, 1988, pp. 519-531.

DeWall, C. Nathan, and Brad J. Bushman. "Social acceptance and rejection: The sweet and the bitter." Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 20.4, 2011, pp. 256-260.

Gambrel, Patrick A. and R. Cianci. “Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Does It Apply in A Collectivist Culture.” The journal of applied management and entrepreneurship, vol. 8, 2003, pp. 143.

Haslanger, Sally. "Gender and race:(What) are they? (What) do we want them to be?." Noûs, vol, 34.1, 2000, pp. 31-55.

Moore, Jay. "The basic principles of behaviorism." The philosophical legacy of behaviorismSpringer, Dordrecht, 1999, pp. 41-68.

Schep, Dennis. “The Limits of Performativity: A Critique of Hegemony in Gender Theory.” Hypatia, vol. 27, no. 4, 2012, pp. 864–880.,

Stolke, Verena. “La Mujer Es Puro Cuento: La Cultura Del Género / The Woman Is Pure Story: The Culture Of Gender.” Estudios Feministas, vol. 12, no.2, 2004, pp. 77–105. JSTOR,

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