Implicit in the distinction between sex and gender is the ideological formulation that sex in a distinct and imperturbable entity. Sex–as constructed through the binary opposition of male and female–would seem to be a posteriori a biological facticity. All organisms in nature appear to inherently and neatly fit the sexual demarcation: cows and bulls, chickens and roosters, meres and stallions, etc. This assumption then logically leads to the notion that sex, constructed as such, is situated outside of discursive construct, and, upon these basic biological differences, the social structure of gender is laid.
Butler readily points out that even Foucault, an ardent archeologist of discourse, allows this fundamental bedrock of gender identity to remain uncracked. To this apparent oversight, she parries: what if sex (not gender) is as much of socially rendered episteme as gender? That is, what if our very model sex perception–the way the mind perceives body parts and constitutes them as a whole–is a purview molded by socioeconomic forces that seek to keep to the established order of things (in this case heterosexuality) utterly hegemonic?
Before getting to Foucault, let us first examine this concept of a socially molded sexual perception. For this, we turn to Wittig as quoted by Butler in Gender Troubles: “But we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construct [my italics], an ‘imaginary formation’ which reinterprets physical features…through the network of relationships in which they are perceived.” This statement, a profound one at that, takes on a striking Bakhtinian formulation (Butler mentions Wittig’s invocation of Bakhtin); in that it circumscribes all perception within the materiality of a social semiotics. In other words, the paternalistic hierarchy is indissolubly embedded in language. Therefore the means by which humans organize perception, a procedure that undoubtably passes through the relay of language, will always perpetuate the hierarchy.
With this reconsideration, that of reframing sex from biology to culture, Foucault’s theory of criminal inscription begins to further unravel the initial construct of sex. In his theory, Foucault claims that criminals are not corrected by having their desires limited, rather they are rather forced to signify the law. The law is never actually internalized, but instead, it is incorporated within the criminal: they become signs for the law. This role is not due to an internal essentialist nature–although it is expressed as such–it is impressed upon the criminal by an external force. Here Witig and Foucault intersect. Both are describing a mechanism which purports an essentialism that is in fact a construct of power. Foucault defines the soul in such terms: “It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within, the body by the functioning of a power…”
vis-à-vis these premises, Butler’s idea of gender performatives can be illuminated. That is to say, sex and by extension gender are roles ascribed by paternalistic hierarchy which must be played. Butler states, “Hence, as a strategy of survival with a compulsory systems, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences.” Drag and gender-transgression can then be sort of a parody of this gender role; by co-opting marked gender traits from another sex, the person in drag parodies the gender performative by exposing its plasticity and artificiality. Here again another possible Bakhtinian formulation could be posed. specifically his conception of theme/meaning, stratification of language, and heteroglossia (how language resists centripetal authority and its parodying effects)–but that, alas, is a subject for another paper.