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Eilis O'Hanlon
Today at 02:30

My review of Judith Butler's repetitive, over priced, self satisfied new book, Who's Afraid Of Gender in which everyone who disagrees with the author on trans issues is basically just denounced as a big old fascist.




Many readers will approach the prospect of reading a new book by the US feminist Judith Butler with understandable trepidation. The University of California literature and gender theories professor is notorious for what some consider a dense, academic, even wilfully obscure, prose style.
First the good news then.


Her latest book (or their latest, if you prefer; Butler answers to either set of pronouns) is more accessible than her usual fare. Save for the odd lapse into professorial patter (“the syntactical arrangements of elements of psychic life”, anyone?), the jargon is kept to a blessed minimum.


There, unfortunately, the good news ends, because, for all its comparative lack of labyrinthine lingo, Who’s Afraid of Gender? is a book for which the phrase “preaching to the converted” could have been invented.


Its publisher describes it as “a bold, essential account of how a fear of gender is fuelling reactionary politics around the world”.
No one, though, is really afraid of gender in the way suggested.
Who’s Afraid Of Gender?
There are many people reluctant to go along with far-reaching efforts on the left to redefine gender, or who regard the increasingly bitter battle over “trans rights” as a threat to biological women’s own hard-won protections.


But basing an entire counter-argument on the claim that this is nothing but fear is a classic example of begging the question.
Butler does that a lot. From the start, she makes a clear distinction between sex as a biological or legal “assignment”, and gender as one of many “sociocultural forms of becoming”.


That latter phrase does sound remarkably like a kind of flowery blather; but unless the reader accepts these terms of engagement from the outset, then the rest of the argument on which it is founded crumbles apart.
Of course if we redefine sex and gender to fit certain preferred definitions, then they can be appropriated to mean whatever is needed at any given moment. Whether those new definitions mean anything at all is the issue.
Throughout, Butler presents theories which seek to dismantle a traditional understanding of gender as entirely benign. Such advocates are, she would have us believe, simply “trying to teach how sex works” and “why consent is important”.
It sounds so nice when you put it like that. Where do we sign up?


But her book never engages seriously with objections to the creeping incursion of gender theory into areas of social life. Instead, she offers a crude caricature of what so-called “gender critical” voices are saying with the sole purpose of then dismissing and denouncing them as dangerously anti-progressive.
The repeated use of the F-word (“fascism”) to describe where this may be headed is not only intellectually lazy, it’s a crude attempt to demonise anyone who takes issue with trans rights activists as transphobes, homophobes, even racists and white supremacists.


Slipping back into old habits, one chapter is actually called Racial and Colonial Legacies of Gender Dimorphism. It’s practically an invitation not to read it.
How can an obviously intelligent and educated woman not see the contradiction in spending nearly 300 pages accusing your opponents of peddling fear when her only tactic to refute them is to assert that they are ushering in new forms of anti-democratic authoritarianism or (don’t laugh) “morally righteous sadism”?
It’s only scaremongering when the other side does it, right?


How ever much Butler may lament how these increasingly toxic stand-offs in the culture wars are “destroying any sense of common political belonging”, she’s just as ready to take no prisoners to ultimately win the war.
That’s fine. But spare readers the sanctimony of pretending that the battle has been brought to you, unbidden, by “fascists”.


Butler continually pulls these sleights of hand, asserting for example that new theories of gender are revolutionary and disruptive and can turn the world upside down in exciting ways if we embrace them, while gnashing her teeth over anyone who dares criticise them for potentially turning the world upside down.
“A transphobic feminism is no feminism,” Butler declares as the end of the book blessedly nears.


It’s a nice slogan for a placard. But a feminism whose only definition of what it is to be a woman is ‘whatever you’re having yourself’ is no feminism either.
Butler even quotes a trans writer called Andrea Long Chu who maintains that “femaleness is less a biological state and more a fatal existential condition that afflicts the entire human race” – a view with which Butler doesn’t concur, but which she still presents as “important to consider”.
It really isn’t.


If sex and gender truly are nothing more than sociocultural constructs, then what is to stop race being recast next as an “existential condition that afflicts the entire human race” or one of an infinity of shiny new “sociocultural forms of becoming” as well?
A bigger problem for readers may be that Who’s Afraid of Gender? is so tediously repetitive.


It duplicates exactly the same talking points – despite the fact there are genuine threats in the world to be afraid of including climate change, neoliberalism, capitalism, racism, and homelessness, but a smashing of gender norms isn’t one of them – over and over. It’s like the old joke – “I’ll have fish and chips twice, please.” “It’s OK, I heard you the first time.”

This book is a polemical pamphlet with pretensions. One can hear identical doctrines in countless speeches or videos on YouTube, or by subscribing to trans activist accounts on social media.
A slew of similar content is free to access online. There is simply no need for even the most devoted admirer of the author to hand over €35 in real, hard-earned money, only to have their own biases parroted back to them over the entire length of a book.

‘Who’s Afraid of Gender?’ by Judith Butler, Allen Lane, €35

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