In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler shares insight on the complexities and origins of gender constructions. According to the text, we do not “automatically” know from birth what being of a certain gender means; rather, it is taught to us. Butler emphasizes how societal norms formulate the way we interact socially and act as representatives of our gender population in those different interactions. One example that exhibits the clear differentiation between how those of different genders are represented on society occurs in the phenomenon of the baby shower. Color schemes of baby showers often reflect the gender with which the baby is stated to identify with: for girls, it is often pink and for boys, blue (this is almost invariably correlated to female sex and male sex, respectively). Butler concludes that in these daily interactions, we subconsciously or consciously "do" our gender with others, perpetuating norms that dictate how we should behave and what we should like.
The description of gender as being “undone” in title of this text is a form of rhetoric on Butler’s part; the fact that gender needs to be undone entails that gender is similar to a knot or something that restricts or traps a person. Another symbolic aspect of the knot imagery could be the unification aspect of the knot. Knots tie a person together within themselves and with other people. In the context of human interactions, gender functions like a knot to hold social norms in place as they are predetermined. It is necessary part of the personal identification each individual from the moment of birth, but also acts a stifling of the creative expression of the individual outside of what is considered standard within their gender.
Butler’s contemplation of social roles is not limited to gender identity but individual identity in general. From the time of birth, when our identity is just beginning, other people begin to pave the path for who we will become. Butler further examines how identity molds our interactions and connections to to other people for the full extent of our lives. She also discusses desire and how it “unbinds” us in our identity. Desire is formed through and fuels connections with other people, who in turn change our lives and how we see ourselves. These life-changing interactions could be with significant others or simple interactions like a discussion with your classmate in a college class. She says that “in a way, we all live with this particular vulnerability, a vulnerability to the other that is part of bodily life, but this vulnerability becomes highly exacerbated under certain social and political conditions.” One never knows whether one’s opinion or perspective on life will be changed by another. In this sense, our identities can be potentially undone by reading a personal post on a social networking site, collaborating with a team on a creative project, or talking to someone at the grocery store. As Butler proposes, “the question of who and what is considered real and true is apparently a question of knowledge. But it is also, as Michel Foucault makes plain, a question of power.” We are constantly related to others beyond our will, which means we are always in a position to be changed by others.
This change in identity and self-consciousness is something Butler uses to explain the process of grieving the loss of a loved one. Her premise is that when one loses someone with whom they have built up part of their world with, that part of their world dies. In that unworlding, one grieves, or tries to build themselves up into a new presence in which the lost loved one no longer lives. To be clear, Butler does not think that surviving mourning means “that one has forgotten the person, or that something
else comes along to take his or her place,” but that in mourning one “accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you pos-
sibly forever.” Furthermore, one does not know who they will be after and if they go through the process of mourning. It is the unknown and uncontrollable aspect of mourning that scares and redefines us as individuals.
Other people and social norms define, educate, and convince us in ways that render us impressionable and changeable. Ultimately, we are inevitably changed by others, but we may also change others. Butler suggests that the pursuit of a “livable life” is defined by standards that beset us from the start, but in “knowing unknowingness at the core of what we know”, or challenging those deeply-ingrained roles that society has imposed, we approach life with a sense of openness and allow for a deeper understanding that we do not know the future.