Image description: Image of Judith Butler in 2018

Feminist titans in conversation: Judith Butler and Amia Srinivasan

On the 18th of March, significant queues formed outside Oxford Town Hall: it was none other than the Judith Butler, in conversation with Amia Srinivasan. Amidst a flurry of excitement, pre-signed hardback copies of Butler’s new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, were flying off tables. After much bubbling anticipation, the hall filled with thunderous applause as the speakers took to the stage.

The event started with an eloquent introduction by Amia Srinivasan, a feminist titan in her own right whose book The Right to Sex won Blackwell’s Book of the Year in 2021. Srinivasan noted that Butler’s seminal texts, including Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), have fundamentally altered the fields of gender theory, trans theory, hate speech, vulnerability, war, and violence.

Srinivasan argued that it would be difficult to imagine the contemporary state of such vital conversations were it not for Butler’s intervention. She also commended Butler’s grounded discussions of politics despite their training as a philosopher, including their commentary on the ravages of capitalism and the rights of Palestinians to self-defence.

Srinivasan then moved on to a concise summary of Who’s Afraid of Gender?. The book rebuts the naturalness of the sex binary, as well as the ‘catch-all phantasm’ of gender ideology. It argues that anxieties of racial impurity, the erasure of the family, and the fall of global capitalism are all conflated with the fear of gender.

Such a ‘phantasm’ has been peddled by reactionary leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro, who pledge to restore the patriarchal order, where ‘a father is a father’, where women resume natural positions in their household, and where white individuals reign supreme in the racial hierarchy. The central question the book asks is: why are so many anxieties concentrated on gender? Butler theorises that it is a cultural war, designed to distract us from the rising tide of global fascism.

To witness both Butler and Srinivasan in the same room, having a dialogue, was an even more seismic event.

To begin the dialogue, Butler was first asked about the notion of ‘gender ideology’ and their choice to weave in disparate phenomena under a single heading. In response, Butler traced the history of how the term was coined by the Vatican in the 1990s, an ironic appropriation of the Marxist concept of ‘ideology’. Fearing that ‘gender ideology’ threatened the Biblical understanding of man and woman as God-given, distinct, and hierarchically arranged, the Church argued that young people were being indoctrinated into believing that one could do whatever they wanted with gender. This gave birth to the anti-gender movement, which fought against everything, from the decriminalisation of sodomy to sex education for children.

Butler also stressed the importance of analysing the psychoanalytic dynamics in such campaigns against gender, which rely on the construction of gender as a phantasm. ‘Gender ideologists’ are portrayed as seeking to seduce or indoctrinate the youth, simultaneously representing a new totalitarianism and a new liberalism, embracing hyper-capitalist but also Marxist ideas, striving to destroy family, man, and civilisation itself. Butler proposed that such demonisation allows the right to morally justify their actions in restoring natural order.

This remark was echoed by Srinivasan, who too argued for the return of a psychoanalytic frame into mainstream political discourse, noting its ability to help analyse global phenomena such as the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Srinivasan then asked Butler about trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), which she observed wryly were the primary cultural export of the United Kingdom. She analysed how TERFs position themselves as feminists and defenders of cis women, especially gay women, against male violence. Noting the book argues that the class to indict is not men, and hence not trans women, she asked if Butler would take this further and propose that even cis men should not be indicted.

Butler responded that all essentialist notions of men as inherently violent and sexual are wrong, but they form the basis of TERFs’ fear of violation and replacement: the worry that trans women are a disguise for men to enter and occupy spaces. Butler argues that we need to take such fears seriously, but also understand that they have been distorted and weaponised. To say to another person that you refuse to refer to them based on their identity overrides their autonomy and their whole existence. Thus, TERFs embody the very right-stripping activities they attribute to others, and ought to question why they are effectively in alliance with the political right.

Srinivasan then challenged Butler’s definition of ‘phantasm’, arguing that queer individuals do indeed pose a real, not imaginary, danger to the heteronormative order. Observing that many dream of a world where family is abolished and where childcare is radically rethought, she contends that being reminded of queer individuals’ freedom and ability to change the status quo could be threatening.

Butler replied that there indeed are some revolutionary demands which threaten to destabilise the heteronormative order, but that such fears are distorted in phantasmic ways. They pointed out that queer individuals are simply proposing forms of kinship that do not conform to the heteronormative nuclear family model. Queer kinships do not threaten the status quo at all – hetero relationships and families can still exist happily – they only destabilise the presumption of naturalness that comes with such historically contingent formations. 

Perhaps the most engaging part of the dialogue was Butler’s discussion of a feminist coalition. Srinivasan mentioned Butler’s essay on coalition politics, and they responded that even though alliances can be uncomfortable, and at times even life-threatening, they are highly necessary. Although disparate feminist and queer groups may not agree on everything, they ought to find enough common ground and remember who the ‘real enemies’ are. This was a poignant reminder of unity in an age where the Left is becoming increasingly fractured.

The conversation then opened up to audience questions. Butler was asked about the labelling of young left-wing individuals as fragile ‘snowflakes’ (Butler: they aren’t fragile for wanting to live in a world which recognises their identity and existence!), the way to respond to hateful, dogmatic individuals (Butler: do not engage with those who would never listen to what you have to say, and form uncomfortable but necessary coalitions with those who do), and the reason they disliked using the word ‘cis’ (Butler: it is a monocultural concept which should not be assumed for anyone without first speaking to them).

The last audience question asked was Butler’s view on the divergent treatment of crimes committed against Israeli versus Palestinian women and children. To this, Butler responded that the sexual violence on both sides is appalling, and that the bombing of women and children ought to be labelled as femicide. However, they worry that instances of sexual violence are taken to be a sign that the other side is barbaric, when war is always a scene of sexual violence. This prompted mixed audience reactions. On the one hand, it was understandable that Butler wished to avoid overtly choosing sides and have their comments taken out of context, especially as a public figure who has been dogmatically attacked for previous statements. But to those hoping for a more direct answer, it was slightly disappointing.

All in all, it was an engaging conversation between two feminist titans. Srinivasan was excellent in introducing Butler’s ideas and acknowledging the immense contributions they have made, while also challenging and pushing the boundaries of said ideas. It was slightly surreal for those of us studying feminist theory to see Butler in person, especially after being equal parts frustrated and astounded by their writing. To witness both Butler and Srinivasan in the same room, having a dialogue, was an even more seismic event.

An audience member captured the sentiment of the hall when they said to Butler, ‘Thank you for everything’ – we are indeed incredibly indebted to them and their contributions to gender theory.

Image credit: Miquel Taverna, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, via Wikimedia Commons