According to Judith Butler, gender is not something that is innate or natural. In her own words, “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (Butler 907). The way she describes this concept is that there is no such thing as innate gender, but there are gendered acts that one can perform so as to present as their gender. Genitalia or a physical sex has nothing to do with gender. In order for one to be a man or woman, one must only act like one according to Butler. These acts are also socially mediated, for if one performs their gender wrong they are punished by society.
The stakes of not recognizing this is simple: society continues to see gender as defined by one’s biology and as such fails to recognize that gender is a social construction. Society will continue to put people in boxes according to their gender most commonly assigned to their biological appearance and fail to recognize the personal and performative nature of gender. Portraying one’s gender “wrong” in the eyes of society will continue to be punished, despite the nature of gender being impossible to truly get “wrong”.
One critique that Butler had for feminism, or for women in general, was that to be a woman is a “historical situation” (904), which means that in order to be a woman, one must fit into the historical woman’s role. In suggesting that women do not actually exist, it would seem futile to fight for the liberation of a category of people whose definition historically relies on being oppressed. Also, some types of feminism, essentialist feminism in particular, places a large emphasis on women’s biological differences from men, ignoring what Butler believes, that there is no “true” gender based on someone’s biology. Finally, women tend to express themselves in very different ways and there is no universal way to represent all women equally.