Sunday, March 26, 2017

Genres of Embodiment: On Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

"She likes her boys to be girls"

Judith Butler

The problem of passing is the target against which Stone’s essay intends to strike back against because of its work of erasing transgender history, stories, and lives. In order to combat the gravitational force passing exerts to bring the creative composition back into the binary framework Stone turns to the body. For Derrida, the body is an event (or iteration) that remains opens to new encounters and creative possibilities. For Butler, the body is an object of desire that arises out of the admixture of the culturally intelligible ground and the figure it embodies. The turn to Butler in “the Posttranssexual Manifesto” functions as a logical expansion of the creativity of genre (i.e. if there are more than two genres, how do these genres manifest in gender communities?) but also to bring discourse of gender back to consider how trans embodiment is desirable in and of itself.

“As one lesbian femme explained,” writes Butler, “she likes her boys to be girls, meaning that ‘being a girl’ contextualizes and resignifies ‘masculinity’ in a butch identity. As a result, that masculinity, if that it can be called, is always brought into relief against a culturally intelligible ‘female body.’”[1] Butler stresses in the follow-up to Gender Trouble, for all the discourse of gender and genre it’s Bodies That Matter.[2] “Matter” or “mattering” for Butler is also a verb. We might also use the word embody. Bodies matter by embodying certain genres, even those supposed to belong to other bodies. So specific is butch womanhood, femme lesbians may specifically desire it over butch manhood or any other form of gender. The genre of embodiment matters insofar as it is valued and insofar as it participates in masculinity without belonging to it. For those who only recognize male and female as “culturally intelligible” a woman may be a woman, but for those in the know, butch and femme are distinct genres of embodiment.

As trans genres of embodying enter discourse they deconstruct assumptions of forms, methods, and orientations while also offer distinct objects that may be pursued for their own sake. A founder of discourse in trans studies, Stone cites Butler’s work on butches and femmes as useful and comparable genres to emergent trans identities, “Butler introduces the concept of cultural intelligibility, and suggests that the contextualized and resignified ‘masculinity’ of the butch, seen against a culturally intelligible ‘female’ body, invokes a dissonance that both generates a sexual tension and constitutes the object of desire.”[3] In other words, transgender does more than just disturb others’ sense of gender and sexuality; transgender embodies something, does something, and builds something that matters in its own right. A critical trans approach is not just trying to deconstruct gender and genre as an exercise in language but in order to make room for new genres of embodiment to become culturally intelligible and be recognized as mattering.

Where do the divisions of genders and new fields stop? Butler calls such questions an ontological crisis that occurs in society at large as well as in academy when the terms “transgenderism and transsexuality” are introduced, distinctions of gender she considers an acute enough division as “lesbian and gay” or “butch and femme.” The former draws stronger associations to psychiatric diagnosis and the latter with surgical operations. Both embody gender in different ways different from one another but also distinctly trans. How is it useful to say they are both trans genres of embodiment? Take the example of a Goth girl and boy in high school may be able to share more music, clothing, and make-up than the Goth girl and her cheerleader classmate. Choice of association is key but a teacher observing her students might be able to deduce the same by what Stone and Butler call “culturally intelligible” embodiments.


So why is it necessary to make trans genres of embodiment culturally legible? So different members can share clothing tips! So a person and community can be useful to another. Transgender is an umbrella where people and fields can work together but also an archive and a critical methodology with insights to share. “What about the notion, suggested by Kate Bornstein,” asks Butler, “that a transsexual… must be approached through active verbs that attest to the constant transformation which ‘is’ the new identity or, indeed, the ‘in-betweenness’ that puts the being of gendered identity into question?”[4] As Prosser tactically jokes, “transitioning is what transsexuals do.” Trans persons can offer advice and technologies to other trans persons going through transitions, even if their transitions are different. In the details, all transitions are necessarily different. Even across time, transsexuality studies have insights to offer the study of medieval eunuchs.

Trans genres of embodiment may offer a way of making sense of bodies that are not currently culturally intelligible. A critical trans method of reading gender looks for “the same in the other,” features that connects and articulates trans modes of embodiment where others only seem confusion or contradiction. This is one reason Butler address transgender in her examination of Gender Trouble, “a certain crisis in ontology… has become more acute as we consider various new forms of gendering that have emerged in light of transgenderism and transsexuality.”[5] A difficulty arises insofar as the same in the other may exist between trans persons, medieval and modern, but not necessarily between cisgender persons and either era of transgender. In short, in order for medieval figures to be culturally intelligible as trans, medieval scholars may need to become familiar with various new forms of transgender described in contemporary trans studies and literatures.

