That time I danced with Judith Butler
Judith Butler in Berlin! I had to go. To see how Judith Butler was doing. Of course, the event was sold out in the first second to the massive fan base Butler has in this city, primarily gender studies and Rahel Jaeggi’s students. Ghettoized university circles that were once mine. To which I should have felt a sense of belonging. But I couldn’t.
Before I went to college I didn’t know what gender meant. Yet I was not deprived of the knowledge of gender studies’ existence and its undergrads for very long. I didn’t take them seriously. I learned bit by bit that the gender front, self-oriented as left-wing, was an ineluctable power at elite American universities – and thus, in the world of academia at large. I didn’t have even a glimmer of this. I was the first in my family to go to college – my parents are East Berlin artists, who since reunification have lost their interest in the arts pages in which they no longer appear. In philosophy seminars what the gender studies undergrads were lacking in intellectual chops they made up for with rage. I found issues of gender equality in the 21st century rather superfluous, long since settled. It was my appetite for oddities that had me taking advantage of the opportunity to see Judith Butler live in 2010, a thinker that exceeds anyone before her. For her it is insufficient to distinguish between social gender and biological sex. According to Butler’s theory, even the latter is the result of society’s ascriptions. Is that clear? A penis is not a penis but generalized clitoris-penis-erectile tissue. Even if it clearly looks like a penis to us – pure interpretation! That we distinguish people as male and female is merely due to our millennia-old prejudices according to which we make our bodies fit a particular image to look characteristically feminine or masculine, and thereby fit the mould. And what doesn’t fit is adapted or rejected.
The lecture was at the Volksbühne. In the background the Berlin director René Pollesch’s stage set. Butler lectured freely in excellent German. I was impressed: Butler’s performative model of gender was well observed! How we need the knowledge that speech acts are what define our gender! How did Judith Butler manage to come about these ideas? What experiences sharpened this power of observation? I looked at her, this boyish person, and I could only imagine certain experiences, perhaps in her childhood, such as the question, “Are you a girl or a boy?” And as the daughter of Jewish intellectuals already thinking in philosophical categories in her early years, she grasped, in the literal sense, what she was experiencing. And was able to formulate it.
Yet if we had no words for gender would we behave differently? The worker bee, does it only work because it is called thusly? It is ultimately a sophistic banality, as are all disputes about words. Most people are fairly certain what male and female are. In relation to the animal kingdom it is common sense that femaleness means the ability to become pregnant. For a certain amount of time. Provided nothing is broken. Explaining the interrelationship, this complicated reciprocity between society, consciousness, and body has yet to succeed.
Afterwards I wanted to go to the party in the Roter Salon with Judith Butler and Berlin’s trans star, Gloria Viagra who was dee-jaying. Visiting the loo to freshen up I thought I made a mistake at the door. Gender studies uniforms, I noticed them in the auditorium: trousers with suspenders, men’s shirts or fine ribbed shirts with blazers, ties and bow ties, sturdy shoes, boys’ haircuts and of course, no makeup. The tomboy look. I was wearing a strapless black cocktail dress – what I put on when I go to the theatre in the evening. The tomboy girls, boys respectively, grinned. Someone whistled. I saw myself in the mirror of my female absoluteness, all of a sudden so provocative, and touched up my lips. The tomboys in line stared at my lipstick as if it were a hand grenade. They were obviously outraged at how I looked. “Boys, everything’s fine,” I said to the mirror. “Yes, you know, a woman: there’s no such thing.” Tottering out of there I could literally feel the red on my lips. But going back to wipe off the lipstick I had just put on would have incurred even more derision.
I would have rather gone to the men’s room!
The party: a crowded dance floor with people who weren’t dancing but debating, an intellectual’s party. In front at the podium, Judith Butler, who responded patiently to her followers’ questions. Among the tomboys I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone stared amusedly at the idiot. Here the world was upside down. There I was, the heteronormative girly girl, the non-person. She with the unliveable body, out of place, impossible. Provocation proper.
At the DJ booth the towering trans Gloria Viagra was waving to me. Besides me she was the only one in a skirt. As for performative femininity her outfit was extreme: sequined mini dress, hot pink wig and dizzying platform heels. She/he was allowed. And only because he/she was not a biological woman. Ha, busted! It does exist, the biological woman! When speaking of permission or lack thereof the coercive system is perfect.
In such situations I am so sure of myself like nowhere else.
I queued up to Butler’s podium. When it was my turn I didn’t ask her about her theories. I asked her:
“Dou you dare to dance?”
An enchantingly embarrassing smile flashed across her face. There were so many waiting their turn in line. I should just dance alone.
“It’s a party, isn’t it?”
What a diplomatic response. My feeling: she was in a funk. It must have come as a horrid surprise for her to realize what was going on here: the enemy was leading her into temptation. I was the representative of performative femininity, a whore of the gender binary who intentionally conforms to a wrong female image for the satisfaction of wrong needs! In Berlin that spells trouble, a professed lesbian simply dancing with a woman. So I danced alone. I was the only one on the dance floor. I danced in my beautiful dress right in front of her lectern and darted tender provocative glances at her.
And then the unthinkable happened. During a slow song, I think it was “Stand by Me,” Judith Butler approached me on the dance floor.
She stopped right in front of me. In my high heels I was a bit taller than she. Around us airless silence. In her lecture she seemed to me the walking, talking example of her own theory: an androgynous being of indefinable gender, something between dandy and impish elf. Interpreted as a female being she had for me something magical, an indescribable charm. As a man she would have been a lanky tom with thin lips, the kind of insecure high school teacher with a squeaky voice. If someone like this were to come my way, say, on a blind date, I would send a hurried prayer to Venus: “Please, please not him!” Then nobody else would have to tell me about the discontent of the genders.
“I hope tomorrow this won’t be in the Zeit or the Tagesspiegel,” she giggled in agony. So I wasn’t wrong. She was afraid, scared shitless of her own fan base. I held her arm, the small fragile Judith Butler, her astute head resting on my bare shoulder. She had succumbed to the temptation, her party loyalists watching. The disgrace! Judith Butler, shaking with timidity and shame! The party was over for me.