By Isabel Ringrose
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2902

Judith Butler’s new book explains how the right spreads lies about gender

The right uses gender to attack transgender people and non-binary people as well as abortion rights, women's rights and LGBT+ rights.
Issue 2902
Judith Butler new book titled Who's Afraid of Gender?

Judith Butler’s new book

The right is trying to paint “gender” and “gender ideology” as a threat to humanity. In their new book Who’s Afraid of Gender? Judith Butler exposes the bigotry and the contradictions within such claims. The right uses gender to attack transgender and non-binary people, as well as abortion rights, women’s rights more broadly, and LGBT+ rights.

Butler explores the relationship between biological sex and gender and dispels the myths that claim these are either the same thing or have no relationship at all. They conclude that gender is not the social face of biological sex, but “a site where biological and social realities interact with one another”. They argue that both biology and gender have changed throughout history and are not fixed.

“Gender is minimally the rubric under which we consider changes in the way that men, women and other such categories have been understood,” they say. “Despite sex assignment at birth, we continue to be gendered by society.” Sex assignment “relays a set of desires, if not fantasies, about how one is to live one’s body in the world.

“No one arrives in the world separate from the set of norms lying in wait for them,” they add.

Butler says that oppressive systems don’t exist through biology, instead “oppressive systems contort biological matters to achieve their own unjust ends”.

They refer to gender as becoming a ghostly presence—“a phantasm with destructive powers, one way of collecting and escalating multitudes of modern panics”. This “phantasm” can be seen when Russia calls gender ideology a “threat to national security”. And when the Vatican, which Butler accuses of sparking this discourse on gender, poses it as a threat to “both civilization and to ‘man’ itself”.

Pope Francis compared gender theory to a nuclear arms race and said that gender advocates seek to steal the powers of God. Butler roots the attacks here. For Evangelicals and Catholics, gender seeks to “destroy the traditional family”. It is also a “code for paedophilia or a form of indoctrination” teaching children to become gay.

The fears of ordinary people—climate change, war, cost of living crisis, violence and racism—clash with the right’s fears about the state, family Christianity, racism and nationalism. Butler says the right takes the fears of ordinary people and attributes them to “gender” and even “critical race theory”. The right uses gender to collect and incite our fears. This stops “us from thinking more clearly about what there is to fear and how the currently imperilled sense of the world came about in the first place”.

Butler says this is a way for states, churches and political movements “to externalise their fear and hatred onto vulnerable communities”. That’s why in the United States attacks on gender are dealt out by scrapping homosexual and abortion rights. The same forces also displace Indigenous people and strip black people of their rights.

And gender, the family and the “national population” are linked by the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary to the threat of migrants. Butler explains that gender was once a “relatively ordinary” term that among academics could mean different things, from women’s inequality, homosexuality and biological sex. 

Now, Butler writes, “The ‘anti–gender ideology movement’ treats gender as a monolith, frightening in its power and reach”, considering so-called gender ideology as “a matter of extraordinary alarm”. Gender has been painted as an attack on science, religion, a danger to civilisation, denies nature, attacks masculinity and erases the differences between sexes. While Butler writes that there is “no one historical or global direction of influence” they name US Evangelicals, the Vatican, Russian Orthodox, Christianity, right wing Islamic policies and Hindu  nationalism as key players.

Butler analyses the contradictions of the right. “The contradictory nature of anti-gender ideology stokes fear but with no logical cohesion,” they said. The right claims that educating children about gender amounts to child abuse. Butler says the church “conveniently forgets the long-standing and hideous history of the sexual abuse of young people by priests who are subsequently exonerated and protected”. Anti-choice academics like Jorge Scala says gender is both a form of personal liberty and indoctrination. Gender therefore teaches children that they are free, but also takes their freedom away. 

Butler adds that the right has “a precise gender order in mind that they want to impose upon the world”. This is a rigid view of men and women supposedly fixed in their roles and genders that are unchanging. Butler also accuses the “fearsome phantasm of ‘gender’” of being “authoritarian at its core” —“fuelling fascist tendencies”. 

They attribute rights-stripping to fascism—a loose definition they don’t expand on, but is implied to include the right, far right and fascists themselves. Butler examines the rise of the “phantasm” in countries like Spain, Italy, Russia, Colombia and the United States. Global organisations such as CitzenGo that mobilise against LGBT+ rights are “rooted in religious ideology”, and since 2015 use “gender” to represent everything they oppose.

In the US in 2020 79 state bills targeted trans people. In the first six months of 2023 this passed 400—and the word gender was found in almost all. Florida banned gender-affirming heathcare for minors in February 2023. This led to more bills restricting pronouns, asserting “sex is an immutable biological trait” and banning “homosexuality” in schools.

The book makes clear that the overturning of Roe v Wade—the US supreme court ruling that decided the right to an abortion is protected—galvanised the right, which came hand in hand with the “Don’t Say Gay” bills. For instance, in Alabama laws are set to criminalise gender-affirming care for trans children—because biology comes from conception.

Butler also slams the gender-critical movement in Britain. They dispel the transphobic myths perpetuated by the likes of JK Rowling and Kathleen Stock that trans women are not women, and are a threat to cisgender women.

“Rowling identifying trans women with rapists, and refusing to check the speed and layering of her fantasy, namely, that trans women are really men (beware!) and that men are rapists or potential rapists (all of them, really?), by virtue of their organs (understood how?),” Butler writes.

They add that Stock and Rowling “believe they possess the only language that yields reality and anyone who disagrees is deluded”—meaning they “concur with right wing discourse on trans life”. Rowling, Butler says, also forgets that sex is not an unchanging reality and can be changed through various technological means.

“In her view, whatever subjective feeling leads trans women to believe they are women is not to be taken seriously. At the same time, Rowling surely asks that her subjectivity be taken very seriously,” Butler writes. 

“Rowling finds herself riddled with contradictions.” And Butler makes clear that any feminists who undermine gender “attack the alliances of which feminism is an integral part”.

 This weakens broader campaigns against gender oppression, the exploitation of women’s work, and sexual justice. These gender-critical feminists, Butler says, “claim proprietary rights to gender categories, especially the category of women”. Yet “gender categories change through time,” they write.

“Feminism has always relied on the historically changing character of gender categories in order to demand changes in the way that women and men defined and treated,” Butler adds. Women have revolted against the idea they are less than men or can’t do certain jobs. They have fought against the way some on the right want simultaneously to contain them to the home—and herd them into low-paid work.

This premise “has allowed women to pursue possibilities that were traditionally denied to their sex,” says Butler. Butler dispels the myths and contractions around gender that the right creates. But as their analysis is removed from materialism, the origins of where these attacks on gender are rooted are not investigated.

Without exploring why this attack has suddenly emerged, or linking it to an understanding of the emergence of class society and the rise of capitalism, there is no analysis of how these oppressive systems develop. There is only a nod to the reproductive capacities of women these systems are reliant on.

Instead, the blame is given to the Church and vague social structures. As Butler’s analysis is focused on ideology, their conclusion is too. They rightly say that unity is needed to challenge the right and to bring together women, trans people, black people and all those who are attacked by the right. But there isn’t much of a conclusion on how to do this, other than to change the ideas and narratives that exist in society.

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