Gender Bender: Swift via Butler

Butler argues that sexuality and gender are both constructs and perpetuations of ideas that are imposed on us by our culture.  “The sexual ‘positions’ of heterosexually differentiated ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are part of the Symbolic…of imaginary pursuits,” (Butler, 729).  As such, we aren’t born with natural gender associations or sexual predilections, we merely imitate the ones modeled for us in our culture, it would seem.  Now I don’t buy into all of that.  Sexuality would exist even if it weren’t modeled for us.  I think we see a lot of precedent in our culture that allows us to identify with certain gender things or sexualities, but we each have a physical gender from birth, and those do come with biological properties and tendencies (the aggression and muscularity caused by testosterone vs. the more round form granted by estrogen).  As far as what we associate with gender or sexuality roles, that is something I would agree perpetuates a cultural perception, such as “effeminate” gestures making someone more womanly, or inclining them toward homosexuality.  Physicality or even attitude aren’t necessarily associated with a person’s gender or sexual orientation.  This is a stereotype constructed by society.

Jonathan Swift would certainly seem to agree with Butler, insomuch as what we find attractive is what we’re told to find attractive.  This example is distinctly pointed out in his poem, “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.”   Swift describes a lady of the night who is attractive and lovely to behold.  Upon her arrival at her own home, she takes off her filigree and ornaments and slowly changes into what was underneath that all alone.   She is now ugly, and unattractive, and “Up goes her Hand, and off she slips
The Bolsters that supply her Hips.
With gentlest Touch, she next explores
Her Shankers, Issues, running Sores,
Effects of many a sad Disaster,” (Swift, line 27-30).

Butler’s explanations of exploring one’s own gender role by dressing in drag mirrors the idea of putting on falsities in order to be attractive.  Maybe people in drag feel more attractive that way, in a way they see as beautiful.  If you were to ask the “nymph” of Swift’s poem which appearance she felt more natural in, it might be the one she embraces and embodies day to day rather than in private.  She would adopt the “nymph” much sooner because society tells her it is more desirable.  And this seems to prove Butler’s point.

Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,”

Swift, “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,”


2 thoughts on “Gender Bender: Swift via Butler

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