Pride Month Book Read: “Who’s Afraid of Gender?” Investigates Fear and Visualized Hope

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Sav Bell // The Watchdog.

Judith Butler’s “Who’s Afraid of Gender?” dissects the fear-mongering tactics of political and religious leaders worldwide, analyzing what “gender” has come to represent to their respective followers.

Gender has become an all-encompassing symbol to its critics, embodying a variety of fears ranging from the destruction of the traditional family to the stripping of one’s identity.

Does allowing one to safely inhabit their body and identity, within or outside of the gender binary, automatically strip cisgender people of their own? In what world would one identity ever negate the validity of another?

The same can be said about the imagined existential threat to the traditional family; the scope of human difference does not challenge or refute anyone’s right to live as they please.

Butler likens the source of this rhetoric to that of authoritarian regimes. With humanity’s very real worries for its present and future, finding a common enemy to represent fear of destruction or the loss of life as one knows it can certainly be unifying. The author traces such logic to its very core: To paint a population as destructive to society would then rationalize and justify eradicating said threat. This is seen in the resurgence of anti-trans legislation and the erosion of anti-discrimination laws today.

“Who’s Afraid of Gender?” exposes the contradictory nature behind these fears: “Depending on the anxieties circulating in a particular region, gender can be figured as Marxist or capitalist, tyranny or libertarianism, fascism or totalitarianism, a colonizing force or an unwanted migrant.” 

Butler explains how this illogical strategy has managed to be so effective. When people are already living with fear and are told there is more to fear, if the source of their fear can be named, then the name itself can neutralize and nullify these contradictions.

“Who’s Afraid of Gender?” draws comparisons within the field of education and provides a thoughtful analysis on its modern discourse. As the offerings of gender studies and critical race theory in curriculum are labeled as indoctrination by conservatives, one must similarly consider the consequent suffering to freedom of thought in the classroom when these subjects are censored, banned and removed. Stripping young people of their right to openly discuss and assess the history of humanity and our differences is not only neglecting to provide them with perspective, but withholding knowledge by denying them any choice to begin with.

Butler also offers a global, dynamic approach to a shared cause: “When gender politics remain restricted to the liberal sphere of individual rights, it cannot address the basic rights to housing, food, non-toxic environments […] and health care that should belong to any struggle for social and economic justice.” It is imperative to remind oneself of these collective goals to continue fostering and embracing unity in the pursuit of equity for all.

“Who’s Afraid of Gender?” does not attempt to alienate or incite hateful retaliation. It is a call to action, rallying those with a common vision for freedom, love and a livable life to strengthen and protect their bonds in the face of fascist potentials.