In this study, I plan to analyze Judith Butler's theory on gender that she discusses in her essay, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." In this article, Butler asserts that there is no inner concept of gender (of "femaleness" or "maleness"), but that it is only created through societal sanction in historical settings. Her essay presents to concept of gender to be performative--a contrived act of behavior that is nothing more than a "stylized repetition of acts." (Butler 270) As Butler establishes this gender pattern to be a performance, she also illustrates it to be a condition of mutual, societal acceptance; a collective assumption that the established gender patterns are, and should be, the norm.
I intend to apply Judith Butler's gender theories to two historical American texts: The sentimental seduction tale, The Coquette, written by Hannah W. Foster, and The Female Marine, a fictional autobiography of a woman named Lucy Brewer who, dressed as a man, served in the navy aboard the American ship the "Constitution." Both women, in their respective texts, attempted to breach the gender pattern boundaries, and live outside of their expected roles. Lucy Brewer, The Female Marine, was successful in her attempt. Eliza Wharton, in The Coquette, was not. I was interested in applying Butler's theory to these two texts to examine what constituted a successful gender performance, and why. After analysis and research I concluded that the success or failure of these two women depended upon their audience's expectation of the narrative and on the intended moral message of the story. Each heroine met her success or demise in accordance with the appropriate moral significance for each of their audiences.
In taking on this topic for my study, I was curious to see what affected gender roles and expectations. In reading Judith Butler's article, I concluded that her theories were universal, and what applied to the narratives of The Female Marine and The Coquette also applied to everyday life. Because of this, I decided to couple the concept of my essay to modern conception as well, in an attempt to link the two elements and portray them as being equal. I included a photo gallery entitled "Classic Gender Performances" which portrays several famous gender icons and provides links to information about them. I thought that this juxtaposition of a literary application of theory and a literal application of theory would be the final element of my essay--the linking element between academia and real-life.
By Megan Barrett, Reed College,1998.