Entrance into transgender studies demands a certain familiarity and competence with disturbances. Whereas the compulsion to pass orders transgender histories to erase moments that break from the norm and reorient back to cis binaries of male and female, critical trans studies to affirm new networks of what bodies and what body parts matter, what Butler calls, “the sexed body as ‘ground’” as well as the technologies with which those bodies compose themselves into culturally intelligible genres, “the butch or femme identity as ‘figure’ [that] can shift, invert, and create erotic havoc of various sorts.”[6] Trans-ing embodiment means looking at the dysphoria and diagnosis of transgender, the scars and scalpels of transsexuality, the clothing changes of transvestism, as well as the chromosomes and “secondary” characteristics of intersex to discover and claim the narratives, tropes, and tools as primary in producing particular genres of embodiment.

Trans studies is more than a definition of a diagnosis or a queer disturbance in the gender binary, as transgender has functioned for decades as a big tent. A key part of Stone’s manifesto is that there is no one easy definition of transgender. This is the reason Stone offers genres a model of thinking about trans genders as well as why she points to Butler’s work on butch and femmes when she writes on “the proliferation of specifically gay discourses of sexual difference, as in the case of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ as historical identities of sexual style,” also citing, “queens, butches, femmes, girls, even the parodic reappropriation of dyke, queer, and fag.”[7] The work of transgender demands more than a single monolithic definition. Once one gets into the study of transgender one discovers a vast network of interconnecting histories and embodiments. Far from deconstructing gender into oblivion, genres of embodiment demand a broad field of complexity.


The work of genres of embodiment is to allow the silenced body to speak of all the arts, the histories, materials, relationships and transitions that go into composing it. Opening the stitches and scar tissue of eunuchs and transsexuals to let them speak, navigating the conflicts of dysphoria in order to give voice to silenced calls for reform, all of this this can be painful and difficult. “I could not ask a transsexual for anything more inconceivable than to forgo passing, to be consciously ‘read,’ to read oneself aloud—and by this troubling and productive reading, to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written ”[8] Culturally intelligible trans bodies and genres, histories and literatures emerge out of plausible histories, often breaking the systems which have allowed for us to personally and collectively belong for so long.

To make plausible histories, trans-ness is explained away, elided as exceptional, or erased. Defining passing, Stone articulates it as a form of ahistorical belonging, “to be accepted as a ‘natural’ member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role, or the construction of a plausible history.”[9] These plausible histories are not only personal but collective. A plausible history of the middle ages is one where a cis man can uncritically consider a medieval knight as a natural ancestor or himself a natural heir to his manhood. Such a history does not allow for shifts in genres of manhood that occur in intervening centuries and the figures whose lives’ testify to the transition and diversity of genres.

Conversely, a trans person who denies a cultural ancestry with eunuchs and hermaphrodites likewise creates a plausible history where forms and eras do not mix. In order to “belong” to a binary society and field, the specifics of history are smoothed over to be considered “plausible” and the narratives forced into standard forms to be “culturally intelligible.” Of such histories, Stone writes, “[t]ranssexuals who pass seem able to ignore the fact that by creating totalized, monistic identities, forgoing physical and subjective intertextuality, they have foreclosed the possibility of authentic relationships,” and consequently, “transsexuals know that silence can be an extremely high price to pay for acceptance.”[10] The price of a gender that cuts across all time or a temporally exclusive one—existing only within one period—is the denial of relations to other persons or possible ways of life. In the end, both histories of passing are ahistorical as they do not account for change or diversity as a natural result of the evolution of gender over time.

A close reading of bodies across history suggest that cisgender binaries may have never existed and certainly do not exist now. Seen from within genres of embodiment, the problem is not that bodies are truly silent but have been silenced because we do not yet know how to make them culturally intelligible, so we pass over their stories and histories. As Arthur K. Frank observes of the Wounded Storyteller, “[t]he body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech but begets it… Hearing the body in the speech it begets is never an easy task.”[11] We can get lost in all the genres of speech they beget as they are born, wounded, and transition. The challenge of listening is that we cannot know the meaning of bodies in advance. New forms, narratives, and languages may be needed to hear what is said. To trans embodiment may begin as simply as listening to bodies. The task may be hard but once we begin to listen we find that bodies are too full of speech. By listening with trans lives, not only do their forms take shape but the tools and stories, the genres of embodiment that they turn to in order to compose themselves.

[1] Butler 156.

[2] Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: The Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

[3] Stone 230.

[4] Butler xi-xii.

[5] Butler xi-xii.

[6] Butler 157.

[7] Butler 41, 156.

[8] Stone 232.

[9] Stone 231.

[10] Stone 232.

[11] Arthur K. Frank. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. 27.


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