Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Officially Critical: On Judith Butler’s ‘Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex’

Critical Theory is an area of study known for its dense reading. It is an exception to the rule when piece of critical theory is easily understood. Judith Butler, a critical theorist relating to gender studies, is particular known for her heavily official prose. In looking at her use of the official style in her paper named “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex” in which Judith Butler is responding to the work of an earlier critical theorist Simone de Beauvoir, one may question necessity of it in getting her point across in a respected manor.
 First, to give an idea of the difficulty of the paper, it received the following results after being analyzed by a readability calculator: a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease of 32.3, an average grade level of 15.1, an average of 26.5 words per sentence and an average of 5.0 characters per word. What this comes down to is that this article is not in any way a light reading. A clear majority of world’s population would struggle to read this piece.
This begs the question why write a paper trying to get across a new way to think about gender in such a difficult to understand way? In order to answer this the questions “what is Butler’s argument?” and “who is her intended audience?” have to be answered first. To boil down her paper to one main argument, what Judith Butler is trying to get across is, her idea, that unlike with sex, physical male or female traits, gender is not born, but rather a choice made by individuals, often times responding to society. This all summery albeit a complex sentence is rather straight forward considering the actual length of her paper was roughly twenty pages in which goes on to articulate in great detail. As to her audience, she was not intending to write to the general public, but rather to other scholars, such as herself, who would expect a professional, read official, style of writing. If Judith Butler had written in a plainer manor, it is unlikely her contemporaries would have consider her ideas seriously. Scholars would have looked at plainer style rated her ideas to be not as deeply thought out, because they would lack intricacy and sophistication; this is why Butler used aspects of official style such as jargon, prepositional phrases, and passive voice.
In Butler’s paper she used a lot of jargon such as “natural corporeal facts”, “ontological" or ”Cartesian.” These are not terms that come up in everyday conversation. No one would use these terms waiting in line at gas station or grocery store, but they would be known to critical theorists, who would have been immersed in terms, such as these, in scholarly settings. The use of jargon is a characteristic of the official style establishes an author’s knowledge of a particular subject by their utilization of technical words regarding a particular topic. By using jargon Butler illustrated her knowledge of the topic.
Another aspect of official style, used by Butler, is the use of prepositional phrases. Her sentences are riddled with them. A particularly long sentence demonstrating this would be “In transposing the identification of corporeal existence and 'becoming' onto the scene of sex and gender, she appropriates the ontological necessity of paradox, but the tension in her theory does not reside between being 'in' and 'beyond' the body, but in the move from the natural to the acculturated body.” (Butler). Notice the use of prepositions such as “in”, “of” and “to”. It feels as if she is making a list in actuality she is trying to make clear distinctions of thoughts between a physically gender and what is socially thought to be a women or man. In writing prose such as the one given, Butler is trying to get her intended audience to think and comprehend more deeply, rather than trying to confuse with nuances in her ideas.
One more technique of official style, Judith Butler implements, is the use of passive voice. Butler use this tactic to depersonalize her ideas in order to make them more universally applicable rather than only pertaining to certain cases. An example sentence of this would be “To be a gender, whether man, woman, or otherwise, is to be engaged in an ongoing cultural interpretation of bodies and, hence, to be dynamically positioned within a field of cultural possibilities.” (Butler). Look at the repetitive use of “to be” this is all passive. No person or thing is something or doing something in the sentence. Butler uses this abstraction in order to make her statement universal across people, rather than singling out people.        
Another example of passive voice, is her use of the word ‘one’ not in the sense of a number rather an unspecified individual. In the sentence “Indeed, one is one's body from the start, and only thereafter becomes one's gender.” she uses this passive tactic multiple times to refer to an abstract individual that could stand in for anyone, rather than singling out a particular person or the reader (Butler). In utilizing the passive voice Judith Butler is making known that she believes that her ideas apply not just to certain cases but rather on a broader scale.
By implementing the official style by incorporating jargon, prepositional phrases, and passive voice Judith Butler was making a case for her and her works credibility to her intended audience namely other scholars. As critical theorist her job is not to confuse, but rather, enlighten. However, she still must make a case to her contemporaries, which is why she writes such complex prose. She, like all professional who write, must make a case not only, for her ideas themselves, but also, for the respectability of herself along with her ideas and this is accomplished by using the official style.

Post Written by: Sarah B.

Work Cited:

 Butler, Judith. "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex." in:Yale French     Studies. Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century. No. 72, pp. 35-49, Winter 1986.                              

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