Gender from Swift to Butler

I think the most important thing to remember when reading Butler is that gender and sex are two totally different things. Sex simply refers to your biology. This refers to a physical “maleness” or “femaleness”. Gender is essentially what you identify yourself as. It refers to a more internal “masculinity” or “femininity”. Butler believes that gender is socially constructed and she is troubled by this fact. She says, “I’m permanently troubled by identity categories, consider them, as sites of necessary trouble.”

With this in mind, we turn to Swift’s “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed”. Using Butler’s perspective on gender and her dislike for the social constructs surrounding gender, one may interpret Swift’s poem as a social commentary on the struggles of women (specifically prostitutes) conforming to society’s standards of beauty and its definition of “being a woman”. According to the poem, beautiful women must have perfect hair and eyes, filled out cheeks (the girl in the poem “dexterously her Plumpers draws, That serve to fill her hollow Jaws.”), full breasts (“the Rags contriv’d to prop / Her flappy Dugs”), and full hips (“off she slips / The Bolsters that supply her Hips.”). Using Butler’s perspective that gender is socially constructed, we can assume that “Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane” only adorns her artifices and enhancements to portray herself in a more ‘womanly’ fashion as dictated by the culture of her time so that she can earn money as a prostitute. This interpretation of Swift’s poem allows the reader to become sympathetic towards Corinna, whose existence seems to be nothing but a pretense, because Corinna feels forced to become something she is not in order to impress others. The concept continues to be relatable in today’s world.

Swift’s poem does not give a clear statement on one’s biological sex; its primary focus is the social construct of what is considered “feminine”. Though his views are not stated outright, it is reasonable to assume that gender is determined by society’s standards of “masculine” and “feminine”, not by one’s biological sex. This seems to agree with Butler’s view that “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original”; gender is an imitation of what have been established as socially acceptable “male” and “female” roles, but the “original” archetypes for these roles are unclear. As for hetero/homosexuality, I would say that only the stereotypes would indicate that heterosexuality is the original of homosexuality. If the original is what dictates society’s norm and heterosexuality is generally seen as the “norm” for relationships, then it follows that it must precede homosexuality.

On a final note, I must respectfully disagree with Butler’s view that gender is solely socially constructed. I believe that there is a reason that we tend to assign “masculine” roles to men and “feminine” roles to women, and it isn’t just that we have placed men and women into categories because that’s what society decided. I believe that there is something biological about it—that our biological sex is at least partially “the original” to our true gender.

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This entry was posted in Group 5: Gender and the Enlightenment by Rachel Martin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Rachel Martin

I am currently a sophomore English Education major with a minor in business administration. Although I currently reside in Columbia, I am from Lexington, South Carolina originally. Writing has always been an interest of mine, but my true passion lies in reading literature. In the future, I hope to share this passion with students ranging from middle school to university.

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